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Jon Marthaler writes about the Minnesota United and sport of soccer.

Pep Guardiola at Manchester City: A "challenge" of a different sort

I made fun of past Barcelona / current Bayern Munich / future Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola in Saturday's Soccer Insider. Having already announced he would take over at Manchester City next year, Guardiola said, "I need a new challenge." As if Guardiola, whose entire coaching career has been spent at clubs that could buy unlimited numbers of the world's best players, has any idea of what a "challenge" is. For college football fans, if Nick Saban won another national title at Alabama, then went to Ohio State because he needed "a new challenge," that'd be about the same thing. While the Premier League is top-to-bottom richer than any other league, Guardiola is still about to take over one of its two most money-soaked teams; there are at least 17 jobs in the Premier League more traditionally "challenging" than the job of spending Abu Dhabi oil riches on new players for the Sky Blues. Let Guardiola take over at Tottenham Hotspur, where new stadium construction is going to kill the team's budget for half of a decade, and we'll see him actually face a "challenge."

That said, though, it's worth mentioning that incredible riches also bring incredible expectations. Barcelona won the league / cup / European treble in Guardiola's first year as manager, a feat it never duplicated in Guardiola's next three years; only at Barca can two La Liga titles, two Copas del Rey, and a Champions League win in the span of three seasons feel like a letdown. Similarly, in his first two years at Bayern Munich, Guardiola won two Bundesliga titles and the German Cup - but a pair of semifinal exits in the Champions League have the manager still striving for what the club would deem "success." Guardiola will leave Bayern with three consecutive league titles, but without Champions League success as well, it's impossible to say that he really lived up to his promise in Germany.

Right now, there are only three clubs that can aspire to such heights: Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid. Guardiola, who came up through the Barcelona system, will never manage Real Madrid, and so his work with the three European Super Clubs is somewhat done. Viewed through this lens, his new "challenge" is actually somewhat interesting, even though on the face of it calling it "challenging" is ridiculous: Guardiola's job at Manchester City is to build Barcelona in the north of England. 

Since the Abu Dhabi royal family bought City in 2008, they've spent absurd, offensive amounts of money turning the club from also-ran into powerhouse. Before the money came, City was a small team living in Manchester United's shadow; as late as 2002, City was still languishing in the old First Division, out of the Premier League entirely. Time was, staying in the Premier League and beating United was a pretty good season for the Citizens. The arrival of the cash took a couple of years to have an effect, but by 2011 City was in the top four, and in 2012 the team won the league for the first time in nearly five decades. In the last four years, the club has two league titles, an FA Cup, and a League Cup to its name, an impressive haul for most - but a record that would be a disappointment for Barcelona or Real Madrid or Bayern Munich. 

The "challenge" for Guardiola isn't just to win, it's to win everything. That includes Champions League success, which has entirely eluded Manchester City so far; the team has yet to get past the round of 16, though they may do this year, as they've been drawn against Dynamo Kyiv in this year's first knockout round. City's ownership has never made any bones about wanting to create its own version of Barcelona, even hiring Txiki Bergiristain to be the team's director of football - a role that he previously had at Barcelona, back when a brand-new manager named Pep Guardiola took over the team's "B" team and then the first team.

City will be Guardiola's most difficult job. At Barcelona, winning the league meant beating Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid; at Bayern, winning the league mostly means making sure the squad shows up on time and doesn't get into fights. England, meanwhile, has at least five other clubs committed to spending big and winning yearly trophies - not to mention a team like Leicester City, coming from nowhere to become the league favorites (and smash City to pieces, 3-1 in Manchester last week). Winning the Premier League, and still having enough left in the tank to compete with Bayern and Barca and Real Madrid, seems virtually impossible in this day and age. It's why Chelsea - currently 13th in the league and not entirely safe from relegation yet - has the shortest odds of any English club to win the Champions League.

Managing at Manchester City is not a challenge, nor is winning regularly, or even winning trophies. The club is in the League Cup final again this year, is still in the FA Cup, and may yet catch Leicester for the league title. Current manager Manuel Pellegrini could conceivably finish his City career with the club's greatest season; all four potential trophies are still within his grasp. But the challenge for Guardiola isn't winning - it's lifting City to that status as a perennial powerhouse, both at home and on the continent. Nothing else will satisfy City's ownership. For Guardiola, that's challenging indeed.

SoccerCentric: Woodbury's Miller has an eye toward Olympics

I wrote about Minnesota's own Eric Miller for Saturday's Soccer Insider column, but of course not everything that we chatted about could fit into the paper. In particular, Miller was notably focused less on the possibility of earning his first cap for the senior national team this week, and more on how the U-23 players in the USMNT camp could improve and prepare for this spring. The U-23s are facing a home-and-away series with Colombia at the end of March; the winner goes to the Olympic Games, the loser misses out on the trip to Rio. Given that the USA missed qualifying for the 2012 Games, and given the struggles of every American men's team lately, upsetting Colombia would be a big step for not just the U-23s but for the entire men's setup.

Speaking of the camp, Miller said, "It’s been a fantastic space so far to work with some of the best players that the country has to offer. It’s been a huge experience for the younger guys here, to play at a faster pace with really, really top players. For the younger guys, especially when we go to camp with the U-23s it’s fast, but when you get here it’s another level of fast. That sort of stuff is really valuable for us moving forward into MLS, and into the U-23s games that we have coming up."

Given that, I wondered how much the U-23 team was thinking about Colombia. "It’s important to keep those games in mind," he said. "Even today [at practice in camp] we talked a lot about it. If things start going poorly, what are we doing [then]? We have to make sure our reactions are proper and we’re staying in it, because down in Colombia, things are going to go poorly at some point during the game. We’re going to have to react and recover from how things are going, and right the ship. I think in the back of our mind we’re all thinking about Colombia in March and how these games [the friendlies this week] can help us with those games."

And so, for Miller and for his potential Olympic teammates, this camp was as much a bonding exercise as anything. "I think a lot of it is sort of preparing for the season, a lot is fitness," said Miller. "A lot of it is working on chemistry. For the 23s, we don’t have a lot of chances to play together. When the international breaks come we play two games, so that means two games in a week or so - so we don't have a lot of time to train and be together. But a chance like this, where we have a month to hang out together and play together, you learn a lot about players’ tendencies and that sort of thing. For everyone, younger guys or older guys, it’s really valuable. Knowing a guy better, knowing what he likes to do is super valuable in training. Those little things can make a huge difference."

That said, there's always that potential future with the senior national team in mind, and I'm sure that every U-23 player was hoping to impress Jürgen Klinsmann and the rest of the USMNT brass in January, as well. Miller, even as he thought about Colombia, was thinking about the future, as well. "We have a lot of talented guys on the 23s and a lot of guys who are looking to make a lasting impression on the coach," he said. "This is the first step in a long journey with the national team."

Miller was on the bench for Sunday's 3-2 win over Iceland, but didn't end up winning his first cap for the USMNT. His next chance comes Friday night, as the USA takes on Canada (9:15 p.m., FS1). 

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