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.

Thanks, but no thanks: Sampaoli turns down vacant Argentina job

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JUNE 18:  Head coach Jorge Sampaoli of Chile looks on during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group B match between Spain and Chile at Maracana on June 18, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli says he has turned down an offer to manage the Argentina national team.

Sampaoli tells Sevilla’s website “I had a call from the president of the (Argentine football) federation, but it would be irresponsible for me to leave Sevilla.”

Sampaoli was hired by Sevilla last month to replace new Paris Saint-Germain coach Unai Emery.

The Argentine-born Sampaoli led Chile to its first Copa America title in 2015.

Argentina has been without a coach since Gerardo Martino stepped down earlier this month after losing a second consecutive Copa America final.

Preseason roundup: Chelsea fall to Real Madrid; Man United win big

ANN ARBOR, MI - JULY 30:  Willian #22 of Chelsea defends against Marcelo Vieira Da Silva #12 of Real Madrid during the first half at Michigan Stadium on July 30, 2016 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Saturday’s preseason action involving Premier League sides, including the 2016 International Champions Cup…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Real Madrid 3-2 Chelsea

Marcelo scored twice in the opening 26 minutes at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich., as Real Madrid picked up their first ICC victory of the preseason. It was 3-0 before halftime after Mariano Mejia beat no. 2 goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, who started the game and gave way to Thibaut Courtois at halftime, in the 37th minute.

Eden Hazard only pulled back the Blues’ consolation goals in the 80th and 90th minutes, meaning first-year manager Antonio Conte will have plenty of areas to target for improvement as the next 14 days roll by and Chelsea kick off their 2016-17 Premier League campaign Monday, Aug. 13, at home against West Ham United.

Manchester United 5-2 Galatasaray

The Zlatan Ibrahimovic era has officially begun at Manchester United after the most delightful of starts on Saturday. Ibrahimovic scored an acrobatic opening goal just four minutes into his Red Devils debut (watch at the link below), Wayne Rooney scored twice in the rout of Galatasaray, and Marcus Rashford showed once the kind of game-changing ability realized in his breakout 2015-16 season.

[ MORE: Zlatan scored a ridiculous scissor-kick goal on his debut ]

After entering the game at halftime, the 18-year-old was instantly the most dangerous player on the field, running at defenders at every opportunity and singlehandedly winning the penalty that resulted in Rooney’s second goal. Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata scored the fourth and fifth goals, respectively.

Elsewhere in preseason action

Liverpool vs. AC Milan (10 p.m. ET)
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Leicester City (11:30 p.m. ET)
Real Betis 1-1 Everton
FC Gronigen 0-1 Southampton
Bournemouth 1-0 Cardiff
Rangers 1-3 Burnley
Nottingham Forest 1-2 Hull City
Aston Villa 1-3 Middlesbrough
Wolves 0-4 Swansea City
Fulham 3-1 Crystal Palace
Queens Park Rangers 2-0 Watford
Montpellier 1-1 Sunderland
Plymouth 0-0 West Bromwich Albion

After 2015 World Cup success, Australian women stood for better wages — and won

MONCTON, NB - JUNE 21:  Australia celebrates the 1-0 win over Brazil during the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 round of 16 match between Brazil and Australia at Moncton Stadium on June 21, 2015 in Moncton, Canada.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Long before the U.S. women’s soccer team filed a federal complaint over wage discrimination, the Australian women fought for better pay.

And won.

The Matildas, as they are known, will be among the 12 women’s soccer teams playing in Brazil next week when the Olympics get underway. Their strike following a successful run in last summer’s Women’s World Cup in Canada was significant as female athletes across sports fight for recognition and respect – including their American counterparts.

“In terms of being trailblazers, I’m not really sure. I think we just sort of went about it how we thought was necessary,” Australian defender Steph Catley said. “We felt we deserved more.”

The Matildas have made a quick ascent as one of the world’s elite teams. They gained national attention last year when they became the first team from Australia – male or female – to win a World Cup knockout round match by upsetting Brazil 1-0 and advancing to the quarterfinals.

The United States went on to win the World Cup with a 5-2 victory over Japan in the final.

Afterward, the U.S. women scheduled a pair of exhibition matches against Australia as part of a victory tour. But the Australian federation withdrew from those matches after the Matildas walked out of training camp and the players’ union said contract talks with the national federation had stalled.

The Matildas, whose contract had expired, said they had not been paid for two months heading into the walkout.

The salary for a national team player was equivalent to $14,475, based on a six-month playing period. That meant many of the players needed to have other jobs to make ends meet. Some players worked two club seasons, one at home in Australia and the other in the United States with the National Women’s Soccer League, meaning they played year-round.

The players were asking for a salary increase to $28,000 a year, as well as other benefits including improved accommodations and bonuses for international matches. The demands were part of larger bargaining that included the men’s national team and A-League players, and the Football Federation Australia at one point claimed the Matildas were being used as a pawn in the negotiations.

But there was a groundswell of support for the women, who have seen their popularity rise in Australia along with the team’s stature on the national stage.

American stars Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd, former player Julie Foudy and Canadian forward Christine Sinclair were among those who expressed support for the Australians. There were change.org petitions to support the team.

“The Matildas are courageously fighting for what is right. (hashtag) priclessrolemodels,” Lloyd posted to Twitter.

The deal that was eventually struck in November included a pay structure that puts the salaries for top players at $30,700 per year and those at the next level at $22,400. The contract calls for a 10 percent raise each year and improved bonuses and other benefits.

“Our elite female players deserve a full-time professional career path in football and this agreement represents a solid foundation we can build on,” players’ association chief executive Adam Vivian said at the time.

Striker Kyah Simon said the move made the team stronger.

“The Matildas’ story is standing up for what we believe in and standing up for our brand and our culture. I think at the end of the day it brought the team closer together,” Simon said. “It’s something we can look on with pride, and something that’s hopefully a positive future for our sport and for the new generation of players.”

The victory came well before a group of U.S. women’s national team players filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging wage discrimination. The women claim they make far less on average than their male national team counterparts. The complaint in late March came as the players seek a new collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer.

Heading into the Olympics, the Matildas are ranked No. 5 in the world.

They leapfrogged Japan and Korea in the AFC qualification tournament to earn the trip to Rio along with China – scoring 17 goals in five matches.

Australia is in a tough group in Brazil that includes No. 2 Germany, No. 10 Canada and Zimbabwe. It is the only group with three teams ranked in the top 10. The top-ranked Americans play in a group that includes No. 3 France, New Zealand and Colombia.

Australia opens the tournament on Wednesday against Canada in Sao Paulo.

“After the World Cup everything sort of started to change. When we came home there was so much media attention and so many people that were interested in what we were doing and really proud of the success we had,” Catley said of the team’s rising profile. “I think people always knew there was a national team, but I don’t think they realized how high in the rankings we were and how much better we were getting as a team.”

Conte: “I don’t know” if Diego Costa will be a Chelsea player this season

VELDEN, AUSTRIA - JULY 20: Diego Costa of Chelsea looks on during the friendly match between WAC RZ Pellets and Chelsea F.C. at Worthersee Stadion on July 20, 2016 in Velden, Austria. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte sent “silly season” into overdrive (all over again) when he admitted on Saturday that he himself doesn’t know whether or not Diego Costa will remain a Chelsea player this season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Speaking after his side’s 3-2 defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in the International Champions Cup, Chelsea’s first-year manager confirmed the reason for Costa’s continued absence this preseason — an injury — but went on to say the Brazilian-turned-Spaniard’s club future remains up in the air just 14 days before the 2016-17 Premier League season kicks off — quotes from the Sun:

“I can say that today Costa is a Chelsea player. He didn’t play in these games because of injury and if he solves the injury and I see in training he’s in good shape it can be possible to see him in the next game against Milan. But I can tell only this.

“I speak for today and today Costa is Chelsea’s player. Tomorrow if you ask me if Costa will remain with us, I don’t know.”

Costa, who signed for Chelsea from Atletico Madrid two summers ago, has regularly been linked with a return to the Spanish capital. However, Atleti announced on Saturday the signing of Sevilla striker Kevin Gameiro, who scored 68 goals in three seasons (all competitions) with the three-time defending Europa League winners, reportedly for nearly $40 million.

[ MORE: Zlatan scored a ridiculous scissor-kick goal on his debut ]

Atleti would hardly be the only suitors for a goal-getter who has netted 32 times in two seasons in the Premier League, including 20 times in 26 games during his 2014-15 debut campaign.