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 managers’ 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 makes 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 sout 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, a 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 there 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 you’re 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 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, will we 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.

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

MLS: NYCFC with 3 wins in 3; defending champs TFC point-less

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NEW YORK (AP) Ismael Tajouri and Maximiliano Moralez scored 12-minutes apart in the second half and New York City FC opened the season with three straight wins for the first time in the club’s short history with a 2-0 victory over Orlando City on Saturday.

Orlando goalkeeper Joe Bendik misplayed a back-pass that went right to Tajouri inside the 18-yard box and Tajouri took a few touches to the penalty spot for an easy finish in the 62nd minute. After an Orlando giveaway to Saad Abdul-Salaam, Jesus Medina settled it for an oncoming Moralez to slide it home.

NYCFC (3-0-0) was without start David Villa due to a minor injury.

Orlando City (0-2-1), led by NYC’s former coach Jason Kreis (2014-15), has its share of injury problems as well. Striker Stefano Pinho had a right ankle injury last Saturday, leaving on crutches, and playmaker Dom Dwyer will be out for at least two more weeks.

Sacha Kljestan made his debut for Orlando after serving a two-game ban. The club arrived late due to the St. Patrick’s Day parade traffic.

MONTREAL (AP) Jeisson Vargas scored four minutes before the intermission to lift Montreal to a 1-0 victory over Toronto FC in the Impact’s home opener Saturday.

It was the first MLS goal for 20-year-old Vargas and the first win for new coach Remi Garde, who replaced Mauro Biello in December as coach of the Impact (1-2).

Toronto (0-2) played its first game since a rousing victory in the CONCACAF Champions League over Mexican side Tigres. The travel to Mexico may have sapped some energy from the defending MLS champions, who nonetheless started most of their top players.

Garde seemed to catch everyone off guard by starting a three-man backline with former Marseille defender Rod Fanni making his debut in the middle.

It made for a mostly uneventful first half until Saphir Taider intercepted a ball and sent Ignacio Piatti up the middle. Three Toronto defenders focused on the Impact captain, leaving Vargas open on the right side to take the pass and slice a shot inside the goalpost in the 41st minute for their first lead in three games.

Piatti was inside the Toronto penalty area on two more occasions before the break but Nick Hagglund blocked one dangerous shot and another was also turned away.

Eight minutes into the second half, Piatti sent Taider in alone but Alexander Bono pushed the shot.

Toronto threatened in the 64th when Sebastian Giovinco got the ball to striker Jozy Altidore. He lifted a shot over goalie Evan Bush but saw it bounce just wide. Toronto looked to have tied it in the 84th minute when Altidore’s shot got behind Bush and was rolling slowly to the goal line, but Michael Petrasso swept it away at the last second.

Montreal striker Matteo Mancosu, who missed practice this week for what the team called precautionary reasons, didn’t dress.

Midfielder Victor Vazquez, who has had back trouble, didn’t dress for Toronto. Chris Mavinga (suspected sports hernia) was in the lineup but did not start.

Mourinho slams Man Utd players for “lack of desire” despite FA Cup win

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Jose Mourinho, voted the manager mostly likely to zig when everyone else in the world is zagging*, laid into his Manchester United players on Saturday despite the fact the Red Devils topped Brighton & Hove Albion to advance to the semifinals of the FA Cup.

*not a real poll that has ever been taken, as far as we’re aware

[ MORE: Spurs advance to FA Cup semifinal | Man United join them ]

The Portuguese boss called out his players for what he deemed “a lack of personality, a lack of class, and a lack of desire” in the 2-0 victory at Old Trafford.

quotes from the Guardian:

“The basic things is to keep the emotional balance to play with that red shirt, which is a heavy shirt to wear. But to feel not comfortable to play, saying, ‘Please Mister, take me from the pitch.’ I felt that. So I have nothing to lose in relation to that. The strong ones will be always the strong ones. The young ones, under pressure and under criticism, will improve or will not improve.

“Matic was an island of personality and quality. But a few of the other guys, I saw them scared to play. Look, I cannot say much more. I think it is in relation with personality, in relation to trust, in relation to class. And you know when the sun is shining, and in football the sun is shining when everything goes well, you win matches, you score goals, everything goes in your direction, every player is a good player and every player wants to play and every player wants the ball and every player is confident to play and every player looks amazing.

“When it is dark and cold and that in football means a period of bad results or a bad result like what happened to us a couple of days ago, not everybody has the confidence and the personality to play really. Because to be on the pitch and touch the ball every five minutes, anyone can do it but to be on the pitch and say: ‘Give me the ball because I want to play,’ that is a little bit more difficult. Not all of them were able to do it.”

As for 21-year-old Scott McTominay, Mourinho singled him out for criticism not only in the public forum, but in the locker room after the final whistle:

“You have the kid that didn’t play well at all. I told him already, he was the first one I spoke to individually in the dressing room. And instead of being critical with him, I was positive with him saying: ‘You played very bad but you did the basic things that one player has to do.'”

This is year two of Mourinho’s reign at Old Trafford, and if the signs of fractures between manager and players are beginning to sound all too familiar, one should be reminded that Mourinho only signed a new contract to remain at the club through 2020 (with a further option) in January.

Serie A: Juventus slip up vs. SPAL, let Napoli back in the race

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Spurs advance to FA Cup semifinal | Man United join them ]

SPAL 2013 0-0 Juventus

Just one week after going top of the league with a game in hand, Juventus slipped up away to 17th-place SPAL on Saturday and left the door ever so slightly ajar for second-place Napoli in the title race.

Juve had 65 percent of possession on the day and out-shot SPAL by a count of 12-3 (3-0 on target), but the likes of Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Douglas Costa and Miralem Pjanic couldn’t beat 20-year-old goalkeeper Alex Meret (on loan from Udinese).

(Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)

Massimiliano Allegri’s side now leads Napoli by five points, but the game in hand now belongs to the chasers, who host 13th-place Genoa on Sunday with a chance to cut the deficit to just two points with nine games remaining. Just when it seemed crystal clear and a foregone conclusion Juve would wrap up their seventh straight Serie A title, newly promoted SPAL helped to make things quite interesting once again.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Udinese 1-2 Sassuolo

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Sampdoria vs. Inter Milan — 7:30 a.m. ET
Crotone vs. Roma — 10 a.m. ET
AC Milan vs. Chievo — 10 a.m. ET
Torino vs. Fiorentina — 10 a.m. ET
Hellas Verona vs. Atalanta — 10 a.m. ET
Benevento vs. Cagliari — 10 a.m. ET
Napoli vs. Genoa — 3:45 p.m. ET
Lazio vs. Bologna — 3:45 p.m. ET

Man Utd joins Spurs in FA Cup semis

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Jose Mourinho has come under heavy scrutiny in recent days and weeks, as his Manchester United side crashed out of the Champions League this week and continue to trail runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City by 16 points, yet the Portuguese is perhaps just 180 minutes from finishing the 2017-18 with a major trophy anyway.

[ MORE: Spurs beat Swansea to reach FA Cup semis ]

Man United got the best of Brighton & Hove Albion, to the tune of 2-0 at Old Trafford on Saturday, to book their spot at Wembley Stadium in the semifinals of the FA Cup. Romelu Lukaku scored the winning goal not long before halftime, with United grinding out another laborious result with superstars Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez glued to the bench for the whole of 90 minutes.

United enjoyed a healthy 61 percent of possession in the game, but were out-shot by the 12th-place side in the PL by a sizable margin, 16-8 (4-2 on target).

[ MORE: Follow all the FA Cup scores ] 

Lukaku’s rampage through the FA Cup continued in the 37th minute, as the big Belgian striker bagged not only his 23rd goal of the season in all competitions, but his fifth of the tournament thus far and extended his record of having scored in each round to four games.

Nemanja Matic floated a cross from the let side of the box to the back post, where Lukaku had created a yard or two of space for himself. Tim Krul didn’t come out to catch it, and Lukaku headed it just under the crossbar to give the Old Trafford faithful reason to smile again.

[ PREVIEW: Who will join Spurs, United at Wembley?

It was Matic who got on the end of another back-post ball, this one from an Ashley Young free kick, in the 84th minute to put United two goals ahead and secure the club’s second FA Cup semifinals appearance in seven seasons (United enjoyed a run of five final-four appearances out of eight in the years prior).

Tottenham Hotspur, who trail United by four points in the race for second in the PL, were the first side to advance to this season’s semifinals by winning 3-0 away to Swansea City on Saturday.