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


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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

EFL Cup: Mourinho beats Guardiola; Chelsea fall to West Ham

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 26: Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United (L) and Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City (R) embrace prior to kick off during the EFL Cup fourth round match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford on October 26, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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The EFL Cup quarterfinal field is set following the completion of three more fourth-round clashes on Wednesday. Manchester United, West Ham United and Southampton join the likes of Arsenal and Liveprool in the final eight.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Manchester United 1-0 Manchester City

Not all Manchester derbies are created equally. If you watched all 90 minutes of Wednesday’s clash at Old Trafford, that’s undoubtedly your first takeaway.

Clear-cut scoring chances were very few and very far between, particularly in the first half. United had the better of the opening 45 minutes — by the narrowest of margins — but failed to hit paydirt. Attrition Persistence paid off not long into the second half, though, as Juan Mata finished a scrappy bit of build-up from 12 yards out. Zlatan Ibrahimovic tallied the assist on the goal, as Ander Herrera should also so for clearing out the penalty area with a strong shoulder into the back of Fernando.

City failed to register a single shot on target over the course of 90 minutes, as Pep Guardiola‘s side slumps to six games without a victory (all competitions), alternating draws and losses through. As for Guadriola’s personal duel with Jose Mourinho, the rivals each have one victory against the other since arriving in Manchester, with Guardiola taking the first in Premier League play.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s EFL Cup roundup — Liverpool, Arsenal move on ]

West Ham United 2-1 Chelsea

Cheikhou Kouyate and Edimilson Fernandes fired Slaven Bilic‘s West Ham past Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea at the London Stadium, as both managers opted for a mix between first-team and reserve players. It was 2-0 until the final minute of regular time, when Gary Cahill pulled one back for Chelsea, but that’s as close as they would get.

The game was, once again, marred by unsavory scenes in the stands inside West Ham’s new ground, as Blues fans in the away end clashed with Hammers supproters seated closest to them.

Southampton 1-0 Sunderland

Sofiane Boufal made his first start for Southampton since becoming the club’s new record signing this summer, and marked his full debut with a stunning goal, the only one of the game, as Saints topped Sunderland at the St. Mary’s Stadium.

Drogba likely out for Impact playoff clash with D.C. United

Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba heads the ball in front of D.C. United midfielder Marcelo Sarvas during the second half of an MLS soccer match Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Superstar forward Didier Drogba‘s absence from the Montreal Impact roster is unlikely to end in Thursday’s Eastern Conference knockout-round playoff match against host D.C. United.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Despite scoring 10 goals in 22 appearances, Drogba hasn’t played since the end of September – partly due to a feud over playing time with manager Mauro Biello and more recently because of a back ailment.

The 38-year-old Ivory Coast international and former Chelsea striker sat out most of training again on Tuesday. Multiple media outlets on Wednesday reported that he did not make the trip to Washington.

[ MORE: Power rankings — Going to the playoffs edition ]

“I don’t think those chances will be good,” Biello said Tuesday, according to MLSSoccer.com. “He hasn’t trained, he still feels a discomfort, so the chances are very minimal.”

Drogba is out of contract at the end of the season, and fifth-seeded Montreal is actually 6-3-3 this season when he doesn’t play.

In the latter third of the campaign, Biello appeared to be more comfortable starting mid-season loan signing Matteo Mancosu at forward and bringing Drogba off the bench. The 31-year-old Italian has three goals and four assists in 15 appearances (seven starts).

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

“(Drogba’s) a different player than Mancosu, but I don’t think much is going to change if they swap one for the other,” D.C. United coach Ben Olsen said, according to MLSSoccer.com. “So the way we go about the game isn’t going to change.”

By contrast, fourth-seeded D.C. United have very few questions surrounding their personnel for a group that had won four straight before sitting most of its regulars in a 4-2 loss at Orlando City SC on Sunday.

[ MORE: The case for (and against) every team in the East | The West ]

Midfielder Marcelo Sarvas (knee) and outside back Sean Franklin (calf) made their first appearances since September on Sunday, but seem unlikely to supplant anyone in Olsen’s starting lineup.

“We like our group,” Olsen told reporters Tuesday. “But those two players are very influential to the team. These are good choices to have, and I’m certainly not going to tell you who I’m starting.”

LIVE – EFL Cup: Manchester Derby, West Ham-Chelsea, Saints-Sunderland

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 12:  Wayne Rooney of Manchester United evades Fernandinho of Manchester City during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford on April 12, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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There are still three more teams yet to join the quintet who clinched quarterfinal berths in the EFL Cup on Tuesday.

We’ve got three all-PL ties to decide their fates.

[ LIVE: Follow EFL Cup scores ]

Follow the action above, as we learn who takes the remaining spots alongside Newcastle United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Leeds United, and Hull City.

Holders Man City are off to Old Trafford for a derby match-up in the Round of 16, while it’s an all-London match at the Olympic Stadium between West Ham and Chelsea.

Finally, Sunderland hopes to break out of its season-long slump to join Northeast rivals Newcastle in the quarters. The Black Cats will need to win at Southampton to move on.

EFL Cup fourth round, Wednesday games

West Ham United vs. Chelsea — 2:45 p.m. ET
Southampton vs. Sunderland — 2:45 p.m. ET
Manchester United vs. Manchester City — 3 p.m. ET

MLS Cup Playoffs Thurs. preview: Seattle, DC riding hot streaks

SEATTLE, WA - MARCH 06:  Osvaldo Alonso #6 of the Seattle Sounders FC dribbles against Roger Espinoza #27 of Sporting Kansas City at CenturyLink Field on March 6, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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The 4-5 match-ups in each conference are set for Thursday’s MLS Cup Playoffs, with two of the league’s hottest teams set to hit the pitch.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Both Seattle and DC are at home for their “play-in” matches, and face road teams with plenty of veteran experience and firepower in what should be a pair of beauts on each side of our country.

DC United vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET

The Black-and-Red have hit their stride under coach Ben Olsen, and seem on board the plan.

Montreal, however, has not seen tranquility in Quebec. Ignacio Piatti has been fantastic, but the headlines have revolved around Didier Drogba‘s unhappiness at not starting under Mauro Biello.

Drogba is not expected to play, while DC was able to rest the majority of its starters on Decision Day. The combination of those two facts bodes well for the hosts.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting KC — 10:30 p.m. ET

Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris have helped Seattle make up for the absence of transferred Obafemi Martins and injured Clint Dempsey.

The duo has been simply fantastic in “rave green”, and Sporting KC is going to have a whale of a time slowing Seattle. Consider the ability and season of under-the-radar MVP candidate Osvaldo Alonso in the center of the park, and all bets are off.

Of course, the thing about KC is there’s little question it has the mettle to not just win on the road, but win a tournament. Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Dom Dwyer, Brad Davis, Benny Feilhaber… who in that locker room is going to shrink under the bright lights of the playoffs?