The Interview: Charles Altchek and Ali Curtis
The Execs Running the New MLS Next Pro League Go In-Depth on Their Goals For the League, Innovation, Deciding Tied Games with Penalty Shootouts, the Importance of DEI Opportunities and Much More
Charles Altchek (Harvard) and Ali Curtis (Duke) were both star goal-scorers at the NCAA level, with Altchek being a two-time Ivy League player of the year and Curtis a two-time national player of the year before spending three seasons playing in MLS. They’ve been executives at the league and (for Curtis) club level in more recent years, and they are spearheading the new MLS Next Pro league that kicked off last month. This interview is a fairly long one, but there’s some really good stuff in it that I think you’ll find interesting and important. I also think there’s a decent chance one of these guys will be the commissioner of MLS someday.
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MLS Next Pro launched in March and is a professional men's soccer league that completes the player pathway from MLS Next through to MLS first teams. I'm at the MLS headquarters in New York City, and my guests today are Charles Altchek, the president of MLS Next Pro, and Ali Curtis, the league's senior vice president for competition and operations. Altchek worked in the MLS commissioner's office the last eight years. And you may know Curtis from when he was the chief soccer officer for the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC, they both starred in NCAA soccer, where Curtis was a two-time national player of the year at Duke and Altchek was a two-time Ivy League player of the year at Harvard. Guys, congratulations on your new-ish gigs, and thanks for coming on the show.
Ali Curtis on DEI in MLS Next Pro: “When the pandemic hit, I was on all these different Zooms, and I was literally confronted with this reality that I was the only Black guy in the little square. And it was just a really difficult reality check again for me during that period of time, and it's something that I don't want to ever see again. I've been on different committees and sub-committees, and sometimes there's never been a woman at the table with a voice as well. How does that happen? And we owe it to those folks, we owe it to ourselves to be better in all ways. We have a good staff here that is committed to that. In terms of being part of something such that in 15, 20, 25 years, whatever it is, when you look back, you are proud of what's been built or what you've been part of, that's a massive part of it.”
Thanks, Grant. Great to be with you today.
Thanks for having us.
After that intro I feel I have to ask, have you two ever come into contact on the soccer field together?
Funny story, I can't remember what year it was. It was either 2014 or 2015, it might have been 2015. We were at the MLS summer offsite, staff offsite, and there were a lot of activities going on. And I don't remember who started it, but we had to have a staff game, of course, and I had been told the staff games had been canceled years prior, because I think there was a time back in the day where the staff games were what the outing was and it was all about the staff game and everybody who'd played would bring their cleats and their shin guards and their A games and really get into it. But I guess there were a few hard tackles, a few hard challenges that were not acceptable for a staff game, and so that part of history was canceled.
And then we were at the barbecue and we got a game going, and I had known Ali from working with him in the office and obviously had known about his career at Duke and then in the league. And I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to test myself against the best, so we were barefoot because we were all not prepared for a staff game and we went head to head and we had a good time, and I think it was a good bonding moment for the two of us to battle it out on this field that we constructed with some shoes and cones and whatever else, so that was a good memory.
Your quick recollection of that, Ali?
I'll go with his story since it was a long time ago ...
He's being kind, I think he wants to say, ‘I don't remember that at all.’ [laughs]
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You both have been involved in soccer for a long time, you've been involved with MLS at the league level, at the club level. What went into your decision-making processes to take these jobs that you've now just started?
Yeah, so I'll start. I've been working here as you mentioned in the intro at the league office now for eight plus years, and I've been very fortunate to work on different projects over that time. Mostly around expansion and new teams, new stadiums, new owners, new investor groups, but all under the rubric of growing the game and bringing the sport to new communities around the U.S. And it's been an unbelievable experience and a really special time for me to be part of that, and I've been very grateful for that. And when we started during the pandemic, what happened was, we went from meeting with our owners every quarter, call it, formally, and then we'd have calls once a month or whatever else to having Zoom meetings every day, essentially. And most of the meetings were around how do we get our teams back on the field? How do we get the league launched again?
And so there was a lot of work going into getting through the CBA and then getting into the bubble in Orlando, but during those different discussions we were also talking about the future. And looking ahead to the World Cup in 2026, there had been a lot of chatter over the years around starting our own second league, our own development league, and the owners and our group that was thinking through that decided there's no better time than now. Let's get organized. We had just launched MLS Next, and the discussion was if we could launch MLS Next from one week to the next, no pun intended, which is what happened in that moment in 2020, we can launch our new league in 2022, so we started working on that in early ‘21 and I was part of that group from the beginning.
And then when we started figuring out the leadership team for the new league, the first person that I called was Ali. He was in Toronto at the time, and we had worked together at the league office before he left to go run the Red Bulls, and my instinct was, and so far my instinct was right. I couldn't think of a better person to take on this challenge with me and help launch this league and guide this league in all ways. And for me personally, it's a really special opportunity, because I get to continue in so many different ways to grow the game, which is what a lot of my work has been around. And a lot of the time that Ali and I have spent together over the last number of months beyond just getting the league up and going has been around the potential to bring soccer to new markets and traveling around, meeting with different groups about having independent teams join our league as well.
And I'm sure we'll talk more about that, but it's been a lot of fun, and we're just scratching the surface, we're just getting started here.
For me, it's a little different, but a lot of the same in that in 2019, now, gosh, three and a half years ago, when I joined Toronto, my wife, she works for a company called CAA. She's been there for like 21-plus years. And it was an opportunity for her, she runs her social impact group, for her and our kids to move up to a new country, to Toronto, to be with me and to support me and for her to be able to work from home. And I think like a lot of people in the world during the pandemic, everything kind of changed in terms of your job function and how you view what you're doing in life and everything else, and my wife's role changed at work exponentially in terms of her job function and expanding.
And it was always a bit of a rub or at least a bit of a challenge for her to manage a really massive job function and at the same time for me to do that as well, and so there was always that kind of tug and pull. And then last year it made sense for her and our kids to move back to the New York metropolitan area, so they had moved back in the summer, and I was kind of commuting going back and forth between Toronto and New Jersey and New York. And that was a challenge and I think a lot of people, you start to think about, "What am I doing in life?" And your job is a massive part of your life.
And I think everyone in this business, they're passionate about what they do and they give everything to it. And so it was just really hard for me personally to continue to go back and forth in a lot of ways, and Toronto FC is just an incredible club that has an ownership group that is special, and that city is amazing. But it made sense for my family to be back, and it made sense in a lot of ways for me to be with them as well, not just commuting but full time. So I'd always stay in touch with Charles, and I was really excited about this potential opportunity because it reunited me with my family, but then also there was an incredible opportunity in front of us when you talk about how to grow the game of soccer.
And I've always felt that I always want to be part of something that, when I look back 20 years from now, or 15 years from now, or whatever it is, I'll look back and say, "That was something that was special. And I was part of something and I grew something." And that is the ultimate for me, and then if there's anything I've learned in my career it's be around people that you trust, that you care about, that work hard, that have similar values than you. And I knew that with Charles coming into the role, and that has resonated every single day that I've worked here since I started.
So our listeners will probably be aware of MLS Next Pro, but may not know a lot of detail about it, and so I would ask you guys if you could explain just a few more details of the MLS Next Pro set-up, how many teams are there? How many games? How does the season work? The playoffs? The structure?
Thanks Grant. I'll do the basics, nuts and bolts, and then I think Ali can take you through the strategy around it from a player perspective given his experience, and it might make sense for Ali to talk to you about when he started at the Red Bulls. One of the first things he did was launch their second team, which they didn't have when he started there in, was it 2015? We have 21 teams this year, 20 MLS-affiliated teams, and one independent team, our first independent team up in Rochester, N.Y., owned by David and Wendy Dworkin, who owned the Rhinos, the Rochester Rhinos, famous for being the last non-MLS team to win the U.S. Open Cup back in 1999, and their co-owner is Jamie Vardy. Jamie Vardy of Leicester, Jamie Vardy of starting in the ninth division while he had a job at a factory and working his way up. As it relates to lower division soccer, who could be a better person to embody everything that this is about and what he's trying to accomplish?
And we're excited to have him be part of the project. So while we have 21 teams this year, this league is going to grow meaningfully over the next number of years and we'll get to that, but I'll talk to you about what's happening in 2022. We've got a 24-game regular season, and then we're going to have a playoff where eight teams will qualify, four teams from each conference, and it'll be a single-elimination knockout playoff with the higher seed hosting our MLS Next Pro Cup, which will happen in the fall right before the MLS playoffs start essentially. And we're just getting started, and what's going to be so interesting on a couple different levels is, one, we're very focused on integrating some international competition into what we're doing. We know how important that is, and Ali will talk more about why that is from a player development perspective.
And then two, we have more teams coming online in 2023 and beyond. To start, we'll have eight more MLS-affiliated teams joining next year. Five of them are playing in the USL this year, three are newer teams, expansion teams: Nashville, Austin, and Charlotte, who don't have a second team yet, so they'll launch their second team in MLS Next Pro next year. And then we're in conversations now with several independent teams around the country who may be ready in 2023 or 2024, 2025, depending on their stadium situations, and we've been spending a lot of time on that front as well. But I'll pass it to Ali to give you a little bit more perspective from the player side.
Maybe I'll try to give a little bit of perspective, and then also maybe tell a little bit of a story. I think that in life, you want a little bit of clarity and transparency. And every job also, sometimes it's really difficult to understand how you can go from A to B to C. And so sometimes as you grow up, you reach out to different people and you say, "How did you get to where you are?" And they tell their story, and hopefully you can take a little bit from their story and incorporate that into your life and that helps you grow, and it helps you become the best version of yourself. And so that clarity, that transparency, of how to get from A to B is massive. And when I first joined Red Bull in late 2014, but my first season was in 2015.
I think it was in January, I sat down with Tyler Adams and his family. Lyle Yorks, who was my agent when I was playing at MLS was also in the room, and what I did was I sat down and I had not only a document, but I had rehearsed this to say, "Listen, this is what we think, these are your strengths, these are what we can help you with and these are going to be the steps that you can take to becoming an incredible player." And that had to deal with where he was going to train, when he was going to train, whether that was domestically, was he going to go to Leipzig? Was he going to go to Salzburg? When we felt that he would make the leap into Major League Soccer. But we had infrastructure that was in place that provided some transparency and some clarity, and those things breed confidence and allow you to execute because you have clarity in terms of what does it take to get to the next level.
And I think that's really important, especially for young people, not just in soccer, but just in life of how to get to where they want to go and how to be the best versions of themselves. And so with MLS Next Pro it's incredible because it's an opportunity to... We've invested so much, and not just Major League Soccer, but so many people within North America have invested so much into the sport, and it has grown so much at every level from broadcasting to officiating to players, to coaches, to fans, and look at the stadiums, but really we've grown and learned in so many different ways, which has been incredible.
And MLS Next Pro, now it's this platform, it's this league where it helps educate and give that clarity and transparency to players and coaches and referees and administrators, but everyone who wants to be literally the best person, the best version of themselves professionally in doing what they want to do professionally, it gives that opportunity. And I think it's great, and we think it'll help evolve the game. We have a vision for what this looks like, we have an idea of what the pillars are that will help achieve it, and I'm excited. We're doing really good work and working really hard and being part of the whole landscape, but we're happy with the league and it'll only get better.
And I realize it's just gotten started, right, and yet from your perspective, where do you want this to be in a couple years? What kind of metrics are you going to use to decide if this is working well?
So there's a couple different ways that we're thinking about it, and from a macro perspective, and part of the reason why we launched in 2022, was looking ahead to the World Cup in 2026, it gives us a runway to put a marker down in our own minds. What we have said to ourselves is we want to grow this league meaningfully over the next number of years, so if we have call it 30 MLS-affiliated teams around the country, can we have 10 or 20 independent teams in addition to that? So a 40-, 50-team league where you've got great regional rivalries, really efficient travel, but more importantly you're touching new markets and you're providing opportunities for new players and coaches and staff to break into the game and be part of our sport. And not have to drive, from a player perspective, not have to drive three or four hours like Tyler Adams used to do just to get to practice, not have to move your family like many of the players do now, because you've got professional environments closer to home or in your home city.
That's how we're thinking about it from a growth perspective, but from a player perspective, we want players competing in the World Cup in 2026 that started their professional careers in MLS Next Pro, came up through the academy, signed their first professional contract in MLS Next Pro, whether it's for an MLS-affiliated team or an independent team, then were signed or sold to an MLS club. And whether they go to Europe or they stay in Major League Soccer, and now they're competing for their national team, whether it's the U.S. men's national team, the Canadian men's national team or other national teams. I think that will be a moment for us to really figure out, have we accomplished our goals? Because there's no doubt that we're going to have innumerable players competing in Major League Soccer who started their careers in MLS Next Pro, but I think we're thinking more broadly than that and that's where a lot of our energy is going to be directed towards.
Yeah, and just to supplement a little bit what Charles said, I always try to think big and as big as possible, and I believe MLS Next Pro will evolve the game, not just domestically, but globally. When I was at Toronto, we had this slogan: We want to bring the world all to its feet. And I think we have that opportunity. We have four pillars of player development. How are we developing our players and our staffs and our coaches? And in all ways, how can we touch different local communities that we haven't gotten to from a professional soccer perspective that can support professional soccer? How can we be innovative and be smart and thoughtful and analytical, and being able to execute new ideas and new concepts within our league that can drive the game?
Again, not just domestically, but abroad. How can we be progressive from a diversity, equity and inclusion standpoint? And that not be a silo or a bucket, but that influences absolutely everything we do from how we engage our clubs, how we create committees and subcommittees, and everything that we do. And so there's just a tremendous amount of opportunity to really have impact, and viewing it not as simply as a soccer league, but as a driver of change and growth and being progressive. And that's really exciting, and I think we have a really good group here, a great leadership team and a good group of folks that are working every single day, every weekend, to help achieve that. And it's exciting. It's been a lot of hard work thus far, it will continue to be hard work, but it's easy because we enjoy it and we enjoy working with each other and creating these new ideas. And there's nothing but frontier space, so that's exciting.
And realizing it's early, how have things been going? What are some things that right now you're excited about what you're seeing early in this first season?
I love the penalty kicks from the mark shootout. So at the end of the regular season games, for those that don't know, if it's a tie it goes to a traditional shootout, not a 35-yard, five-second one on one, but it's a traditional shootout and I think it's exciting. Soccer is emotional too. Sports are emotional, and it's amazing to see even four weeks in, you never know, sometimes your emotion or your facial expression or whatever it is on the field or off the field, sometimes doesn't tell the true picture, but over the last four weeks we've been able to see some of those shootouts, and it's been amazing.
I know the players really are engaged in it, and it's something that we also, from a player development standpoint, we said, listen, it's dipping our toe in our pillar of innovation, it's not something that nobody's ever thought of in terms of having a shootout decide the winner of a match. But it's different, and that's something that's important, and we have a strong base of where we are now, and we'll continue to be progressive in that space. And so today it's penalty kicks from the mark, tomorrow will be something different. But that's been exciting. It's been a real lightning rod of just joy in terms of what's happened over the last four and a half weeks.
Someone asked me a question maybe about a month ago, "How's it going?" And I'm like, "Man, it feels like pre-season." I love soccer, but in pre-season you do a lot of running, and that's what it was like because you're just really trying to staff up, build up all these things. We'll make some mistakes, but we'll learn from those mistakes and we'll course-correct and go from there. But it's been exciting, it's been nothing but good work, I think. And we're building something special, and it will have impact in a really profound way. I truly believe that.
I was talking to my son the other day because he was practicing in the backyard, soccer, and I guess he didn't get as many juggles as he thought he should get, and he's like, "I'm not any good today." And I said, "Listen, man, you have to believe in yourself." I said, I tore my Achilles tendon six weeks go, I had surgery. I'm on the road of recovery. I know I will be the person and the player that I was before my surgery. I'll recover. I know it takes time, but I know I'll be pre-injury, I know I'll get it back to that form, but you just have to have that belief, and it's a process. And so every single day you get better to where you're supposed to be, where you know you will be, and I think that's the case with MLS Next Pro. We've got a great confident group.
We believe in each other, we believe in ourselves and we're onto something special here. We will, I don't want to say change the game or transform the game, but we will evolve it and we will have impact in all ways. There are tremendous leaders here. There's leaders of tomorrow when you look at our coaches that coach in this league, you look at this league office staff, it's amazing. And that work's been great. And then there's been some things that we just need to change or we need to improve upon.
We've made some mistakes here and there along the margins, and we'll get better, whether that's how we're operating a game or this, that, and the other, but those things are correctable and fixable and those types of things. But it's been a lot of fun in that respect. You never know what it's going to be like until they roll the ball out on March 25 and St. Louis is going up against Rochester, but it was a good match and it was competitive and things worked out well and they'll continue. And we'll continue working, but I've been excited about the penalty kicks. I don't know if Charles...
Yeah. Look, beyond the innovations on the field, just getting to see the fans out there engaging with their teams, it really matters. These games matter. And we were in St. Louis for the home opener, we've been to other games—more than their home opener, it was their first ever game for St. Louis City SC II. We're going to be in Rochester this weekend for their first ever regular season home game in MLS Next Pro, and there's going to be a lot of energy around that, and it's just the beginning, you know? And so to get to see the fans excited, energized, interacting with their players, the stadiums are smaller so the fans are closer and when the goals are scored, the players can run, putting COVID aside, can run into the arms of their adoring fans, and it's great to see. And I think we're going to see a lot more of that this year and in the years to come.
I know the first game had some media might behind it, like some good people involved in the broadcast. Are we going to see any nationally televised games later this year or in the playoffs, or how are people able to watch all this?
Every game this year will be streamed on mlsnextpro.com. And we've got a game of the week that's an enhanced broadcast, so once a weekend we'll have that game of the week, which will be closer to what you saw in St. Louis on opening weekend. And, Grant, from a strategic perspective, what's happened for us from a broadcast media perspective is we didn't want to get ahead of the MLS enterprise-wide media deal, because MLS Next Pro could end up being part of that package. And so what we did this year is gave ourselves maximum flexibility to be part of any relationship that is going to launch in 2023, but at the same time try some things. So we're centrally producing every game, we have a technology partner in Spiideo that is using artificial intelligence cameras to broadcast most of our games.
And there have been some kinks that we have had to work out. Certainly it's not been perfect, but it's been a really good process, and we've learned a lot from it, it's really interesting technology. And we're using this opportunity to try some new broadcasters, and we have some former players that are training up or current players who are training up who want to be part of what we're doing so that they can try to get into the broadcast game. So we're doing a lot with this year, call it this interim year, before we roll into whatever the plan is for 2023. And for anybody who wants to watch, mlsnextpro.com is your go-to.
And I feel I should ask this, are MLS teams required to have a member in this league? Are there any that are not going to be involved when it increases next year?
It's not required that you have a second team, and the only team at this point that doesn't have a plan for that yet is Montreal. But we've been talking to them and they're thinking through their plans. They went through a leadership transition end of last year, early this year, so they're just working through that and how that's going to look for them. But every other team at this point will have a second team and starting in 2023, they will be playing in MLS Next Pro.
And it's funny, because I was imagining one of you watching a World Cup game in ‘26 that the US is in and it goes to penalties and some guy from MLS Next Pro who's been through this a fair amount more than other players have, might have an opportunity, which would be an interesting one. Did you think about the 35-yard thing as a possibility, because every time video comes out on Twitter, there was one last week with Jesse Marsch from the ‘90s in a Chicago Fire shootout from 35 yards, and people are like, "I can't believe MLS used to do that. That's kind of awesome." Johan Cruyff actually used to like that and the old NASL. Is there any chance you might go to that later?
We try to think of everything. We had a little bit of conversation in the meeting room about it. I think that it's interesting because we want to be innovative, and like a lot of sports it's finding that balance between authenticity and then trying new ideas. But we talked about it for a hot second, and when you read about everything, some people love it and then some people... We have Jeff Agoos, he used to flip the ball up and then it was kind of bouncing, and then the keeper comes out and does he chip him? Does he hit it around him?
So we had those conversations, but ultimately we're trying to focus on ourselves and doing the right thing and making good decisions, and we were really excited about having this being a feature of the league. And you do understand what's happening in the World Cup and what's happening in Champions League, and penalty shots, they're tough to really train for. It's one of those unique areas of the game where you really get good at it just through reps in the game, and that's not easy unless you get those opportunities. And so everyone takes PKs on the training ground, but you never know what it's like when, whether you have 30,000 people looking at you, whether you have five, when you're at the spot and it's you and the lights are on, then that's where you actually are able to manage the sweat that's coming off your head and how to focus in and execute and score.
And you don't know what it's like until you actually get into that situation, and it's easier to watch and critique and all those other things, but it was a part of it. Hopefully this will be a real help or a contributor to some of our players that are competing with the Canadian men's national team and also the U.S. team. So like we said, there's elements of innovation, but then also elements of player development that contributed to our wanting to implement this within the league. And hopefully as we look at more rules and new rules, there'll be more stuff which we're excited about, we created an innovative committee last week and hopefully we'll be meeting later on this month and so on and so forth so that we can help to bring new ideas and new concepts to the game.
And it's interesting. I read something the other day, in my lifetime the main rule change was the back-pass which I think came up about around in ‘92 and off the heels of the 1990 World Cup where people thought, "Hey, it's boring." But I remember when I was a kid, the coach would tell us, anytime you get in trouble, just pass it back to the goalkeeper, he'll pick it up. And then I remember vividly that changing where they said, "Hey, you can't do that anymore." And that was transformative, it was amazing and good for the game. And at the time, I think that you have so many purists or naysayers that say anytime there's change … but this was a good change.
And sometimes there'll be changes that maybe we've got to modify a little bit. The other change I think I read about was going from, if you win a game going from two points to three points, massive change, massive. And so when I think about those types of tweaks or changes or however you want to coin them, that makes sense for the modern game or how the game is evolving, we need to not only be part of that conversation, but we can drive it. We can drive it from this office, we can drive it at our clubs, we can really be part of the conversation and driving it domestically and abroad, and that's really exciting.
How much leeway do you have though? Because is IFAB and the Laws of the Game, does that apply to your league, or do you have more freedom to introduce new things? Because it could be any number of things, right? There's a movement out there right now to actually go back to another MLS original, the countdown clock. Even I've seen this around Europe, it was really interesting. There was a graphic on ESPN FC last week about actual ball-in-play time of different Champions League games. And I was surprised to see as little as 48 minutes and as high as 68 of actual ball-in-play time but would you have theoretically the leeway for that?
I think that if there's anything that the last three years have taught us through this pandemic is that we are all connected, and that every movement, every idea, every experience is connected to the next and so on and so forth. And so we have peers and amongst us an entire ecosystem of governing bodies, sporting bodies, and we're all connected. And I think that's a strength and not a weakness. Anytime you make a decision, you try to do that in all different areas of life. You try to do that with input and with communication and conversation about what works well, what doesn't, experience, and we'll do that. And that's our process, that's how we work, that's how we operate.
We look at not just what's working well within the sport of soccer, but what works well in other sports. You think about whether that's different rule changes in baseball. I read an article on the train this morning about what the USFL is doing in some of the different technology changes that they're trying to implement within their league. All those things are really great learnings, but we're a partner and we're part of this fabric of the game, whether that's football or whether that's soccer, we're all kicking the same ball.
In terms of a particular player, I find it interesting that the name that has emerged, or one of the names in the first few weeks here, is Romeo Beckham, assist leader currently in the league with Inter Miami's second team, also got a red card, so he's been active. Have you talked to David Beckham at all about his son, or what do you know about the kid?
We've not spoken to David about him, but we've spent a lot of time with Inter Miami, with Chris Henderson, who's doing a great job there, and they're putting a lot of energy and resources into their MLS Next Pro team. And to watch Romeo get some recognition for what he's doing on the field is great. And this is what this is all about, is to give players like him an opportunity to prove their worth, and if his coaching staff, my assumption is if he keeps doing what he's doing, he's going to get some chances on the first team, but it's been fun to watch him and fun to watch a bunch of the other young players who are scoring goals and doing exciting things on the field.
I mean, what's happened over the last four weeks, just the energy and the intensity of the games and some of the goals that are being scored, is inspiring. Because there are a lot of exciting young players out there who are starting to make their mark, and these are going to become household names over the next couple of weeks, months and years. And providing that platform for them is really special. So Romeo is just one part of this puzzle that we're putting together, but hopefully he works through his red card issue and then gets back on the field and gets going with his assists quickly here.
And you mentioned earlier, Ali, DEI initiatives, wanting this to be a pillar of the league and not just something off to the side. And what are you looking for in the next couple of years in terms of coaches, executives, not just players, but like people from those positions to get opportunities with MLS first teams if they’re coaches or higher executive positions at clubs?
I became the chief soccer officer for the Red Bulls in late 2014. It was in December. And I was the first African American in Major League Soccer in that role. And when I think about that, I mean, it blows my mind. I just had a birthday a couple months ago, and I'm 43 years old, and that to me is just, it's amazing. And it's personal. It's difficult to talk about as well publicly. I remember when the pandemic first hit and we were on Zooms, and a lot of times you're just reminded, it's something you've kind of grown up being comfortable walking into a room where you look different than most of the other folks that are in the room.
And then for me, when the pandemic hit, I was on all these different Zooms and I was literally confronted with this reality that I was the only Black guy in the little square. And it was just a really difficult reality check again for me during that period of time. And it's something that I don't want to ever see again. I've been on different committees and sub-committees, and sometimes there's never been a woman at the table with a voice as well. How does that happen? And we owe it to those folks, we owe it to ourselves to be better in all ways. And we have a good staff here that is committed to that. And like I said before, in terms of being part of something such that 15, 20, 25 years, whatever it is, when you look back, you are proud of what's been built or what you've been part of, that's a massive part of it.
And we have an opportunity that we will seize in a lot of different ways. I'm proud of the initial steps that have been taken. A lot of it has been just conversations and ideas and thoughts, at least from an MLS Next Pro perspective. Sola Winley, who's the head of DE&I at MLS, has been nothing but great as a resource and a sounding board and everything else for us. But we've been really busy just trying to get this league off the ground, and now it's really exciting because I think as there's daylight, where we will be able to create programs and do different things where we're going to help drive this, and even when you look at the number of coaches and things like that, where there's diversity, where we don't have a policy in place, the teams have responded in a really profound way.
I'm really proud of our teams in MLS Next Pro and the ones that will come next year and so on and so forth. Already, some of them are asking about, "Hey, how can we be more inclusive? And how can we think about things in a different way?" So it’s going to be great. I wanted to mention this before, one of the highlights for me of the game that we had against Rochester in St. Louis on March 25, when we launched the league, there were two young men on St. Louis, and their last name was Armstrong. And Desmond Armstrong happened to be at the game, because those were his two sons. And for me as a Black guy that grew up playing soccer, that guy played at the national team.
It was incredible, and it was an honor and a very memorable moment that I will cherish in my life to be able to shake his hand, and I had a five to 10 minute conversation with him and that was incredible. So how can we be more present and active so that we can have role models and have people achieve certain things in their life and get to certain levels and have levels of influence. And when people, young men and women, are looking in the mirror, they see someone that is reflective of the role that they would love to have or what they're doing. And so I'm excited and encouraged, and we're just getting started, but really it's good stuff.
Charles, I want to ask you about this too and I'm thinking a little bit of my history. I remember talking to Thierry Henry about this. Lilian Thuram and I did an event at New York University a few years ago, and even then Thuram, obviously like Henry a World Cup winner with France, has devoted his post-playing career to racism and soccer globally and is really profound in what he says. But one of the things he's always said to me in these events is, you media guys need to ask white folks, players, owners, etc about this and not just Black players. And so I would ask you, where do you think MLS owners are right now on a commitment to real change happening? Whether it's coaches, executives, real opportunities, and well, I'll just leave it at that.
Yeah. So I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to give you my perspective.
You're white, by the way, and I’m white [just to make it clear for audio listeners on the podcast].
Yeah. And the work, Ali mentioned Sola Winley, the work that's being done at the MLS level, but it's not just MLS, it's MLS, it's MLS Next, and it will be MLS Next Pro as well, on the diversity policy that's been implemented for MLS and MLS Next starting for the 2022 season, is all around creating those opportunities in a codified way about who gets interviewed, who is part of the process for these jobs. And for now it's about the jobs on the sporting side, but over time it will evolve to all opportunities, whether it's sporting or business. And so to answer your question directly around what is my perception of where MLS owners are, where MLS executives are? I think they're all in. From everything I've seen, from all of the work that I've seen, I haven't been part of the committee work that's being done, that's being led by Sola and Arthur Blank and Dee Haslam and Marty Edelman and others, but I've seen what's come out of it, and it's tangible and it's real, and it's going to make a difference.
And in MLS Next Pro, one of our pillars is diversity, equity and inclusion. And so far it's around 40% of the head coaches in our league are Black. And that's just a start, but when you get to the next level of assistant coaches and other folks on the technical staff, it's a very diverse group of sporting people, and that's good.
That's what we want. And that's part of what this league is about, is providing those opportunities and creating those openings for those who want to break into the game who are from underrepresented groups. For me personally, I grew up in a white suburban neighborhood, and soccer was a way for me as a young person to meet people that were not from the same background as me, play with them, compete with them, be teammates with them, travel the world with them, travel abroad.
And if it weren't for soccer, I don't think I'd have the perspective that I have today. And I don't think I'd have the friends that I have today, whether it's guys that I grew up with in high school or guys that I played soccer with in college. And so I'm very grateful for the fact that soccer is the global game, and it brings together people from all walks of life, from all different backgrounds, from all different countries. And I think we have a tremendous opportunity, a tremendous platform to effect change and to create positive momentum. And I want to be a part of it, and I want to be a champion of the initiatives, and it's very important to me. So it’s going to be something that we focus on every day, and with every hire that we make it's something that we think about. Because we have had the opportunity to build a small number of people here in our MLS Next Pro league office.
And we have focused on being sure that group is diverse. And we're proud of the fact that it is so far, but it's just the start. And that mindset needs to permeate down or across to everything we're doing with our teams. And it's not just staff, it's also at the ownership level. And we have groups that we're talking to that are focused on that as well, about being inclusive and including folks from different backgrounds in the ownership group. And we're excited about that possibility. And we're excited about some of the discussions that we're having from that perspective. So it's all encompassing, but I appreciate you giving me the chance to talk about it.
I just want to add one more thing that It slipped my mind... I think that also when we think we have these conversations about the World Cup and our national teams, mainly we're talking about Canada and the U.S. I think our opportunity here in North America is incredible and different than really any country. And the size of our country, the number of people that play the game and the diversity, and I think if we do this right it can be incredible.
It will be incredible if we really incorporate our DE&I in everything that we do, on the field and off the field, we're going to have the best league. We're going to have the best national teams. It's already happening, and like I said it's amazing to me that I was the first African American GM in 2014, and then I was also listening to the news the other day, and they were talking about something completely different, but one of the comments that the person made was that through all of the shortcomings and deficits, we are still in a much more advanced position now than where we were 25, 30 years ago.
And I believe that, and also when I think about the Desmond Armstrongs of the world, he was on the national team. There was only him and maybe one or two other guys, maybe Cobi [Jones] and maybe someone else back in 1990, and then now when you look at the national team, that Zoom picture is much more diverse, it's much different. And I think that there's an opportunity to be even more diverse, not just in your skin color, but your socioeconomic background in terms of what that looks like and where you're from and those types of things. There's still a lot of runway. And a lot of opportunities, so it's exciting for what soccer will be and what it can be, and I'm long on it in terms of soccer in the U.S. and Canada, we really have an opportunity, and that's exciting.
One thing I want to ask you, Charles, real quick is, we have seen women in other professional sports in the United States be part of coaching staffs, be candidates for head jobs. So I'm talking more about on the field itself. Obviously, there's more and more women now who are executives with MLS teams, but how's that going from your perspective and your league, which to me seems like would be a great place for more women to be entering the coaching, assistant coaching, potentially head coaching positions.
Yeah, look, that's the next phase for us. Nothing would be better to have a woman as the head coach of MLS Next Pro team, or as the GM of an MLS Next Pro team. We don't have it yet, but it's something that we're going to be focusing on going forward as it relates to creating opportunities for whether it's folks from underrepresented groups or women or whoever else to be part of our project. And as Ali had mentioned earlier, it was a sprint for us just to get this thing launched, and now we're going to have the opportunity to not only work out the kinks and think about the future and whatever else, but start to focus on these important aspects of what we're doing in a real tangible way. And being sure that we're creating those opportunities and setting up the right structure and the right constructs for that to be possible is going to be a part of our work going forward.
Charles Altchek and Ali Curtis of MLS Next Pro, thanks so much for coming on the show.
Really disappointed there was no context in the discussion about how this new second-level league would be impacted by the existence of the USL, and why another second-level league was even a good thing for soccer in the US. It was a highly relevant topic begging to be brought up by the moderator (Grant), but it wasn’t, a fact that I then wondered why it wasn’t. Too controversial of a topic for the guests so he was protecting them?
I have listened to and liked all of Futbol with Grant Wahl audio podcasts, until this one. The two participants, especially the blowhard from Harvard, were extremely hard to listen to, full of self-import and lacking charisma, unlike most previous podcast guests. They seemed most proud of the clever name of the league, MLS Next Pro, and never made any logical case as to why this new league had any connection to the 2026 WC. They seemed to just to say there was some connection, without saying what it was. And they were so proud of the PK shootout idea as if they were incredible innovators. Ever watch the NHL with its shootouts?
I struggled to listen to the audio podcast, and was close to leaving every five minutes. But I soldiered on, not happily, maybe because I felt loyalty to the Futbol podcasts, and was waiting for the discussion to improve at some point, and to become more interesting. The podcast was such a train wreck that I was curious how and when it would get better. The two guests were really boring, in their comments and droning way of speaking. The podcast eventually did improve in the last 10-15 minutes about the diversity topic, especially the comments by Ali. So I felt rewarded for hanging in and fighting through the useless first 35 minutes. But the Harvard guy made all the safe, PC comments about Diversity that every White executive makes these days, and not very believable.
Overall, this was the worst Futbol podcast I have experienced.
I was very curious about NextPro. But after hearing this I have more questions than answers. Why is this league necessary? What is the business plan for teams? Why would a city want a team instead of USL?