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“Icelandic army” ready to upset their English idols

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NICE — One thing is as clear as the crystal waters of the Cote D’Azur which line the way to the majestic Stade de Nice stadium: Iceland is ready to go to battle with England.

Ahead of their EURO 2016 Round of 16 clash in Nice on Monday, the Icelandic group called this match a “win-win” situation.

[ MORE: Latest news from EURO 2016 ]

Nobody expects them to beat England but the tiny nation which has won the hearts of fans across the globe during this tournament isn’t going down without a fight.

Sat in front of the media on Sunday, Iceland’s joint-manager Heimir Hallgrimsson delivered a rousing and poignant response when asked about the infamous “cod wars” between Iceland and England, a dispute from 1958-61 regarding fishing rights in the North Atlantic.

Not usually a combative nation, at all, on the eve of its biggest ever game, Iceland is ready for war.

“I think it was the only time Iceland has gone to war,” Hallgrimsson said of the dispute, with a smile. “We are too few to have an army, we would probably be easily defeated if we go to war, lacking manpower. So these guys [pointing to the players sat next to him] are the Icelandic army, these guys are the Icelandic army. That’s why everyone is supporting them. If we go to war, we probably lose rather quickly.”

Even if they lose the battle against England on the pitch on Monday, Iceland is already the big winners from this tournament.

Walking around the streets of Nice, the Icelandic fans still had a spring in their step following their dramatic late win against Austria to set up their first knockout clash in a major tournament as a soccer nation.

This is Iceland’s first-ever major tournament and there’s no doubt the smallest ever nation to qualify for the Euros — with a population just over 320,000 — are the story of EURO 2016 so far.

They upset Cristiano Ronaldo in the opener as he lambasted their “small mentality” after they celebrated a draw with Portugal like they’d won EURO 2016. They got out of Group F as runners up, drawing with Hungary and then beating Austria in Paris as the Icelandic TV announcer lost the plot. It is estimated up to 9 percent of the population of Iceland is in France following their team around.

Fans are congregating all over Nice, with “Big Pete” (as he wanted to be known) leading a group of Iceland fans as they sit back, drink and take in the other games in a bar in central Nice.

A humongous bodyguard and security worker from Keflavik, Pete, like most Iceland fans, is living the dream. He’s confident Iceland can get the job done and told me they would win EURO 2016.

“We are going in with a mindset that we are going to win the game,” Pete said. “I think it is the perfect time for Iceland not to upset because we have a good team with self confidence, it is the best time ever to beat England at a big tournament. We are going in it tomorrow to win it.”

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 22: Iceland players celebrate with their fans after victory in the UEFA EURO 2016 Group F match between Iceland and Austria at Stade de France on June 22, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
From the raucous, rhythmic chants of Pete and his fellow fans to the jubilation from players and the coaches, Iceland has truly added an extra dimension to this tournament. They aren’t just a plucky upstart. They deserve to be here after winning their qualifying group and getting past the likes of Holland, the Czech Republic and Turkey along the way.

Iceland isn’t ready for this fairytale to end.

When I asked the group of fans I was chatting to what it would mean if Iceland beat England, they corrected me. “When we beat England” they screamed.

“I will tell you a little secret. Since those two guys [Hallgrimsson and Lars Lagerback] took over as joint managers, they’ve been going in with a philosophy that ‘this game is the biggest game of your life.’ They’ve been doing this all the way,” Pete said. “Tomorrow is just the biggest game of their lives and the players really buy into it. Everyone is working together. They are all brothers you know, like one big family. One of our center backs said: ‘It is amazing to do this with my best friends.'”

With blue, red and white paint over their faces, Iceland’s fans stuck out as they wandered along the Promenade des Anglais, it looked as they had already conquered England’s fans. Sure, they were outnumbered by England’s supporters, but when has being the underdog ever stopped Iceland in the past?

Iceland aim to conquer England on the pitch and the players, and fans, believe the upset is on and have nothing to lose.

“We’ve said previously that this game is a win-win game,” Hallgrimsson continued. “They’ve already won the hearts of all Icelandic people for their performances. I think with a good performance against England tomorrow, they’ll always be winners in my book. On the other hand, if we beat England their lives will change, and all of our lives will change, significantly. Icelandic football will go up in reputation and the way we approach football will be different. It’ll look different for us.

“If you want the best out of life, you have to be ready when the chance is there for you and I don’t think there are bigger chances than this for Icelandic football. It’s just for the players to play tomorrow and hopefully we will beat England. Whichever way this goes, these players are winners already and I am hoping for a good performance.”

They are a solid team who play as a unit and are hard to break down, plus clinical on the counter. Sound familiar? In a year where we saw another team in blue shock the soccer world, Iceland is ready to be the next Leicester City story.

Just how big has this story been back in Iceland? 

On Sunday Gudni Johannesson won Iceland’s presidential election but that is nothing compared to the exploits of their soccer team.

“It is bigger than the election back home and I mean, everybody is thinking about the election but there were only a certain percent who voted,” Pete said. “Everybody in Iceland is watching the games. They had a TV rating in Iceland and when they played against Austria, 99 percent of the TV sets tuned in that evening and were watching the Iceland game. So everybody is thinking about it and it is bigger than politics and anything else in Iceland.”

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 22: Iceland players celebrate victory in the UEFA EURO 2016 Group F match between Iceland and Austria at Stade de France on June 22, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
So close are the connections between Iceland and the United Kingdom — the latter is the closest European nation to Iceland as the crow flies — that when their players speak English, most do so with a thick English accent. 

Their captain, Aron Gunnarsson has a Welsh twang as he’s played for Cardiff City in the Premier League and the second-tier. GylfiSigurdsson sounds like he’s from the London suburbs after spending most of his career with Reading, Tottenham and Swansea City in England’s top-flight.

“First of all it’s a very important game for the team and for the country as well. I’m pretty sure most of the boys know the English players anyway, so I’m not giving them tips how to play it,” Sigurdsson said. “The coaches summarize their games and go through everything with us. Most of the boys know the English players. We’re looking forward to a very exciting game, one that I hope we will enjoy.”

Like most Icelandic players, veteran striker Eidur Gudjohnsen, 37, began and spent the glory years of his career in England. He knows how special this occasion will be as Iceland’s players and fans still look towards England for teams to support and play for.

“To be facing England, for us, it’s fair to say is a little special,” Gudjohnsen said. “English football has had a huge influence, from when we grew up, everyone has supported a team in English football, we feel a big connection to England in footballing terms.”

In terms of this game, England should win. Scratch that. They have to win.

The Three Lions haven’t won a knockout game in a major tournament since they beat Ecuador 1-0 in the Round of 16 at the 2006 World Cup. David Beckham scored the winner. Yep. That seems like an age ago. In fact, it was 10 years ago yesterday. England has underachieved ever since.

MARSEILLE, FRANCE - JUNE 18: Gylfi Sigurdsson of Iceland celebrates with Birkir Bjarnason of Iceland after scoring his team's first goal during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group F match between Iceland and Hungary at Stade Velodrome on June 18, 2016 in Marseille, France. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
(Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
Following the debacle of the 2014 World Cup as they exited at the group stages in Brazil, the pressure is all on Roy Hodgson. He knows that. His players know it and so do the fans. Iceland know the pressure is on England, too, as they’ve

Speaking earlier this week Sigurdsson, Iceland’s star player, is well aware he and his teammates have nothing to lose.

“We have no pressure on us, that’s the main thing,” Sigurdsson said. “If you look at England, if they were to lose to us there will he headlines back in England. We are just here to enjoy the tournament and the last 16. It’s an amazing feeling and we just want to keep going. We are aware that we are probably the second team everyone supports in the tournament.

“We are a small nation that nobody expects anything of so we want to keep those people happy and go a little bit further in the tournament. We are the same size as Coventry. Is it Leicester? We are still underdogs.”

The underdog tag is one Iceland is relishing and judging by the party atmosphere in Nice 24 hours before the biggest game in their history, Iceland’s fans aren’t ready for this magical adventure to end.

“It’s fantastic. We’d love to have more tickets for the Icelandic people,” Sigurdsson said. “UEFA have to find another solution how they distribute the tickets for the knockout games. It would have been nice to have 10,000-15,000 people here. But the people at the game will be loud. Hopefully we can make them proud.”

Gunnarrson revealed Iceland “feel the fans back home, supporting us, we see it on the internet” and is mindful of using the euphoria in the correct manner.

“We’re using it in a positive way. It’s about us on the pitch. We have to go out there and fight for it,” Gunnarrson said.

From the somewhat mythical land of volcanoes and hot springs, they are now know for their soccer and the message is clear: Iceland is ready for war and plan on kicking their idols England out of Europe for the second time in a week.

“We set up with a perfect plan 15 years ago and they’ve been building slowly, layer by layer, they’ve come to this point and they can go anywhere,” Pete explained about Iceland’s journey. “They are organized, tactical and they’ve never lost a game in a major tournament. We are the only team in this 24-team tournament which hasn’t lost a game in a major tournament.

“I can predict that can still go on, you know. That is the thing about us Icelanders. We are a small nation and through the centuries we’ve had to go through so much tough surroundings. That made us what we are. Even though we are small, we think we are really big. That really helps.”

Allardyce not interested in Leicester City, Dyche the early favorite

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Amid plenty of calls for Leicester City to shoot for the moon as they search for a new manager, a more realistic name has emerged as an early frontrunner.

Craig Shakespeare, the man rumored to have engineered the downfall of Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City to take the reigns himself, was canned after just 26 games in charge. That has left a managerial opening at a club that to this point nobody can quite figure out how attractive a position it truly is.

There are calls for a run at top managerial names without a job, such as Carlo Ancelotti and Laurent Blanc, but instead the choice could come from within the current Premier League ranks.

Journeyman Sam Allardyce has ruled himself out of the running, saying on Talksport, “As big a club and as much as I would love to manage Leicester I don’t think it is time for me to manage yet. I’m not ready I don’t think. Having been in the game so long and done it so long, and looking at how I felt at the end of last season, I feel I am enjoying my life too much. Yes, it would have interested me and yes, I would take the Leicester job, but not at this time.”

Those quotes should also do much quell rumors of a USMNT stint for Allardyce as well.

Next in line for the Leicester opening is Burnley boss Sean Dyche, who according to the Daily Mail is “interested” in the position, whatever that means. However, the catch is that due to his current post at Turf Moor, the Foxes would owe Burnley $3.4 million should he break his contract and move positions, a number which comes along with Dyche’s new Burnley contract signed this past summer.

Other names mentioned include the likes of former Borussia Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel, Huddersfield Town’s David Wagner, and Wales boss Chris Coleman. Tuchel would be a stretch with the German likely looking for a bigger name, while Wagner would be tough to pry from Huddersfield after their solid start to the Premier League season plus likely competition from the United States national team. Coleman seems the most likely of the bunch, with his time in charge of Wales proving rocky in the recent past, especially as they narrowly missed out on World Cup qualification.

Chelsea facing lineup nightmare as they limp into Champions League play

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With the 2017-18 campaign just two months old, Chelsea has been rocked by injuries, potentially ruining Antonio Conte‘s ability to piece together his famed 3-5-2 lineup that saw the Blues storm to the Premier League title last season.

N'Golo Kante‘s absence thanks to a hamstring injury has seen his midfield torn apart at times, including against lowly Crystal Palace as Chelsea slumped to defeat to the then-pointless Eagles. Fellow former Fox Danny Drinkwater also sits, having yet to make his Chelsea debut with a calf injury vexing the England international thus far.

Wing-back Victor Moses, who has become a star at a position nobody could have seen him excelling at, is also sidelined with a bum hamstring and must be replaced. The Italian boss could call in deadline day signing Davide Zappacosta to fill the role, but it’s not that simple.

[ WRAP: A complete rundown of Tuesday’s Champions League action ]

Complicating matters greatly, Conte has the opposite situation to navigate along his back line. A pair of poor performances in league play has his defense suddenly under fire, thanks to the good form of his replacements who are pushing for more time on the field. With both Antonio Rudiger and young Andreas Christensen putting in solid performances when called upon, there is suddenly increasing chatter that they should be given starts ahead of Gary Cahill, David Luiz, and Cesar Azpilicueta.

Thankfully for Conte, he can once again call upon the services of talisman striker Alvaro Morata, not worrying about the poor form of Michy Batshuayi who had such a bright start to the season.

[ PREVIEW: A full look at Wednesday’s Champions League slate ]

So, his options are thus: he could either call in Davide Zappacosta to fill Victor Moses’s role without changing the base 3-5-2 with Morata and Pedro up high, leaving Rudiger and Christensen on the bench while hoping that Tiemoue Bakayoko and Cesc Fabregas can manage in midfield better than against Crystal Palace. Or, he could shuffle the deck completely and shift to another formation.

Another option presented is a 3-4-3, with Morata by himself in the middle flanked by Willian and Pedro, leaving the central midfield pairing even more exposed. However, that option allows the possibility of patching that midfield by pushing David Luiz or even Rudiger forward, allowing another defender to see the field likely in place of Fabregas. That puts more creative duties on Bakayoko’s plate, or sees the Frenchman fall to the bench, although swapping the defensive midfielder for a central defender seems to have little benefit.

These lineup choices are of the utmost importance as Chelsea meets AS Roma in Champions League play on Wednesday, because a victory would give them a perfect nine points out of nine, leaving them with tons of wiggle-room with three matches remaining. That five-point cushion would present the Blues with the ability to rotate the squad moving forward, a luxury so desperately needed with the injury problems and questions to sort out at the back. That could be invaluable not only to Chelsea’s Champions League standing but also their increasingly questionable Premier League health as the Manchester clubs continue to show stunning form at the top of the table.

Watch Live: Ghana and Niger meet, Brazil takes on Honduras in U-17 World Cup

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The United States has made its way through the U-17 World Cup Round of 16 in triumphant fashion, but there’s still plenty more to be decided.

[ LIVE: Stream U-17 World Cup ] 

Mali is already through to the quarterfinals, and they await the winner of another all-African matchup in Ghana and Niger. Ghana topped a hotly-contested Group A with the United States and Colombia, while Niger made it through via the third-place table after finishing behind both Spain and Brazil in Group D.

The Brazilians won that group, and they face Honduras who finished third in Group E but advanced, collecting enough points behind France and Japan. Brazil went a perfect 3-0 in the group stage, conceding just one goal while scoring six.

Tuesday’s U-17 World Cup Round of 16 games

Ghana vs. Niger – 7:30 a.m. ET
Brazil vs. Honduras – 7:30 a.m. ET

Wild day in American soccer: Crew relocation, NASL LOIs, USL reserves

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The top three soccer leagues in the United States of America are dealing with varying bits of turmoil this Tuesday in October.

It began late Monday with reports that Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt aims to take the MLS founding member to Texas, seemingly only paying lip service to the idea of investment keeping the team in Ohio.

[ MORE: Leicester sacks Shakespeare ]

Some have said Precourt’s goals have always been to find a way out of Ohio, and the Crew owner was asked what has changed in the four years he’s owned the club (From ColumbusCrewSC.com):

Q:When we read your story about your purchase of the team, this was back in 2013, part of that was that it was very important to the Hunt family that the Crew remained in Columbus and you said at the time that you were committed to that. So what’s changed?

AP: I was committed to that and I believe that I demonstrated my commitment through significant investment in infrastructure, in personnel, in the quality of our product on the field. What has changed? Our League has grown leaps and bounds, it’s been unprecedented the improvement we’ve seen year over year and new markets that have come in the League have shown dramatic attendance. Let’s look at Atlanta with over 70,000 fans over their last few games, with Orlando building a new facility and averaging over 30,000 fans a game, with New York City FC. The list goes on and on. Our peers get stronger and stronger, year in and year out and I have to get back to our ambition as a club. This is key: our ambition as a club is to be a standard bearer in Major League Soccer, to be respected on and off the field in terms of our soccer operations and our business operations and to operate world-class, soccer-specific infrastructure. We’re going through growing pains now. It’s time for us to explore building a world-class, soccer-specific stadium so that we can be celebrated and successful and sustainable.

So, yes, barring a king’s ransom — word use intended — from the Ohio business community, it’s not being cynical to read Precourt’s intention to leave Ohio as very strong. The idea is very sad for the league, and makes every pro/rel honk’s argument against the closed model.

Then there’s the NASL, where it’s almost head-spinning to keep abreast of the future of the league. New York Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso has taken the wheel in an attempt to not only see the NASL rise, but remove Sunil Gulati from power at the United States Soccer Federation in the hopes of a complete overhaul. In what should not be read as a footnote, the NASL is currently suing the USSF.

There are reports that the league could have as many as 17 teams next season in a bid to regain sanctioning from the Unites States Soccer Federation, including a series of teams from the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League.

According to SocTakes.com, the NASL has letters of intent from NPSL clubs in Boca Raton, Boston, Detroit, Arizona, New Orleans, and Virginia Beach. Additionally, there’s interest in Hartford and it may not be the NPSL club.

Then came this Tweet:

Now here’s a league, the USL, whose only issues have been perception-related. Growing well and instituting a D-3 companion, the biggest concern has been the mentioned MLS Reserve sides creating a minor league feel for the league.

All of this is manageable, and you could argue that the disappearance or at least rebranding of most of these reserve sides would be a boon for the league.

Taken in a vacuum, any of these stories has the potential to carry a day’s news. Together, and in the wake of the United States men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, they give Tuesday one of those Soccer-USApocalyptic feelings.