The NEXT Big Thing

Marco D’Onofrio discusses the creation of MLS NEXT Pro and the impact that it could have on the game in North America.

When Major League Soccer was founded in 1993 as part of the United States’ successful bid to host the 1994 World Cup, one of the immediate objectives was to grow the game locally and create a robust developmental system in order to harness young talent.

While one simply has to look at the success of the American and Canadian men’s national teams during their qualifying campaigns for the 2022 World Cup to see the impact that MLS has already made on developing young talent, there is still more that can be done.

The creation of the Canadian Premier League wouldn’t have happened if there wasn’t a strong belief that many other talented young Canadians have been falling through the cracks and not reaching their full potential. Despite the CPL only starting in 2019, it has already proven to be beneficial for the game across Canada.

The good news is that there will be even more resources put into developing young players across North America, with MLS announcing the creation of MLS NEXT Pro. The league will kick off in 2022 for its inaugural season, allowing MLS teams to give more playing time to players who may not be able to get much of it with the first team. Its ultimate intention is to create an integrated player pathway from MLS NEXT right through to first-team football.

“MLS NEXT Pro is a new professional league that establishes a unified and accelerated professional pathway between our academies and the first teams of MLS and independent clubs throughout North America,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber in a press release. “Off the field, MLS NEXT Pro will provide a platform to drive forward diversity, develop and nurture talent, while bringing soccer to new markets and new fans around the country.”

MLS NEXT Pro guidelines allow for teams to carry 35 players on their active roster – 24 slots may be filled by professional players, while 11 may be filled with amateur players. There will also be a maximum of five MLS NEXT youth academy players per team on the field during an official match. Unlike in MLS, there will be no salary cap and no salary limits in place for player compensation.

While most teams in the league are affiliated with MLS clubs, independent organizations will also be involved as well. In its inaugural season, there will be 20 teams playing that are affiliated with MLS clubs, while Rochester NY FC will be the only independent club in 2022.

“We are thrilled that Rochester NY FC will be the first independent club to join MLS NEXT Pro,” announced club co-owners David and Wendy Dworkin. “Rochester established itself as a winning club with the Rhinos, and we are pleased to add a new chapter in the city’s rich soccer history as Rochester NY FC. We are excited to develop the future international stars of soccer, right here in our local community. By joining this league, Rochester is on the cusp of the future and the evolving global game of soccer.”
David and Wendy Dworkin co-own the team with Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy, who also expressed his excitement of the move in a press release.

“We look forward to showcasing Rochester as a premier professional club and are excited to kick off that process by helping to launch the inaugural season of MLS NEXT Pro in 2022,” said Vardy. “Joining this league, full of opportunity for communities, fans, players and staff – on the pitch and off – is a tremendous point of pride for our club.”

The league has already announced that eight more MLS-affiliated clubs will join in 2023, with the likes of Atlanta United, Austin FC, Charlotte FC, D.C. United, Los Angeles FC, Los Angeles Galaxy, New York Red Bulls and Nashville all sitting out for the debut campaign. MLS NEXT Pro also suggested there will be even more independent organizations added to the league as well in 2023 and beyond.

MLS NEXT Pro appointed two executives who will lead the league in its first season. Charles Altchek has been named President, with former Toronto FC general manager Ali Curtis named as Senior Vice President of Competition and Operations of MLS NEXT Pro.

“Charles and Ali have the experience, enthusiasm and values to lead the growth and development of MLS NEXT Pro,” Garber declared when the appointments were announced. “They will partner with MLS-affiliated and independent teams to bring professional soccer to more communities throughout North America.”
Altchek being named President comes as no surprise, considering he was Senior Vice President of League Growth and Operations at MLS. He was largely responsible for leading the planning and development of MLS NEXT Pro since its inception and is the perfect man to oversee it during the first season.

“MLS NEXT Pro completes Major League Soccer’s pro player pathway, connecting our youth academies through to our first teams,” Altchek stated in a press release. “As we continue to push the future of soccer forward in the United States and Canada, player development, community, innovation and diversity form the pillars of MLS NEXT Pro. The inaugural season in 2022 will be another historic moment for the sport.”
While Curtis doesn’t have the direct experience developing MLS NEXT Pro like Altchek, he did work in MLS offices for eight years before his roles with the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC.

“I’m excited for the opportunity to join Charles in building and launching MLS NEXT Pro,” said Curtis. “MLS NEXT Pro will enhance the quality of all players, coaches, referees, and executives along the development pathway and it is an important step to the growth of the sport in North America leading up to the World Cup in 2026.”

It’ll be quite a while before the impact of the new league can be fully analysed on its success in developing young players and growing the game overall in North America, but it certainly is an exciting step in the right direction.

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