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MLS Next Pro Adds Another Element to U.S. Soccer’s Ever-Evolving Lower Club Tier

How will MLS’s new third-division league impact the congested development pathway beneath the top flight?

Many over the years have compared lower-tier American pro soccer to the Wild West, and that’s not entirely off base. Long-term stability and structure can be sporadic, and leagues, teams and brands came and went. There were poachers and con men, alliances and feuds, prospectors and entrepreneurs—some linked to the powers that be and others who chafed against them.

The United Soccer League, a multidivision organization that has been in business since the late 1980s in some form or another—and with varying degrees of solidity and success—has been the big shot ‘round these parts for the past few years. Now, however, a lively landscape that’s never been far from upheaval is shifting again. The USL’s recent and dramatic growth was fueled in part by its partnership with MLS, whose clubs sent their reserve teams to compete in the USL’s two pro circuits. Now the pair are going their separate ways (amicably), and so MLS’s presence on the lower-tier scene will loom far larger.

MLS Next Pro is the name of the new minor league unveiled Monday, and it will become the third competition sanctioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation to occupy a space in the country’s nominal third division (along with USL League One and NISA). 

MLS Next Pro play will begin next year with 21 members, including 20 “MLS2” teams—eight of which are transferring from the USL Championship or League One. An additional eight “MLS2” entrants will come aboard in 2023. Although there are no plans to compete directly with the USL for teams or real estate, MLS Next Pro likely will leave a significant impact on the developmental pathway for young pro players and coaches, not to mention decisions made by investors, broadcasters and other stakeholders.

“We’re really excited about our plans and our visions for this new league, and the onus is on us to build this league the right way, both with our teams and with independent teams over time, and create a competition and manage a competition that achieves all of our goals from a developmental perspective and a growth perspective,” said MLS Next Pro president Charles Altchek, who left the New York Red Bulls for the league office in 2014.

“From an investment perspective, our owners are prepared to invest in this from every angle,” he said. “We want our teams to be successful locally, and we’re setting it up so they’ll be able to achieve that over time.”

MLS-Next-Pro

The inaugural MLS Next Pro season will include one independent club, Rochester NY FC. The rebranded Rochester Rhinos will compete alongside the 20 “MLS2” teams and are a fitting symbol for the decades of flux, failure and potential in the American lower tiers. Rochester was considered an MLS expansion candidate back in the late 1990s. The Rhinos were the only lower-division team to lift the U.S. Open Cup following the ’96 launch of MLS, and they won four championships while competing in five different leagues across two decades. After a four-year hiatus, the rebrand and some investment from Leicester City and former England star Jamie Vardy, Rochester has returned. And it’s finally part of MLS, in a way.

It’ll be joined by teams fielded by the Chicago Fire, Colorado Rapids, Columbus Crew, FC Cincinnati, FC Dallas (from League One), Houston Dynamo, Sporting Kansas City (from USL Championship), Inter Miami (League One), Minnesota United, New England Revolution (League One), New York City FC, Orlando City, Philadelphia Union (USL Championship), Portland Timbers, Real Salt Lake (USL Championship), San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders (USL Championship), St. Louis City, Toronto FC (League One) and Vancouver Whitecaps.

Eight more “MLS2” teams are scheduled to sign on in 2023: Atlanta United (from the USL Championship), Austin FC, Charlotte FC, D.C. United (USL Championship), LA Galaxy (USL Championship), Los Angeles FC, Nashville SC and New York Red Bulls (USL Championship). CF Montreal is still working through its schedule and hasn’t committed to a start date. No other independent teams were identified Monday, but Altchek says there are “some preliminary and interesting conversations around potential independent teams that may went to be part of the league in 2023.”

At the same time, Altchek stressed that MLS has no intention of returning to the days of the USL-NASL turf war or similar conflicts that put stress on the American lower tiers. MLS isn’t targeting, and doesn’t plan on targeting, any independent USL clubs for MLS Next Pro membership.

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“We have a great relationship with the USL. We’ve been working collaboratively for a number of years and we’re continuing to do so,” he said. “But the time has come for us to control our own competition and everyone knows that.”

Next year’s inaugural campaign will kick off in late March and see each of the 21 MLS Next Pro sides play 24 regular season games. Eight will qualify for the playoffs, and a champion will be crowned before the MLS Cup playoffs begin. Specifics regarding player contracts, roster rules and eligibility are still being finalized. The operation and competition will be run on a day-to-day basis by senior VP Ali Curtis, the former New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC general manager.

MLS Next Pro’s third-division sanction offers a lot of venue flexibility. Some clubs might opt for their MLS stadium. Some could select smaller facilities in the same market while others can look elsewhere (like what the Sounders have done with Tacoma Defiance). Brands could reflect the parent club or be distinct.

“We’re going to provide a lot of flexibility for our teams,” Altchek said.

MLS ran a very low-key reserve league from from 2005 through ’14. An ’09-10 hiatus was only part of the very Wild West feel of that project. Games were canceled and rescheduled constantly, teams played differing numbers of matches and rosters were ad hoc. There was next to no visibility, pro atmosphere or competitive stakes. By ’14, only eight clubs were involved. 

MLS began addressing that issue starting the year before, when a partnership was forged with the USL that led to loan agreements, full affiliations and then the entry of MLS2 teams into the competition. It afforded participating MLS clubs the chance to field prospects in matches against experienced pros. Those games counted in the standings, and they were contested in real stadiums in front of real fans. Several MLS organizations like Dallas, the Red Bulls and the Union, among others, found ways to use their second teams as a launch pad for future stars.

“MLS2” sides were successful at the start but as the USL evolved and as its independent members established greater traction and demonstrated more ambition, a parting of ways appeared inevitable. Most “MLS2” teams drew scant crowds by comparison, and they’ve been falling behind competitively in recent seasons. The two leagues’ missions were no longer in alignment. The challenge for MLS Next Pro will be to take what worked from the USL partnership—the stakes and the setting—and bring it to a developmental league comprising mostly “MLS2” teams (at least for the foreseeable future).

“There will be fans. There will be partners. There will be sponsors. It’s very important that people are able to watch their teams compete. How it comes together and when, we’re working through that. But there’s a lot of work being done on that front,” Altcheck said. “How it looks in 2022 could be very different to how it looks in 2023 from a lot of those perspectives.”

Ultimately, MLS clubs will get out of MLS Next Pro what they put into it.

“We know that our teams are going to compete at the highest level possible with their second teams—their best prospects, young players, players coming down from MLS on loan—there’s going to be intense competition because these are the players who want to make it to MLS and beyond,” Altchek said.

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