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.

“Nobody remembers the losers” — Simeone admits he’ll consider his future at Atleti

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 28:  Head coach Diego Simeone of Atletico Madrid gestures during the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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Diego Simeone is an emotional man, and big days are no exception to the rule.

The Atletico Madrid boss is a man who, according to legend, grabbed the mic at his wedding and apologized to his bride for Argentina falling short at the 1994 World Cup, then began crying.

So perhaps we should measure our reaction to his comments after Atletico Madrid lost a combination Madrid Derby-Champions League final for the second time in three years, but his words do matter.

[ UCL: Real wins, Ronaldo with clinching PK | CR7 reacts | Bale, too ]

The much-desired manager would be the hottest commodity on the market should he leave Atletico following a loss to Real in penalty kicks, and Simeone admitted he’ll think about resigning his post.

From the BBC:

“I am thinking that I have to start thinking. It’s a logical question for you to ask after a defeat like the one we’ve suffered today.

“We had the chance to become champions, we didn’t take that chance. We need to continue working, I have to think things out on my part – that’s what I’m doing now.

“What is clear to me is that nobody remembers the losers. We have to get over this and heal our wounds.”

With so much turnover in the Premier League already this season and few jobs open, where would Simeone go? He’s a football junkie, not someone we’d expect to “take a year off”, and his passion for Atleti still makes it feel unlikely he’d leave the club at all.

That said, he’s conducted some monumental reorganizations around the Vicente Calderon, and the energy it takes to do such a thing may have him considering whether he should try his luck at another locale (especially if Antoine Griezmann and other big stars find new homes).

MLS roundup: Drogba the hero; Multiple Kamaras score (but not the one you expect)

Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba celebrates his goal against the Colorado Rapids during first half of an MLS soccer game, Saturday, April 30, 2016 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP
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Major League Soccer had plenty of entertainment in store for those who focused on it Saturday despite the USMNT, UEFA Champions League and English promotion playoff final dotting the landscape of football.

[ USMNT: Match recapThree things | Player ratings ]

A league superstar scored a hat trick, but so did a new face. Two surging and surprising clubs drew in Colorado, and two stumbling powers went head-to-head in New England.

Montreal 3-2 L.A. Galaxy

The big names came out to play in Quebec, as Didier Drogba, Giovani dos Santos, Ignacio Piatti and Steven Gerrard all played part in a thriller. Drogba was the key, setting up a goal before scoring at the very end of stoppage time to lift the Impact past the Galaxy. Then again, you could make a pretty valid argument that L.A. goalkeeper Brian Rowe was the key, because… dude:

http://player.ooyala.com/iframe.js#pbid=4bfc225f82bf46c48dfb065eda97f74f&ec=VjYXhzMzE6D3Br5qxiMUbv_R1DcsHlHo&platform=html5-priority

New England 2-1 Seattle

The Sounders have seen a lot of penalty calls against them this year, but this one will make fans think there’s a conspiracy against them. With a 1-0 lead, a Seattle clearance pegged Erik Friberg in the gut, catching him in a clear act of ball playing hand. Lee Nguyen converted the penalty, and Femi Hollinger-Janzen scored late to give the Revs a much-needed win and sink Seattle further down the “Why?!?” rabbit hole.

Colorado 1-1 Philadelphia

There wasn’t much brewing until late between the two conference leaders, who kept hold of their No. 1 seeds after Sam Cronin and Brian Carroll traded goals in the final five minutes of play in Colorado.

New York Red Bulls 3-0 Toronto FC

Bradley Wright-Phillips scored the fastest hat trick to start a match in Major League Soccer history, while the reigning MVP had to leave the game with a non-contact injury. Gonzalo Veron saw red for RBNY, but it did not help TFC get back in the game. To make things worse for TFC, Will Johnson made a PK only to miss when forced to retake for encroachment.

Columbus 4-3 Real Salt Lake

Hola, Ola. Ola Kamara scored a hat trick around a Justen Glad own goal as the hosts scored four uninterrupted goals as the Crew and RSL played a pair of busy halves in Ohio. Joao Plata had a goal and an assist for the visitors, while Jordan Allen and Luke Mulholland also got on the board.

Elsewhere
Vancouver 1-1 Houston — RECAP
Chicago 1-1 Portland
Sporting KC 0-1 DC United —
RECAP
San Jose 0-0 FC Dallas

Klinsmann: USMNT’s Pulisic earning respect with “no-fear” approach

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Christian Pulisic #17 of USA attempts to chip a pass past Guillermo Viscarra #23 of Bolivia late in the second half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Christian Pulisic, whose name was known to only the most ardent of U.S. national team supporters six short months ago, is the fastest rising star in American soccer these days, but you’d never know it just listening to him talk.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Speaking after the USMNT’s 4-0 victory over Bolivia here at Children’s Mercy Park on Saturday — having made a big bit of history of his own in the process (WATCH HERE) — Pulisic seemed to have just walked off the field following just another ordinary game — something you’d be easily tricked into thinking he’d done 500 times thus far in his career.

USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has something of a theory to explain Pulisic’s meteoric rise, from making his Borussia Dortmund debut three months ago, to scoring his first international goal on Saturday: the youngster is fearless — perhaps because he’s not been around the block enough to know any better, but without fear of conscience in the face of any challenge nonetheless.

“I think he is a wonderful kid. He’s grounded, he knows that he has a long way to go, but he has no fear, and this is very important — not having fear, especially when you play in our region (CONCACAF), where it becomes really physical. What you’re going to see next Friday will be very, very physical.”

[ MORE: Three things we learned — USA 4-0 Bolivia | Player ratings ]

On that lack of fear, Pulisic says it’s something that was instilled in him at a very young age, playing soccer and living an ordinary childhood in his hometown of Hershey, Penn., before it became clear that his future was to be anything but ordinary. Fear does seem a foreign concept to the now-three-times-capped USMNT starlet when asked how he’s made the transition from Dortmund Under-19s, to Dortmund first team, to USMNT impact-maker, so seamlessly.

“It’s just what I learned since I was a little kid. My dad taught me no matter what — I would play against these bigger players — to just be myself. I knew that I was good enough, that I had the ability, so I never shy away from any moment and I don’t think anyone should.”

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

The challenges for a 17-year-old earning his stripes on a team chock-full of established stars such as Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and on and on, are innumerable. From trying to impress Klinsmann and earn a share of first-team minutes, to “making friends” with the senior members of the squad, Pulisic is just doing his best to fit in and prove he can contribute at next week’s 2016 Copa America Centenario — the USMNT’s last major tournament before the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

“The guys have taken me in, they’re all really nice, and it’s helped me a lot that I’ve been with them a few weeks now. It’s getting more and more comfortable. I’m making more friends. Normally, you’d hang out with some of the younger guys — kind of work your way up. You really have to earn your respects on the field. Off the field, they’re all nice guys.”

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]

And yet, with all of that said, an air of naiveté hangs over Pulisic as he talks of becoming the youngest goalscorer in USMNT history (17 years, 253 days), the 17-year-old that he is. Does the magnitude of such an accomplishment register an hour after that record-breaking strike?

“Honestly, no. I’m just living life, living in the moment. It’s cool — stats and stuff are cool — but I want to win this tournament coming up. That’s the overall goal, so I don’t really care too much about being the [youngest] goalscorer.”

Player ratings from a historic, comfortable USMNT win over Bolivia

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Michael Bradley #4 of USA directs a header away from the Bolivia forwards in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
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Yes, the United States should beat Bolivia at home, and soundly, but that doesn’t make Saturday’s 4-0 win in Kansas City any less fun.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s men throttled Bolivia, picking up the biggest win over a South American foe in national team history while writing in the U.S. men’s record book from an individual standpoint as well.

[ MORE: Match recapThree things we learned ]

Christian Pulisic became the youngest goal scorer in USMNT history, and the Americans will be feeling pretty good after improving to 7-1-1 in their last nine games before the start of the Copa America Centenario on Friday in California.

So who showed well? See below:

Starting XI

Brad Guzan — 7 — Called on only once or twice, but made the saves. Always hard to know what to score a goalkeeper who doesn’t have much to do. We’ll go with 7.

Matt Besler (off HT) — 7 — Filling in at left back wasn’t a problem for Sporting KC’s center back, and he even pulled off a nifty attacking trick or two.

John Brooks — 6 — Made up for a horrible giveaway by charging into the play to score the Yanks’ second goal. Out of position on a late chance that Guzan handled well.

Geoff Cameron — 7 — This team is so much better when he is healthy. Have to wonder if the Confederations Cup berth would’ve been assured with him last summer.

Michael Orozco (off HT) — 6 — Wasn’t noticed much, and that’s good for him.

[ WATCH: USMNT’s first two goals | Pulisic makes history ]

Michael Bradley (off 73′) — 9 — Weird how he’s good in his best position, pinged balls around the field and keeping things moving like a Newton’s cradle.

Jermaine Jones — 6 — Was just fine. Hard as nails and set to make an impact in the Copa America, and made a great takeaway and pass on the Pulisic goal.

Alejandro Bedoya 9 — The Nantes man had two assists, and looked capable of pulling as many strings as he wanted against Bolivia. Showed a hard edge against a nasty Bolivia side, too.

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Alejandro Bedoya #11 of USA knocks down Alejandro Meleán #13 of Bolivia in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

Bobby Wood — Lively and active, even if his finish was off.

Gyasi Zardes (Off, 64′) — 7 — If he wasn’t fighting his first touch, might’ve scored 3 or 4. Two is pretty good, though, right? He’d be a center forward, but Klinsmann needs to know the man up top can handle his first touch better.

Clint Dempsey (Off, 73′) — 6 — By no means bad. Is it too far off to say he’s doing the American version of the waning years of Cuauthemoc Blanco’s Mexican prime?

Subs

Fabian Johnson (On, HT) — 6 — Slow to get back on Bolivia’s only scoring chance.

DeAndre Yedlin (On, HT) — 6 — Like Orozco, had very little to do on the right side.

Christian Pulisic (On, 64′) — 7 — He’s a mouth-watering prospect, and became the youngest goal scorer in USMNT history.

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]

Darlington Nagbe (On, 64′) — 7 — His work on Pulisic’s goal was everything MLS fans have been imagining while waiting for Nagbe to be USMNT eligible.

Graham Zusi (On, 73′) — 6 — Game was over when he entered, and did just fine. See below.

Chris Wondolowski (On, 73′) — 5 — Missed his only chance on a dynamite feed from Zusi in stoppage time.