As Major League Soccer continues to evolve, the focus on developing and showcasing talent from a young age continues to be at the forefront. MLS NEXT Pro will kick off its second season Friday with seven new MLS affiliates joining the mix. The league has a clear goal of regionalizing competition while providing opportunities for players to be trained and scouted at a professional level.
Ahead of the awaited Year 2, Yahoo Sports caught up with MLS NEXT Pro president Charles Altchek to discuss an array of topics and his vision going forward.
Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Yahoo Sports: MLS NEXT Pro launched last year but the growth and interest is substantial. How can you build off 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’re going to have even more countries represented this year. What can be more fulfilling and challenging than getting to launch a league, which is what we did last year? And now we get to build on it.
We have a very ambitious plan for MLS NEXT Pro. We want to grow the league meaningfully over the next number of years. We have 27 teams this year and the idea is to have 40, 50, 60 teams over time competing around the country. It’s going to take a lot of work to get there but we’re building that plan now, traveling the country and meeting with potential ownership groups in new cities.
I’m hopeful that we’ll have some really exciting announcements to come in the next number of months, certainly over the course of 2023, about new teams that might start playing in ’24, ’25 or ’26, depending on when their stadiums are ready.
Yahoo Sports: What can you tell me about the foundations of the league?
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 everybody that’s involved. MLS NEXT Pro is our platform for innovation, a key pillar as well, and underpinning all of that is a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. We’re creating a lot of new jobs for the community whether it’s at the league or at our clubs, and we’re being very deliberate about providing opportunities for that next generation of talent from all different backgrounds.
Yahoo Sports: The player pathway and some of those successes have been a big storyline.
Altchek: We had 36 players who competed in MLS NEXT Pro in 2022, who have now signed their first contract in Major League Soccer. We’re calling that group our Class of 2022. For perspective we had 21 teams last year. We’ll be tracking that group of players very closely to see how they progress. Kyle Hiebert stands out in that group. He played and starred for St. Louis City 2 last year, made the best XI for MLS NEXT Pro in 2022. He signed an MLS contract in the offseason and then scored a game-winning goal in Major League Soccer a few weekends ago. He just got his first call up to the Canadian men’s national team. Just one example of many, but that’s a great progression for him. We’re going to be seeing a lot more of that over time to come, certainly.
Yahoo Sports: Speaking of St. Louis, you have a lot of familiarity there. What are your thoughts on the amazing start they’ve gotten off to?
Altchek: Having worked really closely with them, they did an amazing job last year. Sporting director Lutz [Pfannenstiel] and his staff did a great job of utilizing MLS NEXT Pro to get ready for MLS. They signed several very talented young players, brought in a couple of players that they thought can contribute this year (and who have to great effect) who started their journey in MLS NEXT Pro last year. I give them a lot of credit because they had a plan, they executed on that, competed in MLS NEXT Pro at a high level, and fell just short to the best team in the league last year [Columbus Crew 2] in our inaugural Cup. I would argue that their involvement in MLS NEXT Pro had a lot to do with their rapid success as an MLS expansion team.
Yahoo Sports: Would you say the ability to have players perform at various 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 that are signed to contract as your core group, but you can bring players down on loan from MLS. And in select ways, if you think they’re ready, you can bring prospects up from MLS Next, who are still amateurs, to give them a taste of the professional environment. The teams have a lot of flexibility to play different types of players and give everybody an opportunity to prove that they’re ready or not.
Yahoo Sports: OK, let’s talk about some of the unique rules in the league.
Altchek: In the middle of last season we implemented a new rule called the off-field treatment rule, which if you distill it down is really to deal with those moments where players might try to take advantage of a situation to slow the game down or stop the game and seek medical treatment on the field. Our objective was not to stop the player from getting treatment, but if the player needs medical treatment it’s better for everybody involved to have that happen off the field while the game continues as needed whenever appropriate. The instances of players seeking that medical treatment went down meaningfully, and the data that we have stayed consistent.
Yahoo Sports: No matches are able to end in a draw, as they instead go into a shootout. What’s the thought process behind that?
Altchek: We think it’s a really important development tool for our players. It’s very hard to recreate the pressure of a shootout in practice, which is really the only time our players before this could practice. We all know how important penalty kick shootouts are on all stages of the game, so we wanted to give players the opportunity to test themselves in pressurized environments.
The second objective was that it’s simply exciting. There’s nothing like a penalty kick shootout in soccer from a fan, engagement and content perspective. It also impacts the competition and standings because the team that wins a shootout gets an extra point.
Yahoo Sports: What’s up with the new “pick your opponent” playoff format?
Altchek: If you qualify for the playoffs, the first seeds will get a bye. The next two teams with the most points in each conference below that get to pick their opponents. You actually have to choose who you’re going to play, which we think will be really exciting and create some pressure on the front office because they’re going to have to decide, and if they lose they’ll have to explain why they did that. We’re looking to create some content that is engaging for everybody.
Yahoo Sports: That’s different. Is the thought perhaps some of these rules can be adapted in MLS?
Altchek: Absolutely. All these rules that we’re implementing are being tested with the eye towards is there potential for them to be implemented in Major League Soccer in the future. It’s up to us to come up with very good ideas and then execute at a high level. If things go as we want them to, it could be that they end up in MLS in years to come. I would not be surprised if the off-field treatment rule, if it continues to have the impact we saw last year, ends up in more soccer leagues.
Yahoo Sports: How exciting is the ability to broadcast these games on Apple TV?
Altchek: It’s monumental. Being in a partnership with the most innovative and dynamic brand in the world isn’t something you get to do every day. We’re doing the opposite of taking it for granted. We’re trying to take full advantage of the global platform and drive as much value towards it. From a soccer, fan development and scouting perspective that is an unprecedented opportunity. It’s tremendous pressure, in a good way, to deliver great content and games. The opportunities are kind of endless.
Yahoo Sports: You were a former standout soccer player at Harvard. How does it feel to transition, but be able to still have an impact in the game?
Altchek: I worked really, really hard every day to get better and compete at a higher level. I was really fortunate that we were able to achieve some great things while I was there. I’ve taken those lessons I learned while I was competing with Harvard and tried to apply them to everything I’ve done in my professional career. I’ve had the great fortune of being able to continue to work in the sport that I love that has given me so much, and now I get to give back in new ways.
Yahoo Sports: 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 competing at the highest level, come join us. That’s what MLS NEXT Pro is all about. The competition last year was fierce, and it’s going to be even more this year with the seven new teams coming in. We’re going to be watching some amazing young players prove themselves and show that they’re ready for the next level. Then you’re going to get to watch them for your MLS teams, for their national teams — these are all things that are already happening. There’s just going to be more fuel on the fire in season two because we built a great platform so far, and we have an amazing opportunity to develop even further in 2023 and beyond.