In 2023, seven MLS clubs will join the existing 21 who field developmental teams in MLS Next Pro league, constructed as a mediator between youth arm MLS Next and MLS in soccer’s pro player pathway.
Atlanta United, Austin FC, Charlotte FC, LA Galaxy, Los Angeles FC, New York Red Bulls will debut teams in MLS Next Pro in the spring. And so will Nashville SC, which on Wednesday, launched the first MLS-affiliate club that will operate out of market under its own image and likeness. Nashville’s MLS Next Pro team is now Huntsville City Football Club of Huntsville, Alabama.
MLS Next Pro President Charles Altchek spoke to The Tennessean about why Nashville chose the northern Alabama town known as Rocket City, why Huntsville City is the blueprint for the league and more. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
Q&A with MLS Next Pro President Charles Altchek
What was your original reaction to when Nashville approached you as a league and considered taking its MLS Next Pro franchise into a new market?
Taking a step back, when we were building a plan for MLS Next Pro, this was part of our vision and our strategy — to find these types of potential relationships where our MLS teams could partner up with a city in their sphere of influence and have their MLS Next Pro team be the biggest, baddest show in town. And that’s exactly what’s going to happen here in Huntsville. And so when Nashville SC started talking to us about this idea, about putting their MLS Next Pro team in Huntsville, we couldn’t have been more excited from that perspective and we’ve been working on this for over a year.
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I was down here for the first time last October when this was just an idea. The talks between the two parties were advanced, but there was a lot that needed to be sorted, certainly. We toured the stadium, which at the time, was a dangerous place to visit. We actually went through the old press box and an enormous barn owl kind of scared us all. And you had to have a vision and I give all the credit in the world to Mayor Tommy Battle Jr. and to his staff, John Hamilton, and to Chad Emerson, who was working with the city back then, but who’s now going to be leading the charge for the team here locally.
I guess my second question is related to my first, which is the fact that Huntsville City is the first in MLS Next Pro to reestablish itself in a completely new market. What does that mean for the fans and for the league?
This is going to be a really important blueprint for us. Our plan is for this to be the first of many of its kind. It’ll take some time. But I know for a fact that we have several MLS teams that are currently having conversations like the one here, about moving their MLS Next Pro team into a different market, into a stadium that’s the right size for our league, and bringing professional soccer to a new city, which is what I’m so excited about.
A lot of the work that I’ve done with MLS over the last eight or so years has been growing the sport and bringing soccer to new markets and now with MLS Next Pro, I get to do that in two ways: one, with our new independent teams. We had our first one in Rochester, New York this year — our first independent team in MLS Next Pro. They had a tremendous season and made the playoffs. And then, looking for potential partnerships like this one and having our teams do what Nashville is doing in Huntsville. So there’s a lot more to come on that front for sure.
You mentioned your roles with the league over the course of eight years. I wanted to look at one of those roles you had as senior vice president for league growth and operations, which was overseeing new MLS stadiums. What’s the standard you upheld for those projects and how does HCFC’s Joe Davis Stadium compare and contrast to others in MLS Next Pro?
So we went through a comprehensive process internally and working with our teams and with outside advisors to be sure that with this wave of new stadiums that we’ve just gotten through over the last number of years, we wanted to be sure that they were at the highest standard from every perspective. And of course, it starts with the fans and ensuring that the fan experience is world class and second to none. And then it’s about the sport, of course, and making sure that we’re protecting the integrity of the game: on the pitch and everything around players and their facilities. And then it’s about the broadcast and being sure that we’re broadcasting the best version of ourselves around the world.
When we looked at our metrics from this year, we had folks from 180 countries around the world tune in to MLS Next Pro games in our first season and had over 400,000 people engaging with our content on our website and on our social channels from all over the world as well.
And so when we think about the stadiums and MLS Next Pro, starting with Joe Davis — because Joe Davis will be the first stadium built for this league — we use the same principles, ensuring the integrity of the game, pitch, everything to do with the game, and then thinking about the fans and the fan experience and ensuring that they’re having a world-class experience. And now what we’re looking at is, how do we get really creative about these new stadiums that we’re going to be building in MLS Next Pro all over the country? Probably a little smaller, like Joe Davis, certainly more intimate but holding true to our principles.
Regarding a fan base, how does MLS Next Pro anticipate what’s needed to grow a separate fanbase in Huntsville versus an MLS expansion team? Is there a difference?
I don’t think there is. I think it’s all the same. It’s all going to be the same process.
You lay the foundation, which they just started to do today and obviously have been doing the background work for months in advance. You launch the brand, you launch the colors, you launch the name and then between now and the spring, they’re going to start signing coaches, players, have a lot more announcements coming down the line, which is going to create a lot of energy here.
Final question for you: There was a bit of a surprise from Nashville fans that Nashville would base its MLS Next Pro team, not only outside of Nashville, but outside of Tennessee as well. How does Nashville and MLS Next Pro prove this project was worth it?
These are going to be two distinct fan bases that will be connected, without a doubt, between players and soccer philosophies. And so for the fans, I think it’s really fun because they’re going to be able to watch the pro player pathway in action. A top player from the Nashville SC Academy might sign his first professional contract here in Huntsville with their MLS Next Pro team as a first step and there might be players that come from the Huntsville region — from northern Alabama or from around the country — that sign their first professional contract here in Huntsville with Huntsville City FC and then prove their worth and end up signing a contract in MLS with Nashville SC.
We had 14 players just this year in our first season, start their professional careers in MLS Next Pro, and midway through the season, signed MLS contracts, first-team contracts. That’s because they proved themselves in MLS Next Pro and showed that they were ready and that’s going to happen here as well. So I think it’s going to be a natural alignment between the fans in Huntsville and the fans in Nashville.
You’re gonna see fans of one traveling to see the other all the time I think you’re gonna see a lot of Huntsville jerseys in Nashville and a lot of Nashville jerseys in Huntsville, which is going to be fun for everybody.
For stories about Nashville SC or Soccer in Tennessee, contact Drake Hills at [email protected] Follow Drake on Twitter at @LiveLifeDrake. Connect with Drake on Instagram at @drakehillssoccer and on Facebook.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: MLS Next Pro president says Huntsville City FC is the blueprint