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Swedish club Ostersund finds success on and off soccer field

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BERLIN (AP) More famous for snow sports like cross-country skiing and biathlon, the “Winter City” of Ostersund is making quite a name for itself on the soccer field.

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The club from the northern Swedish city has progressed so quickly that even reaching the last 32 of the Europa League isn’t enough for everyone.

“I’m a little bit low and down because we wanted to win the group and we didn’t do that,” Ostersunds FK chairman Daniel Kindberg told The Associated Press after his team was held to a 1-1 draw at Hertha Berlin. “I expected us to win the group and I expected us to be among the first seeds in the draw, but unfortunately we are not.”

Expectations like that were unthinkable only a few years ago.

Ostersund was formed in 1996 following the amalgamation of three local clubs. After more than a decade in the third division, the team was relegated in 2010, when Kindberg quit amid bickering at the boardroom level. He went back after the players threatened to quit, too.

When Kindberg returned, he sought backing from local companies and appointed Graham Potter, a former defender from England, as coach. Potter led the team to promotion in his first season, and then again to the second division in his next. The team reached Sweden’s top division in 2015.

“Graham is very important as a coach, manager, friend, brother. He has fantastic leadership. He’s one of a kind, one of the absolute most promising managers in Europe, no doubt about it,” Kindred said. “I said that five years ago that he was Scandinavia’s best manager and now he’s been selected two years in a row, the best manager in Sweden. So I think I know what I’m talking about.”

This season, Ostersund is playing in the Europa League for the first time. The team qualified for Europe’s second-tier club competition by winning the Swedish Cup.

The team’s success has continued, finishing second in Group J and earning a spot in the next round. With a group of unknowns and players rejected by other clubs, Ostersund became the first Swedish team since Helsingborg in 2007 to reach the knockout stages of the Europa League or UEFA Cup.

Kindberg, a former army man, acknowledged it’s been a “good” year, but added he was disappointed with the team’s fifth-place finish in the Swedish league.

“We’re going for the championship,” Kindberg said at a team party following Thursday’s draw at Hertha, adding he is looking to make it a treble by also winning another Swedish Cup and the Europa League.

Part of the team’s success has to do with its off-the-field activities.

While Potter takes care of the soccer, Kindred said the club has “five key individuals” who look after other aspects, including the social side and the cultural productions.

The team has staged art exhibitions, written books, helped refugees, made sure local women get home safely at night, and last year players performed Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” ballet on stage. Two weeks ago, they produced a show celebrating the Sami people, the native reindeer herders from across Lapland.

“It was fantastic, absolutely fantastic,” said Kindred, explaining the reason behind the stage productions. “It’s a training method in decision-making and courage. That’s what it really is.”

Some players, however, took some convincing when the methods were first introduced.

“I said, `It’s OK, it’s fine. We respect you fully, but you have to play somewhere else.’ So that’s it. They didn’t object anymore,” Kindred said. “Everybody thinks football is about passing the ball, tactics. That’s a small part of football. The big part is the mental game, and the war to win the hearts and minds of people. That’s what football’s about.”

The social work undertaken by the club is just as important as the cultural or sporting side. Kindred said it’s part of Ostersund’s holistic approach.

“To take a stand for rightful things, for poor people, for people in danger, for human rights, it’s very important for us, because everyone wants to do good,” he said. “We started this path six years ago. We decided at that time it was important for us, for our identity. Our war against evil and bad things in society. We show that on the pitch, and we try and show it off the pitch. We try to do our best every day.”

The work off the field is even bringing in new fans.

Birgitta Karlsson said she was never interested in soccer until this year, but she travelled 23 hours by train and boat to see the team play in Berlin.

“There’s something really special with them,” Karlsson said. “They are good ambassadors for young people, for old people, for friendship, for being kind to each other, for children.”

Of the 15,686 spectators at the Olympic Stadium on Thursday, about a quarter provided noisy support for Ostersund. After the game, the visiting players lined up in front of them and led a “Viking clap,” staying long afterward to continue the party.

“We are at the beginning of a journey that we hope will change the world and we hope will change things,” Kindberg said. “We have no limits at all. Every year, the Euro league is to be won. Every year, the Champions League is to be won. We need to be champions because that’s what we are.

“It’s easy. Football is the easiest game on Earth. It is people who complicate it. We try to be simple.”

VIDEO: Sporting KC’s Medranda scores wonder goal in win over Vancouver

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Sporting KC showed again on Friday night why they’re the rightful leaders at the top of the Western Conference, pulling four points ahead of the LA Galaxy and the Vancouver Whitecaps with a dominating 6-0 win over the Whitecaps at home.

Scottish forward Johnny Russell bagged a hat-trick in the game, all by the 48th minute, but the highlight of the night came off the foot of 24-year-old Jimmy Medranda. The Colombian scored an absolute worldie from a ridiculous angle, taking the space given to him outside the top-left corner of the box and sailing it over the head of Vancouver goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic and into the back of the net.

It was, of course, massively beneficial to Sporting KC that Vancouver went two men down in the 40th minute after a huge skirmish that saw Yordy Reyna and Efrain Juarez both sent off. Reyna earned his marching orders for throwing Russell to the ground, while Juarez reportedly used unacceptable language.

Still, KC was already up 3-0 when the incident occurred, and credit must go to teams that take advantage of what has been handed to them. Sporting KC certainly did that as Russell becomes the first Scotsman to score an MLS hat-trick since Colorado’s John Spencer in 2001, and Medranda’s wonder goal sealed the deal past the half-hour mark.

Jurgen Klopp already wants a piece of Man City next season

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Manchester City may have run away with the Premier League title this year, but Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp can’t wait for a clean slate to try and challenge City’s title defense next season.

The Reds are into the Champions League semifinals and also looking to finish the Premier League season strong in a battle for positioning in the top four, but when asked about next year, Klopp was giddy.

“Of course I don’t fear the challenge,” Klopp said in his prematch press conference ahead of Liverpool’s Premier League visit to West Brom on Saturday morning.

The German made it clear he wants a piece of Manchester City next season. “This year, if City plays a normal season – which they didn’t do – then it would have been really close until the end because we are now all close together.”

“United is four points ahead [of Liverpool], Tottenham is two points behind. It’s a real fight for these positions. All big six pretty much delivered this year but City delivered the best. We will see. It’s difficult to deal with success as it is difficult to deal with other things in football but I’m pretty sure they will be strong again.”

Liverpool is one of only two teams to beat City in league play this year, with Manchester United being the other. Klopp and company torched the City back line in a wild 4-3 victory that ended City’s 22-match unbeaten run. Ultimately, though, Klopp knows they have to look at the entire season as a whole to best the defending champs next year, not just their matches against each other.

“It’s not important how good City will be, it’s about how we can get all the other points, plus the points we got so far again,” he said. “That’s the job to do. That is why it is always possible that it is closer. But are they able to dominate? They don’t have a limit to spending and all that stuff so I don’t know.”

VIDEO: Goalkeeper sends Memphis Depay flying with skillful touch

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Former Manchester United attacker Memphis Depay has one of the brightest spots for Lyon this season that sees them battling with Monaco and Marseille for 2nd place behind a dominant PSG. He has scored 15 goals and assisted 11 others this Ligue 1 campaign, adding to his tally just four minutes into Friday’s 5-2 win over Dijon, the sixth win in a row for the club that pulled them within a point of Monaco.

However, there was a moment to forget for Depay in the victory as well.

With the score still at 1-1 in the 19th minute, Depay was sent high up the pitch to press Dijon goalkeeper Baptiste Reynet, owner of the leakiest net of the Ligue 1 season. Nevertheless, sometimes the underdog prevails, and that’s what happened as Depay flung himself at the ball to put Reynet under pressure.

One silky touch by the netminder was all it took for Depay to end up on his backside.

The 24-year-old Dutch winger has had a fantastic season and one that could potentially propel him back to the biggest stage and a bigger paycheck, but for now, we can all poke fun at his misery in the moment.

Dortmund admits interest in signing Batshuayi permanently

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Michy Batshuayi might be out for the season with a serious ankle injury, but he may have already done enough to earn a permanent move to Borussia Dortmund.

The Chelsea striker moved on loan to the Bundesliga side in January and made an immediate impact, scoring two goals on his debut, and ultimately wound up with seven goals in 10 Bundesliga games before his ankle injury brought his season to a close. Now, the Dortmund front office is speaking very highly of the Belgian goalscorer, not so subtly hinting that they will take an aggressive approach this summer.

The interest to sign him is there,” said Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke. “But first we have to wait and see who will be Chelsea’s coach next season. Then we’ll start looking.”

Chelsea has Antonio Conte currently at the helm, but there are strong rumors that the Italian will depart at the end of the season as the Blues sit comfortably outside the Champions League places. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is known for his quick trigger, and despite Conte winning the Premier League just last season, this year’s disappointment will likely not be tolerated.

That yet-to-be-determined future has a significant impact on Batshuayi’s future, as Watzke mentions. The new Chelsea boss could take a liking to Batshuayi, which could complicate his permanent move. In addition, it’s possible that current players on the Blues roster could depart, like Alvaro Morata, Olivier Giroud, or Willian, making Batshuayi’s place at Chelsea more tenable.

There’s plenty to be sorted out in the coming months, but with Batshuayi’s 10-game performance at Westfalenstadion at the forefront of Watzke’s mind, it’s clear there will be potential here as the summer draws near.