Friday, April 12, 2024

MLS Next Pro gets its moment in the sun as, ‘The league of opportunity for players, for staff, for everybody’

MLS Next Pro is entering its third season. While the first couple of years might involve figuring out how to make the new youth soccer experiment work work, year three is when expectations rise. And that’s the case for MLS Next Pro. The league launched in 2022 with 21 teams and has expanded to 29 teams with 27 reserve MLS sides and two independent clubs.  Due to changes in U.S. Open Cup participation from MLS teams, Next Pro sides will now take part in the historic competition for the first time meaning that more eyes will be on the league. And it’s already beginning to make its impact felt. Laurent Courtois jumped from being the league’s Crew 2 boss to become the head coach of CF Montreal. Now the question is who will be the next to follow in Courtois’ footsteps as the league looks to further its impact on American soccer. 

“The way that we describe this league is as a league of opportunity. The league of opportunity for players, for staff, for everybody who wants to be part of this sport,” MLS Next Pro President and Major League Soccer EVP Charles Altchek said to CBS Sports, discussing some of the next steps for the league. “We’re creating a lot of new jobs in MLS Next Pro. Our owners are investing a tremendous amount of money in Next Pro, in their rosters, in their staff, in infrastructure. We’re going to have multiple new stadiums being built for MLS Next Pro, soccer specific stadiums being built for MLS Next Pro so that’s what we’re spending a lot of time on. We now have an opportunity to bring soccer to new markets all over the country so we’re spending a lot of time on that.”

There is even a chance, in theory, that an MLS Next Pro side could end up in the Concacaf Champions Cup although the exact logistics there have still yet to be announced by Concacaf. The two scenarios are that either the MLS Next Pro side that was to win the competition would then take part in the Champions Cup, but there also is a chance that for non-independent Next Pro sides, that if they win the competition, their parent clubs could actually be the representative in Champions Cup, increasing the number of MLS sides in the competition. With the U.S. Open Cup kicking off on March 19, that’s something that will need to be fleshed out sooner than later, but also doesn’t change the progress that Next Pro has made as an alternative method for youth development in American soccer.

There are 85 players who have spent time in Next Pro that have already signed first team deals in MLS including young American players like Benjamin Cremaschi who became Lionel Messi’s running mate at Inter Miami and Esmir Bajraktarevic of the New England Revolution. Younger players from abroad who may not be ready for MLS contracts are also signed by Next Pro teams in order to groom them for the first team. 

While this was happening before Next Pro’s arrival, when development sides were mixed into the United Soccer League, streamlining everything into a coordinated setup has helped. It’s not just the Courtois jump to MLS to become head coach of an MLS side but there were also three other coaches who made the jump to MLS staffs.

In addition to Altchek, MLS Next Pro Senior Vice President of Competition and Operations Ali Curtis sat down with CBS Sports to discuss some of the impacts of Next Pro while also discussing what’s next. One thing has already come into play since that discussion as the duo mentioned that they were, “open for new business” and that has come to fruition with their partnership with The Town FC. A hybrid arrangement, the Town FC will function as San Jose’s next pro team with San Jose overseeing soccer operations and The Town group overseeing commercial opportunities. Alongside Carolina Core FC and Chattanooga FC joining the league this season, it shows the range of paths that a club can.

“We wear a Next Pro hat, but growing the game, evolving the game in new markets is a really good thing and what I would say is that in our minds, what’s front and center is we want to build a great soccer league and by doing that it’s important that you have diversity,” Curtis said. “This context that we’re thinking about it as it relates to diversity of ownership, diversity of thought, diversity of approach, diversity of player profile and those are ingredients that are important to having a vibrant colorful and strong league.”

The Town enters alongside Carolina Core FC and Chattanooga FC joining the league this season, and it shows the range of paths that a club can take, while also taking into account lessons learned from Rochester New York FC, who exited the league after a single year, just as these three arrived.

Established in Next Pro as a rebrand of Rochester Rhinos FC, they began play in Next Pro in 2022 but were dissolved after only one season. Co-owned by forward Jamie Vardy of Leicester City, it was a high-profile withdrawal from the league but that doesn’t mean that it has to be classed as a failure.  

“We learn from every situation, and you usually learn more from difficult situations. So with every new team there are challenges and we learn important lessons and we take those lessons forward,” Altchek said reflecting on Rochester. “We’ve been doing this for a long time, Ali has been working at MLS longer than I have and he was a player and then an executive with our teams and so he’s brought those experiences to the league. I worked in the commissioner’s office for many years before I started in this role so I’ve taken those experience to what we’re doing.

“For our independent teams with the two that are launching this year, Carolina Core and Chattanooga FC, very different profiles. Chattanooga has 10 plus years of history with the brand, their fans, the market, stadium, amateur team, professional team, winning and they have fans over the world. And then Carolina Core, a totally new operation, they’ve hired a lot of very experienced people whether it’s Eddie Pope as their chief soccer officer and his experience as a World Cup player and MLS Champion and all of his accolades on and off the field … They’ve put together a tremendous staff.”

The flexibility of Next Pro has shined in other ways as well. St. Louis City SC joined the league ahead of their inaugural season in Major League Soccer. Being able to get their sporting structure and some of the team set in Next Pro was a perfect springboard to winning the Western Conference in their first season. Things are a little different for San Diego FC who will join MLS in 2025. Whether they field a team in Next Pro is complicated by their connection with the Right To Dream academy, partnership with FC Nordsjaelland, and other ventures, so Next Pro is still figuring out what their plan will be ahead of their inaugural season.  

The bottom line is that Next Pro have put themselves in an interesting and flexible position in American soccer. There are a lot of directions in which the league can go. That means while this could only be a one-year stay in the U.S. Open Cup, Next Pro is very far from putting all their eggs in that basket. It’s simply another avenue the league can take advantage of, and will still be something it can learn from moving forward. MLS, sitting on top of the U.S. pyramid, was already an American soccer league built from the ground up not too long ago. 

The next step is creating an environment where MLS, MLS Next Pro, the USL, NISA, and other leagues in the American soccer ecosystem can work together is what’s critical. More opportunities for players and staff all around is the goal and the more strong options to reach that goal, the better. And as they enter year three, MLS Next Pro is poised to remain a crucial part of the American soccer picture, whatever that picture ends up looking like.

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