MLS looks to spread presence in lower divisions

Major League Soccer plans to expand its presence in the lower divisions of American soccer ahead of the 2026 World Cup, targeting cities and towns without professional clubs.

Currently MLS’s reserve teams play in MLS Next Pro, which began two years ago and operates at the third tier of the game in the United States.

But MLS plans to turn some of those second teams into new-look clubs based away from their parent club’s home.

Charles Altchek, president of MLS Next Pro, told AFP in an interview that MLS wants to be in a position to fully capitalize on the impact of the World Cup being hosted in the USA, Canada and Mexico.

“Looking ahead to the World Cup in 2026 we want to be in as many markets as we can be that want professional soccer,” he said.

MLS’s Nashville SC is the first club to have made the switch, taking their reserve side to Huntsville in Alabama where they played this past season as Huntsville City.

“It’s been incredibly successful,” said Altchek.

“We thought it would work, but it’s overachieved from every perspective. The team has developed a really important connection with the fans there.

“The local community has really come out to support the club, and it’s only going to get better and better as the years progress,” he added.

Altchek said that the switch has provided proof of concept to other clubs who could now follow suit.

“We now have our first working and real example of one of these relationships functioning in a way that’s sustainable and productive and helping us achieve our goals collectively and the city, they’ve got what they want, a really dynamic professional soccer team,” he added.

While clubs have the choice of continuing with standard reserve teams, they are being encouraged by the league to look into how they could transform.

“We think it’s really important to explore what opportunities there are to have the team playing in a different place and activate a new fan base, activate a new market, bring professional soccer to a new market. We think it’s a really tremendous opportunity to do that,” said Altchek.

While the first division MLS, which began play in 1996, has grown into a solid league with San Diego due to become the 30th club in 2025, the lower divisions of American soccer have continued to be plagued by instability.

On Monday, Rio Grande Valley FC in Texas, who played in the United Soccer Leagues, which operates the country’s second division and a third-tier league, announced they were folding.

As well as moving reserve teams, MLS Next Pro is also attracting interest from independent clubs with no prior connection to the league.

Next season Chattanooga FC, who previously played in another third division league NISA, will join MLS Next Pro along with a totally new club Carolina Core, based in High Point, North Carolina.

Jacksonville Armada, who have played in other lower leagues but have been inactive since 2018, are set to join the league in 2025 with another new team in Cleveland slated for the following year. – Open markets –

Altchek says the chance to enter the MLS ecosystem is an attractive one to prospective new clubs and the league sees many possible locations for teams.

“There’s a lot of opportunity, a lot of open markets, a lot of great cities that don’t have professional soccer in the US,” he said.

The league is also discussing internally whether it may, in the future, create a second division league with possible movement between the two divisions – a novelty in a country without promotion and relegation.

“We are a little ways from that but when you start to 40 teams playing, you’ve got some scale there. Would you consider adding a second division? If you get to that point, could we come up with some really creative, competitive formats between the divisions?” asked Altchek.

“Certainly between division two and three within Next Pro. And then the question is what could you come up with that’s really creative that could include division one?” he added.

MLS’s attempt to have MLS Next Pro teams included in the annual national cross-division knock-out competition The US Open Cup was foiled this week when the US Soccer Federation rejected a request to waive the rule which bars teams with owners from higher division clubs.

But Altchek says the league is looking at other forms of competition for the clubs, including international games.

The league has held discussions with Mexico’s Liga MX about a combined tournament similar to the top tier MLS’s Leagues Cup which was won by Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami in August. BSS

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