Last December, Major League Soccer announced the launch of MLS Next Pro. The inaugural season of the Division III pro league kicked off in March with 21 teams — 20 MLS club affiliates and the independent Rochester NY FC. Its playoffs begin this weekend and MLS Next Pro's first season culminates with the Oct. 8 title game.
Charles Altchek is President of MLS Next Pro, which will field 28 teams in 2023 with the addition of seven more MLS affiliates. We checked in with Altchek on season 1, the league’s rule innovations, and future expansion.
SOCCER AMERICA: How do you feel about the first season of MLS Next Pro?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: First of all, I have a lot of pride and gratitude for everybody involved: our teams, the players, the staffs at all the teams and my colleagues at the league office. This was a heavy lift.
We had a very short period of time to plan and to execute a very important and transformational project. We had gotten together as a management team at the league office and developed four pillars that have served us well as our foundation and have helped us think through every decision that we make.
We haven't gotten everything right, but overall we feel really good about where we are in relation to the pillars.
SA: The four pillars are?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: They’re very straightforward.
The first one is player development and providing that pro player pathway for the best young players, for the most part 25 and under, competing in the U.S. and Canada. … We also have 81 countries represented in our first season.
The next pillar is our local communities and ensuring that our teams and players and everybody involved is connected to their fans, their partners, giving back to their communities and doing everything that’s so important for everybody to feel connected, supported and part of what we're building together.
Our third pillar is innovation and using this platform that we've developed to continue to push the game forward from every perspective: new rules, new technologies, new competition formats, new competitions.
And underpinning all of this is a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and creating opportunities for that next generation of talent, both on and off the field.
SA: With the addition of seven more MLS-affiliated teams (Atlanta United, Austin FC, Charlotte FC, LA Galaxy, LAFC, Nashville SC, New York Red Bulls), only two MLS clubs won’t be a part of MLS Next Pro in 2023. What’s their status?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: D.C. United and Montreal are still working through their plans relative to MLS Next Pro.
SA: What are the plans and goals of adding independent teams?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: We had our first independent team this year in Rochester. And [owners] David and Wendy Dworkin and their partner, Jamie Vardy, have done a tremendous job — against all odds.
They had a very short window to put a team together. Definitely, the shortest that I've ever seen in terms of when we announced the team to when they were kicking a ball. And at every turn they had roadblocks, whether it was visa issues or the weather in Rochester or whatever.
Then going into decision day last weekend, Rochester was on the bubble. They needed to get a result and get some results to go in their way, which they did, in dramatic fashion.
And now they’re getting ready for the first round of the playoffs to compete for the inaugural MLS Next Pro Cup. And they’re just the first [independent club].
SA: Going forward …
CHARLES ALTCHEK: We've been spending a lot of time with the next wave of potential expansion teams, which we started doing when we first announced in 2021, and we're making a lot of progress.
The interest from high potential groups around the country has been very positive. Earlier this week we were on a West Coast visit on the expansion front. We've been meeting with potential owners, public officials, talking through their stadium plans.
We have a plan to grow this league meaningfully over the next number of years. Looking ahead to the World Cup in 2026, we've got a great opportunity to continue to grow the sport.
If you look at our plan, we have 29, 30 MLS affiliated teams over the next number of years competing in MLS Next Pro. Our vision is to add 10 to 20 independent teams on top of that.
I'm confident that we'll have some really good news to share over the next number of months as the league continues to grow.
SA: When you meet with potential owners, are these groups contemplating whether to join MLS Next Pro or the USL?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: We're just focused on our own plans and adding teams that have really strong ownership groups with great stadium plans in fast-growing markets where interest in soccer and professional soccer is really strong.
We use the same blueprint, the same rubric that we've used to great effect for expansion in MLS.
It always starts with the ownership group. And in many cases it ends there, because we all know that without a strong ownership group that's committed to doing things the right way, to growing the sport, investing in their team, investing in the community — it's never going to work.
Then they need the right stadium plan and they need to be part of a great market.
What's so exciting about MLS Next Pro is that it's a different construct in terms of what the upfront costs are, the costs for joining the league and running a team. And we think we can be successful almost anywhere with the right plan.
SA: I imagine MLS Next Pro is a significant expense for MLS owners. How will they judge if it’s a worthwhile investment? So far 13 MLS Next Pro players have signed long-term MLS contracts. Is the number of players who move up one way to gauge success?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: Yes, they're looking at that, and a lot of other metrics.
But it does in many ways start with, is the platform working? You mentioned the players who have started their professional careers in MLS Next Pro and already in the first season have signed MLS contracts. That's a great number, but I wouldn't be surprised if we're sitting here around the same time next year and that number for 2023 is meaningfully greater.
That’s one metric. We've also had over 200 players from our academies have the opportunity to compete in MLS Next Pro in that professional environment. And the vast majority of our players are professionals, whether they're assigned to an MLS Next Pro contract or they're MLS players coming down on loan.
MLS players coming down on those short-term loans, competing in MLS Next Pro, is great for them and it's great for the players who are trying to get to the next level. Over 80% of the minutes this year have been played by professionals, which is exactly what we want to see.
The competition is fierce, week in and week out.
So the system is working from a player perspective, and we're only going to keep improving it. Which includes international competition.
SA: The first international event was the July tourney in Utah that brought Chelsea and Wolves’ U-21s from the English Premier League 2 ...
CHARLES ALTCHEK: We [Real Monarchs, Toronto FC, Colorado Rapids] ended up winning all the games, which is always fun. But more importantly, we had our players playing against some of the top young players from across the pond. That's really important for their development. It's really important for our fans to be able to engage in that. It's really important from a benchmarking perspective for our players to compete against players who already have high values on the transfer market and other platforms.
And getting our best young players on the radar of scouts from the EPL and other places is really important. We're going to be hard at work to grow that competition and do more from an international perspective with other leagues from Europe and from leagues south of the border.
SA: How important is attendance at MLS Next Pro games and how do you rate the first season in that department?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: We've had some great success stories across the league in Rochester, St. Louis and Salt Lake, to name a few.
We know fan engagement is important from a player development perspective. We know it’s important for players to be playing in front of fans who are cheering for or cheering against them. We’re working closely with our teams to continue to push that forward.
Then on the digital side, we've had viewership from over 180 countries watching MLS Next Pro and hundreds of thousands of fans engaging in our content online and on social media. But we're just getting started. We're just scratching the surface.
One thing we're really excited about in 2023 is our partnership between Nashville Soccer Club and the city of Huntsville, Alabama, where Nashville’s launching their MLS Next Pro team, playing full-time in a new stadium that's being refurbished for that team, living there, training there.
That's a partnership and a blueprint that many of our MLS affiliated teams are looking at studying and exploring — whether there might be similar opportunities for them in their markets going forward.
SA: Having the affiliate team play in a different community but not too far away?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: Yeah, exactly. Huntsville is about a hundred miles south of Nashville and there's a strong link between Nashville and Huntsville. There are certainly folks from Huntsville that are going to Nashville games, but this will be Huntsville's team.
The vast majority of our teams are playing in their MLS market, very much close to home, close to the mothership. But several of them are exploring Huntsville-type opportunities in their spheres of influence. We're very supportive of that.
But we're not going to get into a world where you have teams with an affiliate playing across the country, like you might see in other sports. It's very much a local effort.
SA: You mentioned players in MLS Next Pro representing 81 countries. How do the international players come into the league?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: Many of them are scouted from abroad, signed for the first time domestically. Others are coming from our academies, and everything in between.
SA: To what do you attribute the impressive goalscoring average of 3.4 per game?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: We've got the best young under-25 players who want to prove that they're ready to compete at the highest level.
Not just players, but the coaches and our teams are going for it. They're not sitting in, they're not bunkering in. They're playing attacking soccer, which is exciting for the fans and exactly what we want to see and want to promote with our rules and with our competition format.
We've got some great players. Our Golden Boot winner, Jacen Russell-Rowe, is a great story. A young man who grew up in the Toronto area and was part of their system for a long time [seven years]. For whatever reason, it didn't work out there and [his rights] were traded to Columbus [after two seasons at the University of Maryland].
He ended the regular season with 21 goals in our league. He proved himself in MLS Next Pro and in the middle of the season got his first MLS contract.
SA: Among the “innovations,” what prompted having spot-kick shootout tiebreakers? (Each team earns a point for the tie; the shootout winner gets an extra point in the standings.)
CHARLES ALTCHEK: Going into the season, we started with: How do we do something meaningful and impactful, and take a risk. And that's what we did with having our tied games finish with a shootout. There was some consternation and a lot of people on the fence going into 2022 as to whether that was a good idea.
The reason that we did it is multifaceted, but for two main reasons.
One, for the players. We all know how hard shootouts are — whether you're in a knockout competition in international competition or club competition — and how stressful those moments are.
And then two, from a fan perspective, what's more fun and exciting than a shootout?
We had looked at the data going into the season and in MLS over the last number of years about a quarter of our games ended in ties. And we've had about that percentage of games end in ties in MLS Next Pro this year, which means that those are the games went to shootouts.
So we've had a great sample size. And the feedback has been, like on most things that we've done this year, overwhelmingly positive from the teams, from the players, from the coaches — in terms of just bringing in a different dynamic to how these games end.
And from a player perspective, it's really helpful for them to be tested in that environment. There's nothing like having to walk from the center circle to the penalty spot in front of all of your teammates, your coaches, your fans, your family — or in front of he opposing fans who are heckling you. …
Time will tell as our players progress into MLS and knockout competition — whether it's Concacaf Champions League, the Leagues Cup next year, and international competition in the years to come — but our expectation is they will have been well served by getting this experience.
Charles Altchek and MLS Next Pro senior vice president Ali Curtis.
SA: The off-field treatment rule — requiring a player who remains on the ground for longer than 15 seconds to be evaluated by a medical crew and assisted off the field, and remain off the field for three minutes — was introduced midseason. Are you able to provide an assessment of its effect?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: We want less downtime, less dead time, less time-wasting — all of the aspects of soccer that nobody enjoys.
So Ali Curtis [SVP of Competition and Operations] and his group kicked around a lot of different ideas and then came up with something that has been tremendously positive so far.
We only implemented it halfway through the season, so we only have a certain number of games to draw from. But so far the impact's been really positive and the feedback's been very positive — from the referees, from the players, from the coaches.
There was consternation about this one going in. Was it going to work? Was it going to motivate players to try to hurt each other? And that's not been the case at all.
What it has done is, we've seen very few players take advantage of a moment in the game where in the past they might have been able to delay the game, kill whatever momentum was happening, or try to run out the clock by staying on the ground.
SA: A first glance at the rule raises this issue: A player gets fouled and must leave the field for three minutes. The team that committed the foul gets to play a man-up for three minutes …
CHARLES ALTCHEK: We have exemptions for several different scenarios, whether it's head injuries, cardiac issues, yellow cards, red cards, etc. — but if a player's not hurt, that player's getting up and continuing to play, because he doesn’t want to watch his team play without him for three minutes.
If they're hurt, of course, they have to get the proper medical treatment.
We've seen very few instances — I don't know if we've been able to identify one — where a player has fouled another player, injured that player, and not gotten a yellow or red card, and the other player has to sit out.
If it’s yellow or a red card foul, then there’s no three-minute rule for the player who was fouled.
The first principle of this new rule is how to provide trainers and players a more effective environment to be treated. And we all know that treating a player — unless it's absolutely necessary — on the field is not the best environment to deal with a medical issue.
Off the field, you don't have other players coming up, being a part of it, or the ref pressuring you to hurry up.
SA: Also introduced was red-card suspension policy: a player who receives a red card will serve the one-game suspension against that same opponent when they meet again.
CHARLES ALTCHEK: Because we introduced that in midseason there weren't enough rematches to make a good assessment of its impact.
SA: I can think of a few innovations worth consideration: Allow an immediate substitution for an injured goalkeeper — usually a prolonged delay of game — and allow their reentry if deemed fit. Same in the case of possible head injuries, so the medical staff doesn't rush concussion protocol because a team is playing short-handed. If the player is deemed OK to return, reentry is allowed and it doesn't count against the sub limit. ... Temporary dismissals (sin bins) ... A solution to address the pushing and tugging and jostling before a corner kick that interrupts games so often. ...
CHARLES ALTCHEK: Anything else you've heard about or seen in other places — we've discussed them and are all things that we're considering. The guiding principle is, does the rule make sense for making the best competition possible and then are we staying true to the game? That's important to us. Ali is working with the on-field innovation committee, looking ahead to new rules geared towards more soccer, more effective match-time ...
We’re not afraid to try new things. And in the offseason we reassess.
SA: As talked about when we spoke in December, you came to MLS in 2014 with a long soccer history as a player and fan. What excites you about American soccer?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: We couldn't be more excited about out first playoffs. Then we'll have our first ever MLS Next Pro Cup on Oct. 8, the day before decision day for MLS.
It shouldn't be lost on any of us that the U.S. men's national team could end up being the youngest team in the World Cup in Qatar. I'm excited to see our national team compete against Wales, England and Iran. It's just such a great year for soccer in this country with the World Cup coming.
And at MLS Next Pro, we're are just getting started.