MLS NEXT Pro president on development league’s ‘very ambitious plan’


Columbus Crew 2 celebrate their victory in the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro Cup championship over St. Louis City SC 2 on October 8 in Columbus, Ohio. (Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports)

As Major League Soccer continues to evolve, developing and showcasing talent from an early age remains a priority. MLS NEXT Pro begins its second season on Friday with seven new MLS partners. The league has a clear goal of regionalizing the competition while providing opportunities for players to be coached and scouted at a professional level.

Ahead of the anticipated second year, Emox News met with MLS NEXT Pro President Charles Altchek to discuss a range of topics and his vision for the future.

Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Emox News: MLS NEXT Pro launched last year but the growth and interest has been significant. How can you build on that Year 1 success this season and beyond?

Altchek: We had players from 81 countries competing in MLS NEXT Pro last year and I think we’ll have even more countries represented this year. What can be more fulfilling and challenging than starting a league, which we did last year? And now we can build on that.

We have a very ambitious plan for MLS NEXT Pro. We want to expand the league in a meaningful way over the next few years. We have 27 teams this year and the idea is that over time 40, 50, 60 teams will compete across the country. It’s going to take a lot of work to get there, but we’re building that plan now, traveling across the country and meeting with potential ownership groups in new cities.

I’m hoping that over the next few months, certainly throughout 2023, we’ll have some really exciting announcements about new teams that could start playing in ’24, ’25 or ’26 depending on when the stadiums are ready.

Emox News: What can you tell me about the league fundamentals?

Altchek: player development is one of our four pillars – it’s not just about players, it’s also about coaches, technical staff, front office staff and everyone involved. MLS NEXT Pro is our platform for innovationalso an important pillar and underpinning all of this is a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. We create many new jobs for them community be it in the league or at our clubs and we are committed to providing opportunities for this next generation of talent from diverse backgrounds.

Emox News: The players journey and some of those achievements were a big story.

Altchek: We had 36 players who competed in MLS NEXT Pro in 2022 and have now signed their first Major League Soccer contract. We call this group our Class of 2022. To give an overview, we had 21 teams last year. We will be following this group of players very closely to see how they are progressing. Kyle Hiebert stands out in this group. He played and played for St. Louis City 2 last year, fielded the best XI for MLS NEXT Pro in 2022. He signed an MLS contract in the off-season and then scored a crucial goal in Major League Soccer a couple of weekends ago. He just received his first call-up to the Canada men’s national team. Just one example of many, but this is a big step forward for him. We’ll certainly see a lot more of this over time.

Emox News: Speaking of St. Louis, you’re very familiar there. What do you think of the amazing start they’ve made?

Altchek: After working very closely with them, they did a great job last year. Sports director Lutz [Pfannenstiel] and its staff have done a great job with MLS NEXT Pro to prepare for MLS. They’ve signed several very talented young players and brought in a few players that they felt could add something this year (and make a big impact) who started their journey in MLS NEXT Pro last year. I give them a lot of credit for having a plan that they executed, competing at a high level in MLS NEXT Pro and falling just short of the best team in the league last year [Columbus Crew 2] in our opening cup. I would argue that their involvement with MLS NEXT Pro had a lot to do with their rapid success as an MLS expansion team.

Emox News: Would you say that the ability to let players play at different levels is a pretty important part of the system?

Altchek: What we have built is a very flexible platform where in MLS NEXT Pro you have your players who are under contract as a core group but you can loan players from MLS. And when you think you’re ready, you can select ways to bring in MLS Next prospects who are still amateurs to give them a taste of the professional environment. Teams have a lot of flexibility to play with different types of players and give everyone a chance to prove if they’re ready or not.

MLS NEXT Pro President Charles Altchek joins the media in announcing that Cleveland is forming a new team. (MLS NEXT Pro)

Emox News: OK, let’s talk about some of the unique rules in the league.

Altchek: In the middle of last season we introduced a new rule called the off-field treatment rule which, when distilled, is meant to really address those moments where players might try to take advantage of a situation to change the game to slow down or stop the game and seek medical attention on the field. Our goal was not to discourage the player from seeking treatment, but if the player needs medical treatment it is better for everyone involved if this is done off the pitch while play continues as needed. Cases of players seeking this medical treatment have decreased significantly and the data we have has remained consistent.

Emox News: No match can end in a draw as a shootout occurs instead. What is the thought process behind it?

Altchek: We believe it’s a really important development tool for our players. It’s very difficult to recreate the pressure of a penalty shootout in training, which was really the only time our players got to practice before that. We all know how important penalty shootouts are at all stages of the game, so we wanted to give players the opportunity to test themselves in a pressurized environment.

The second goal was that it was simply exciting. From a fan, engagement and content perspective, there is nothing better in football than a penalty shootout. It also affects the competition and rankings as the team that wins a shootout gets an extra point.

Emox News: What’s the deal with the new Choose Your Opponent playoff format?

Altchek: If you qualify for the playoffs, the first seedlings get a bye. The next two teams with the most points in each conference below get to choose their opponents. You actually have to choose who you’re going to play against, which we think will be very exciting and will put pressure on the front office as they have to make a choice and if they lose they have to explain why they did it. We want to create content that is interesting for everyone.

Emox News: This is different. Is the thought perhaps that some of these rules can be adjusted in MLS?

Altchek: Absolutely. All of these rules that we implement will be tested to see if they can be implemented in Major League Soccer in the future. It is up to us to develop very good ideas and then implement them at a high level. If things go the way we would like, they could end up in MLS for years to come. I wouldn’t be surprised if the off the field treatment rule, if it continues to have the impact we saw last year, ends up in more football leagues.

Emox News: How exciting is the possibility of bringing these games to Apple TV?

Altchek: It’s monumental. Partnering with the most innovative and dynamic brand in the world isn’t everyday. We do the opposite of taking it for granted. We try to take full advantage of the global platform and drive as much value to it. From a football, fan development and scouting perspective, this is an unprecedented opportunity. It’s a huge push in a good way to deliver great content and games. The possibilities are kind of endless.

Emox News: You were a former football standout at Harvard. How does it feel to switch but still be able to influence the game?

Altchek: I worked very, very hard every day to get better and compete at a higher level. I’ve been very fortunate that we’ve been able to achieve some great things during my time there. I took these lessons I learned competing at Harvard and tried to apply them to everything I’ve done in my professional career. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to continue working in the sport that I love and that has given me so much, and now I can give back in new ways.

Emox News: If you had to send people one specific message about the league, what would it be?

Altchek: If you want to see the best young players at the highest level, come and see us. That’s what MLS NEXT Pro is all about. The competition was tough last year and will be even bigger this year with the seven new teams. We’ll see some amazing young players prove themselves and show that they’re ready for the next level. Then you will see them for your MLS teams and their national teams – these are all things that are already happening. Season 2 will just add more fuel to the fire because we’ve built a great platform so far and we have a great opportunity to evolve even further in 2023 and beyond.

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