West Ham and Minnesota... United: NASL and PL club meet up at SGP.

Why NASL’s Minnesota United flew 4,000 miles for 10 days of practice

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Last week Minnesota United became the first-ever professional American soccer team to practice at the HQ of the English national team, St. George’s Park.

After speaking with their players, coaching staff and members of the front office on their return to the U.S., it’s clear the facilities on offer at SGP are some of the best on the planet.

Traveling halfway around the world to prepare for the upcoming 2014 North American Soccer League (NASL) season was a no brainer, according to club president Nick Rogers, as Minnesota prepared in style for the new campaign.

“If you hang out at St. George’s Park long enough, you’ll run into somebody you recognize from television,” Rogers explained. “There was a manager’s meeting while we there, we met David Moyes was very nice posing for pictures with us and I was having a coffee next to Roberto Di Matteo. I was lucky enough to go to Manchester United vs. Liverpool while we were there… that night after the match, Ryan Giggs was at our hotel bar. Those kinds of experiences, for our players and our staff really, made an impact and made us realize it was a special opportunity.”

English teams usually travel to the U.S. for their preseason schedule in July-August, while most American and Canadian sides head to Florida or South Carolina. But Minnesota United, they like to think outside the box. Regardless of the grey clouds, blustery conditions and rain-drenched vistas present in England during most of the year — though curiously there wasn’t one drop of rain during their 10-day visit — they flew 4,000 miles across the pond to prepare at great expense. The ambitious club, who were re-branded as Minnesota United in 2012 and were just named as the Twin Cities best emerging business, are doing all they can to grow their outreach on both sides of the Atlantic.

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The entrance to the SGP complex, set in the idyllic English countryside.

How it all came about involved the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, Derby County and a bad experience during last preseason.

“Our principle owner Dr. Bill McGuire knows the President of the Timberwolves, Chris Wright, who is connected to the American/Canadian ownership group who own Derby County,” Rogers explained. “We spoke with him about our failed preseason last year (stuck in a snowstorm in Kansas City, unable to train outside) and it started with wanting to have a better preseason. I don’t know who suggested a preseason tour to England… but when we learned about the facility at St. George’s Park, it seemed to make a lot of sense.”

More than just sense, it gave United’s players a chance to bond on and off the pitch too, something which could be invaluable throughout the tough season ahead in an expanded NASL.

Getting the chance to spend so much time together, on and off the field, was a wonderful factor of their trip to Staffordshire according to Minnesota’s midfielder Jamie Watson.

“This is my 10th year as a pro, and I can say that was the best preseason trip I’ve ever been on or known anyone to go on,” Watson laughed. “We were able to just concentrate on the team and focus on training. It make a difference when you have to put the work in to support the guy next to you. Having the team as close as they are now, after our trip, the level of camaraderie is one you wouldn’t be able to manufacture.”

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West Ham and Minnesota… United: NASL and PL club meet up at SGP.

The lowdown on St. George’s Park

You’ve heard  little bit about Minnesota’s experience at SGP, but what about the place itself? This project, a central hub for soccer training, coaching and education for the English national teams, was first broached in 1975. Financial restrictions from delays and spiraling costs of rebuilding the national team’s Wembley Stadium, located 132 miles South in London, placed St. George’s on hold for a little while as the English FA figured out how they could centralize the national setup in Burton-upon-Trent.

However on Oct. 9, 2012 the 330-acre site, set in the picturesque Staffordshire countryside, was opened by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (William and Kate to most of the world) as a crucial step to help England return to being a global power on the international stage was in place. It was worth the wait.

SGP is home to 24 England teams, from the full men’s and women’s national teams through to the youth setup, plus the Futsal and disability squads and many more. It has everything you could possibly imagine, with two stunning hotels on site, a full replica of Wembley’s pitch and a full-size indoor pitch.

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Meeting of United’s: Manny Lagos and David Moyes hang out at SGP.

There are 12 full-size soccer pitches; five have under-soil heating and floodlights. An altitude chamber, 2 Futsal pitches, indoor running tracks, four gymnasiums, 500 seat conference center and a purpose built sports hall are just some of the highlights of the Football Association’s stunning epicenter.

During their 10-day trip to SGP, Minnesota’s United’s players got to experience all of that and more, as they made the most of the facilities on offer. With the English FA keen to give the players the true experience, they set up a number of challenges between United’s player in the vast array of sports science labs, which you can watch right here.

Minnesota coach Manny Lagos spoke fondly of the history and tradition his players witnessed whilst overseas, and believes the club would return for preseason in the future.

“There are a lot of good facilities in the U.S. but one of the things I loved about SGP is the nostalgia of it being the home to the English national team,” Lagos said. “Combined with the technology they’re using with the fields, the physio and regeneration areas and then you have a hotel that is soccer-centric right there. That was a very unique experience for a lot of the guys on our team, especially the Americans, who aren’t used to so much focus on just soccer for a facility. It worked out really well and put us in the right mindset for our season.”

Minnesota’s ‘perfect’ preparations

Of course Minnesota had to pry themselves away from the luxurious surroundings of SGP a few times on their trip overseas, as Lagos’ men were busy preparing for a successful season ahead, after all.

With scrimmages against local teams, finishing up with a friendly against English Championship side Derby County, Minnesota feel they had the perfect mix of match-action and practice on their trip to soccer’s homeland. As for the overall experience? Every player felt the same.

“It was an unbelievable experience, one I will take with me long after my playing days are over,” Watson said. “I am very appreciative that the club allowed us to experience this.”

With a 3-0 win against Matlock Town (watch above), a training scrimmage against Pro Player Academy and then a 2-0 defeat to Derby, Minnesota mixed with players from all walks of life in English soccer.

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After making friends from Premier League to non-league, Minnesota could well return to England for another preseason.

United also got the chance to meet up with Premier League side West Ham as the Hammers’ star players and manager Sam Allardyce, who were training at SGP after a weekend off, welcomed the NASL club to England with open arms.

“What is really cool is that when you’re at St. George’s Park, there is a level of respect from everyone there,” Watson explained. “The big timers like West Ham, David Moyes, Howard Webb, everyone has a mutual respect for each other because people think ‘if they are here, they deserve to be here.’ Everyone respects SGP so much, that if you are in their using the facilities then you’re on an equal level.”

The second-tier club also spoke about the ‘aura’ surrounding SGP, as even though the building is just a few years old, that sense of history still oozes from their pores of the foundations, with memorabilia and artifacts on show to depict the rich history of the game in England.

“You walk down the hallways and their are black and white pictures from way back of ex-England internationals, to a 30-foot mural of Joe Hart,” Watson said. “It is really cool to see, it has an aura and mystique about it because you walk up to the venue and its so beautiful. It has a presence to it.”

With U.S. Soccer having their own similar facility in Bradenton, Fla. to nurture young talent, the full national team doesn’t have anything like SGP. But it’s much more difficult to do that with the USMNT. Number one, the distance players have to travel all over the world to get to a training center for a week would be tough. Number two, the U.S. has no defined national stadium like England does. If the U.S. were ever to build a national stadium in say, D.C., then a facility like SGP would be a great idea.

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United’s players settle in at the technological masterpiece that is SGP.

Former Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas midfielder Watson knows that only too well. A graduate of the U.S. youth setup up Bradenton, Minnesota’s star summer-signing from Orlando City has seen the benefits of training in a top class facility day in, day out. He points to a current USMNT star as the prime example of how a centralized approach will help the USA in the future.

“When Michael Bradley came in there were 30 of us, if you would’ve asked the 29 other guys we would all agree that he was the 30th best player there,” Watson said. “When your in a setting where everything is setup so you can only succeed, it only makes you better. Literally every day you get better, and Bradley was a prime example of that. He spent two years there, when he left he was starting for the New York MetroStars at 17 and you’ve seen where his career has taken him.”

The future for United, NASL or MLS?

Speaking of the future, any soccer fan in North America knows rumors of Major League Soccer and new expansion franchises are always rife, especially in the league’s current climate of rapid growth.

Minneapolis-Saint Paul is always one of the places earmarked to have an MLS side arrive in the next few years. With Atlanta looking increasingly likely to get MLS’ 23rd franchise with a new stadium deal in place to share the Atlanta Falcons new home, could something similar happen in Minneapolis between the NFL’s Vikings and Minnesota United?

Club president Rogers was coy when asked about United becoming an MLS franchise, but didn’t rule anything out.

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Ahead of the 2014 NASL season, United’s players put in hard work on the training ground on their trip.

“My focus is on building a great club, right now we are competing in the NASL,” Rogers said. “We want to win an NASL title and make noise in the U.S. Open Cup. Because we don’t have promotion and relegation in this country you can’t work your way to the top. It is a business transaction. We are aware of MLS and what they are doing and the talks about expansion, our focus is on building a great club and that will guide our decision making. I’m not going to say it’s something we would never pursue, but it’s not something I think about right now.”

Speaking with Watson and Lagos, they both agree that Minneapolis could support an MLS franchise, but for now they’re just focusing on winning an NASL Championship. A historic trip as the first-ever American club to train at England’s stunning HQ will set them up for that assault on the title.

In the future, we will see other clubs follow Minnesota’s lead and head to England for preseason? If this trip is anything to go by, clubs across the U.S. should already be making plans to pencil in a trip to St. George’s Park for their 2015 offseason plans.

Look for my behind-the-scenes look at SGP next week on ProSoccerTalk.

MLS Snapshot: New York Red Bulls 4-0 FC Dallas (video)

HARRISON, NJ - NOVEMBER 29:  Felipe Martins #8 of New York Red Bulls drives around Federico Higuain #10 of Columbus Crew during their match at Red Bull Arena on November 29, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words (or less): Is it too early to say the Red Bulls have their mojo back? While FC Dallas will be leaving Harrison dazed and confused, the Red Bulls found success offensively for the second consecutive match, while also shutting out a potent attack. Head coach Jesse Marsch recently said that the Red Bulls’ win over Orlando City could spark a positive chain reaction moving forward, and it appears he was right. The Red Bulls looked dangerous every time they came down the Dallas end, finding the back of the net four times. Dallas still holds the top spot in the Western Conference, while New York makes a jump in the East, now sitting on nine points this season.

[ MORE: Previewing Week 9 around MLS ]

Three moments that mattered

37′ — Clever Red Bulls free kick finished by Sam — After two players ran over the ball, Sacha Kljestan’s chip to the far post was perfectly placed toward the run of Sal Zizzo. The right back nodded it into the center, where Lloyd Sam smashed the close-range chance home for the Red Bulls opener.

52′ — Kljestan doubles lead in style — Sam continued his impressive night for the Red Bulls after a long-range effort struck the bar from 40 yards out. Sacha Kljestan’s hustle put him in the right place at the right time and slid in to head the ball into the open net. FC Dallas keeper Jesse Gonzalez made his best effort but the initial shot’s bounce threw him off.

71′ — Grella heads home third — Sam was arguably the most dangerous man on the pitch Friday night, and he was directly involved in New York’s third goal. The 31-year-old found himself down the right wing, before laying the ball off to Felipe. The Brazilian crossed the ball into a striding Grella, who headed the ball home, giving Gonzalez no chance.

82′ — Felipe concludes the rout  — The Brazilian got in on the action for the fourth time on the night. The central midfielder received the ball at the top of the box from rookie Alex Muyl, before ripping a effort to the top corner. Gonzalez managed to get a hand to it, but Felipe’s shot was too strong to keep out.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Lloyd Sam

Goalscorers: Lloyd Sam (37′), Sacha Kljestan (52′), Mike Grella (71′), Felipe (82′)

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Crotone promoted to Serie A for 1st time in its history

CROTONE, ITALY - APRIL 23: Team of Crotone celebrate after the Serie B match between FC Crotone and Como Calcio  at Stadio Comunale Ezio Scida on April 23, 2016 in Crotone, Italy.  (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
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MODENA, Italy (AP) Crotone secured promotion to Italy’s top flight for the first time in its history Friday, drawing 1-1 at Modena in Serie B to spark scenes of celebration in the Calabrian city.

[ MORE: Preliminary Brazilian Copa America roster features Kaka, Coutinho ]

There are three rounds remaining but a point was enough to guarantee Ivan Juric’s team will finish in the top two in the second division and earn automatic promotion to Serie A.

Cagliari is second, seven points behind Crotone, with Trapani eight points further back.

Davide Luppi gave Modena the lead in the 17th minute but former Juventus and Italy forward Raffaele Palladino leveled with a penalty on the stroke of halftime.

Around 1,200 fans had travelled to Modena, while thousands of people are celebrating in the streets of Crotone, where there were two giant screens set up for fans to watch the match.

It is Juric’s first season in charge of Crotone. The former Croatia midfielder also spent five years as a player for Crotone, before moving to Genoa in 2006.

The Stadio Ezio Scida, where Crotone plays its home matches, holds less than 10,000 people.

Fellow minnows Carpi and Frosinone were promoted to Serie A for the first time in their history last season.

Carpi is currently three points above the drop zone, while Frosinone is five points from safety.

Arsene Wenger deserves criticism amid Arsenal fan protests

HULL, ENGLAND - MARCH 08:  Arsene Wenger, Manager of Arsenal reacts during the Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round Replay match between Hull City and Arsenal at KC Stadium on March 8, 2016 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Now in his 20th season with the club, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has taken heat for failing to guide the team to success, or at least not in the form of trophies.

[ MORE: Van Gaal says Leicester will have to earn title against Man United ]

Arsenal supporters have arranged a protest for Saturday’s match against Norwich City, and that hasn’t been too pleasing for the team’s coach.

[ VIDEO: Previewing every Premier League match for Week 36 ]

Are the fans right though? Should they be protesting the club’s lack of success?

The Gunners, who currently sit third in the Barclays Premier League as the season winds down, have been eliminated from the title race, something that has eluded the club since the 2003-04 campaign.

The only title that Arsenal has won since that season is the FA Cup, which they captured in back-to-back seasons (2013-14 and 2014-15).

In all, Wenger has captured nine trophies while with Arsenal, but only the FA Cup crowns have come in the past decade. Consistent top four finishes have aided the Frenchman’s chances of staying with the team, but now scrutiny is really taking shape amongst the Gunners supporters.

Wenger recently tried defending his lack of titles by citing the club’s financial struggles that resulted from Arsenal’s move to the Emirates Stadium in 2006.

“You have to remember that when we built the stadium we had 5-7 difficult financial years when we had to pay back,” Wenger said earlier at a news conference. “And I think the club is now out of that period and is in a much stronger position. It is today in a position where we can compete again financially with our main opponents. But during that time it was very difficult.”

While his position in regards to the club’s finances may have played a bit of a factor, Arsenal still spends money like the rest of England’s top clubs.

Current players in the squad such as Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil didn’t come cheap, and while injuries have hampered the team’s success, Wenger is truly running out of excuses with the squad that lies in front of him.

Additionally, the team’s failure to find success in the most important competition of them all, the UEFA Champions League, has fans extremely antsy, and rightfully so.

Under Wenger, the Gunners have made it to the Champions League just twice and in neither case was Arsenal able to hoist the trophy. The Champions League is undoubtedly one of the most difficult competitions to find success in, but the club has exited the tournament in the Round of 16 during five straight seasons.

[ MORE: Preliminary Brazil roster features Kaka, Coutinho ]

Wenger will likely be retained next season, but the leash for the 66-year old is wearing thin. With Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola entering new positions at Chelsea and Manchester City, respectively, it’s fair to say that Wenger’s days could be numbered if he doesn’t secure any title in 2016-17.

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Coutinho, Kaka headline preliminary Brazil roster for Copa America

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It appears that Neymar won’t be the only big name missing from Brazil’s star-studded squad this summer at the Copa America Centenario.

[ VIDEO: Previewing every Week 36 match around the Premier League ]

The Selecao revealed their preliminary 40-man roster for this summer’s competition, and it includes Orlando City midfielder Kaka, Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Douglas Costa of Bayern Munich.

[ MORE: PST discusses how Leicester has gotten to the verge of an epic title ]

Chelsea pair Willian and Oscar also made the initial cut, in addition to Liverpool midfielder Roberto Firminho, who is coming off of a stellar season for Liverpool.

Among the biggest snubs for Brazil are a trio of defenders. Paris Saint-Germain duo Thiago Silva and David Luiz were each left off, while Real Madrid wing back Marcelo was also left out of the side.

Head coach Dunga will be forced to cut his roster down to 23 before the tournament starts for the Brazilians on June 4. The Selecao will take on Ecuador, Haiti and Peru in Group B play.

You can view the entire roster below:

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