Justin Bokmeyer takes on MLS Next leadership role with NBA and U.S. Army experience

MLS Next, the national youth league launched by Major League Soccer in the wake of the U.S. Boys Development Academy shutting down in April of 2020, has named Justin Bokmeyer its first general manager.

Bokmeyer, who since 2018 served as the National Basketball Association’s International Strategic Initiatives Lead, is responsible for managing and executing all MLS Next programs to "improve and elevate the quality of competition, talent identification, education, compliance, and club membership." He also oversees MLS Next's full-time staff and consultants.

While with the NBA, Bokmeyer helped orchestrate the Basketball Africa League launch and guide the growth of the international NBA Academy program.

The Southern Californian played college lacrosse at Army West Point before 11 years of active duty in the United States Army, which included serving as a Platoon Leader and Executive Officer at Fort Carson, Colorado, and Nasiriyah, Iraq. He also spent two seasons with the Denver Outlaws of Major League Lacrosse.

SOCCER AMERICA: What was your youth sports experience?

JUSTIN BOKMEYER: I grew up a multisport athlete in San Diego, a sports hotbed where you can play year-round. I played youth soccer, basketball, American football … In high school I played American football and started playing lacrosse.

SA: For college you went to West Point and played college lacrosse for Army. Did you grow up in a military family?

JUSTIN BOKMEYER: My dad actually went to West Point, but he got out of the Army when I was young and we moved to San Diego, so I didn’t live a military life. I always knew about it, but I was not looking at West Point at all until they jumped into the recruiting process. I was looking at going to other schools to play.

SA: The West Point commitment is five years of active Army duty after graduation?

JUSTIN BOKMEYER: Yes. After graduation I served 11 years on active duty. So even when I played pro lacrosse, that was while I was on active duty.

I did several different roles. The traditional military … deployed to Iraq for a year, went to different military schools, and was fortunate to be a recruiting company commander and lead soldiers. I was also able to go to business school [Master of Business Administration from the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University].

The 2022-23 MLS Next season includes 137 clubs, 628 teams and more than 13,000 players.

SA: What led you to sports management?

JUSTIN BOKMEYER: My last two years on active duty were back in the athletic department at West Point. I was serving as a director of ops. Leading a lot of performance initiatives, helping really build how we developed cadet athletes at West Point. So that led me down the path … and I was for fortunate enough to meet the right people.

I got introduced to R.C. Buford, the longtime GM and now CEO of the San Antonio Spurs, and he was a great champion for me to take a role at the NBA once I left active duty.

I’m still in the reserves. I work with special operations with their human performance and wellness groups. How do we deliver the right resources? How do we develop special operators in all facets of life?

SA: What was your work with the NBA?

JUSTIN BOKMEYER: I led strategic initiatives for the NBA’s international basketball operations, which is driven to grow the game of basketball across the world.

I was very fortunate to join that and be a part of the international camps, specifically NBA Academy. I had a hand in the development and growth of the international NBA academies [in Australia, India, Latin America, Africa].

And I was shifted into a leadership role to be a part of building from scratch the Basketball Africa League, the NBA's first league outside of North America. I was able to help build and launch the first two seasons before I stepped into this role.

SA: Working on NBA Academy must have been a good experience for your MLS Next role.

JUSTIN BOKMEYER: Absolutely. I was around the players, the holistic on- and off-the-court development. I was a part of that process.

I got to be hands-on in the academy environment, understanding what it takes to holistically develop players, the infrastructure that needs to be put in place, the education, the staffing, the standards and governance.

NBA Academy has absolutely been successful and I had a lot of fun.

[Editor's note: NBA Academy helped spawn players such as first-round draft picks Josh Giddey (Oklahoma City Thunder), Dyson Daniels (New Orleans Pelicans) and Bennedict Mathurin (Indiana Pacers)].

SA: It struck me at 2022 MLS Next All-Star game how committed these boys in their mid-teens were to the dream of being professional players and how eager they were to sign professional contracts. And that by playing in a youth setup run by MLS, the pro dream may seem especially within their grasp.

But only a very small percentage will end up having a professional soccer career. Is there a concern about them being prepared for when they don’t become professional athletes?

JUSTIN BOKMEYER: That's absolutely a concern and a concern of mine.

We will continue to educate players, parents and our MLS Next clubs on the different pathways and what we should be talking about.

We have to make sure the clubs are doing the right thing when it comes to players’ education and that holistic development. Can you teach life skills? Are you teaching life skills? Who are you partnering with on that?

If they have a residency program, we evaluate the education partners.

One of our top values is being able to have those standards and governance in place.

Soccer America Confidential (August, 2022): MLS Next youth league accelerates teenage dreams of pro glory

SA: What’s an example of a good club environment for young players?

JUSTIN BOKMEYER: Players develop in different kinds of environments. The research around talent development is that players can control that. We really want to create those supporting and truly rich talent development environments where players are part of that IDP [individual development plan] process and know they have pathway options.

Coaches having honest conversations and not just holding onto players. If we're going to have the impact around youth sports to grow the sport and give players more of a chance to stay in love with the soccer, then we need to ensure that our clubs are doing the right thing and having these conversations with the players around different pathways, whether that's coaching, refereeing, going to college, playing pro in the U.S., MLS, MLS Next Pro, or overseas — we've got to really explain what these pathways are and do what's best for the player.

SA: Of course, American soccer is unique to the rest of the world because of college sports, and I imagine for MLS Next to appeal to youth soccer parents it has to also provide an avenue to college scholarships.

JUSTIN BOKMEYER: We had MLS Next Fest in December — that was really my first big event — and it was great to see the amount of college coaches out there.

Back when I was working in the [Army West Point] athletic department I was fortunate to develop a close relationship with Russell Payne who's [men’s soccer coach] at Northwestern.

When I took this job, I reached out to him and Army coach Brian Plotkin to understand what they're looking for and how do we start to make sure that this is mutually beneficial.

MLS Next isn’t pro vs. college.

We are able to provide a pro pathway option and we need to ensure that college is a realistic option, too, and we’ve got to hold our clubs accountable for that.

SA: We all know that youth soccer is expensive in the USA and one of the big contributors to that are tournaments and travel costs. On this subject, someone from MLS Next told me, early after its launch, “We don’t depend on showcase income to run our league.” Do you believe MLS Next’s setup is one that places a lesser cost burden on amateur youth clubs?

JUSTIN BOKMEYER: We don't require clubs to come to our events. And when they come, they pay just to come. They don’t have to pay to entrance fees, for example.

Making sure that clubs are playing top competition to develop players is critical and the events are a major part of it. They provide a phenomenal, safe, healthy environment to play against teams that they might not face in their regions, and do it in a really great atmosphere where it's focused on the players and teams and not around everything else.

And we're able to have partners that enable us to do it in a way that we can offset costs for these clubs, to minimize what they pay. That is absolutely something that we can do because of the growth of MLS and the investment of the owners in the youth development platform.

We are very, very driven and working daily on finding partners to lower the cost and will continue to do that. That is something that I am absolutely passionate about — how we impact youth sports in general and change the narrative around it.

SA: In the latter years of the DA we saw discontent among the amateur clubs because they felt their feedback went unheard while perceiving that MLS clubs’ interests were prioritized. Now MLS is running the league. What’s your sense of how the amateur clubs feel about their needs being met?

JUSTIN BOKMEYER: One of my big things that I learned early on in my career is you need to understand what's happening on the ground. Building relationships and really getting out and talking to people is of utmost importance to me and my team.

MLS Next has worked to open up communication to ensure that we are getting the feedback, whether it's surveys, whether it's through our executive committee and governance structure. I feel like the amateur clubs, our elite academies, have been open and honest with me about some of the issues in the past and where they see the league going and how they can really be a part of it.

But we're re-looking. That's the benefit of coming from outside of the organization, outside of the sport, and taking a really fresh look at our policies, looking at everything to ensure that we are balanced in our decision-making.

This spring we're having myself and my whole staff visit clubs in different parts of the country to learn more and speak to club staffs while being in their environments. Building relationships.

We are driven towards producing MLS players and we will do that. That is absolutely an outcome. But we have to balance as a league what's best for all clubs.

We do have a lot of work to do. That’s part of the leadership challenge and also the opportunity that I'm really excited for.

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