Southampton’s new Canadian Chairman chats growth in North America, NHL roots, Saints’ future

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EXCLUSIVE — On Wednesday Southampton Football Club appointed former NHL coach Ralph Krueger as their new Chairman at St. Mary’s Stadium, as the Premier League club took the unorthodox step of looking to Ice Hockey for their new leader.

Saints have been looking for a new figurehead since January when former Chairman Nicola Cortese left, and owner Katharina Liebherr has pounced to bring in Krueger, 54, who has a wealth of experience in the sports and business world.

Born in Canada, Krueger spent most of his playing days in Europe with the German national team and was a top marksman with Bundesliga side Dusseldorfer EG. Krueger then coached Switzerland and Austria in the Winter Olympics, before taking over at the Edmonton Oilers during the 2012-13 NHL season and as you can probably tell, Krueger is widely respected in hockey circles.

However after recently helping Team Canada to win Olympic Gold in Sochi, Krueger has switched ice for grass, and he couldn’t be happier about it. Initially it was thought Krueger would be an aide to the club, but now he’s the leading man. I caught up with Krueger on Wednesday, as he spoke to PST about his reasons for joining Saints and his plans for the future.

“The opportunity to grow the potential of the group is exciting,” Krueger said. “To see the foundation that’s here, going inside the sports soul of the academy and first team is very strong. The same is happening off the pitch, there are so many talented and motivated people. We have so much potential commercially and we have a great base to work with.”

Southampton are on the crest of a wave, with Saints pushing for their highest ever finish in the Premier League era this season — the team are currently ninth with nine PL games to go — and manager Mauricio Pochettino cultivating his talented crop of teenage superstars superbly at the teams renowned Staplewood training ground.

(MORE: After Gold medal success at Sochi, Krueger to start role at Southampton)

One of Krueger’s main aims is to increase the commercial success of Southampton, as the man who has been part of the World Economic Forum since 2011 is keen to exploit the wealth of untapped potential the South Coast club has. One area the 54-year-old would love to help Saints’ brand grow is overseas, including North America, without neglecting the club’s primary goal of becoming bigger in England, as Krueger also spoke of his aim to give the fans a definite voice within the club.

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Saints; owner Katharina Liebherr, left, has appointed Krueger as the man to take the ambitious PL club forward.

“Our primary goal is to build the club in the area where we live,” Krueger said. “But we want to build those other opportunities in the Far East and North America. I see that as a major responsibility that I have, to build the relationships to grow those markets. There is a huge gap where the club is at commercially and where it needs to be, nobody will give us the solution. We have to go out and work for it.”

During his unveiling at St. Mary’s Krueger talked about the ‘Southampton Way’ which has seen the club continue to develop elite youngsters who are representing not only the first team but also the national teams. Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers and James Ward-Prowse are current teenagers dazzling in the first team, while captain Adam Lallana is an academy product, as are global superstars Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale. Both of those players left Saints during the dark days which saw the club plummet to English soccer’s third-tier in 2010. But now they are back in the big time it’s the youngsters, with Shaw and Lallana now representing the English national team, will be the driving force behind Saints’ global brand.

“We can build the commercial arm of the organization both in Southampton and, for example, North America,” Krueger said. “We’d like to carve ourselves out as a unique club built on the soul of young players that are English. We want to try and tap into the potential of all that. I am really excited to support our commercial arms to do that.”

(MORE: Latest Premier League standings)

But what about his lack of soccer experience? Since news broke that Saints were handing Krueger a role on the board, many skeptics in England have questioned the motive behind hiring an individual who has always worked in the hockey industry.

I asked Krueger about his switch from hockey to soccer, and he gave a refreshingly honest answer, in keeping with his forthright, yet friendly, persona.

“The most important thing is that we want to create a unique, innovative and creative environment,” Krueger said. “I see it as an advantage that I come in without any previous experience in the Premier League, because there is a danger you get ‘stuck in a box.’ We want to be an organization that works ‘outside the box.’ We want to respect the heritage and history, but we want to separate ourselves from the other PL teams.”

source: AP
After coaching the Swiss and Austrian national hockey teams, plus a one-year stint with the Oilers, Krueger has switched hockey for soccer.

One of the main reasons Krueger was appointed was because of his background in motivational speaking and his strong leadership values. Krueger told me that initially he was keen to come on board as an aide to Liebherr but when she asked him to take the lead role, Krueger had no hesitation. The smooth transition he has made over the past few months getting to know the place and Liebherr has made the aftermath of Cortese’s departure a lot less damaging than it could’ve been.

When it comes to leading Southampton’s charge, Krueger is well-equipped from his time as a leader and motivational guru, with his book ‘Team Life: Over Losses to Success’ a best-seller on both sides of the pond. Implementing those values, along with his time spent working with the hugely influential World Economic Forum, which he will continued to do in his role as Southampton boss. Krueger told me he will spend as much time as possible in England, but will keep his home in Switzerland and did not put a definite period of time on his role with Saints.

“There is no time frame for myself, it’s just about coming here to try and nurture the environment to its potential,” Krueger said. “I’m open ended right now. We haven’t spoken about that, it’s all about ‘let’s get this going’ and do our best for the club. This could be a long-term step for me.”

(MORE:The dramatic rise of Southampton FC and their fans)

Krueger grew up in Manitoba, attending a British boarding school from a young age, and spoke about his time playing soccer on the fields, weather permitting, and his passion for the game and all sports. When asked about potentially helping the game grow in North America, Krueger was open to helping the game in any way he could in Canada and the U.S. and praised the impact the sport has for young people, including his two children,  in North America. He also mentioned that Team Canada captain Sidney Crosby is a huge soccer fan, and Krueger said Saints will probably get ‘Sid the Kid’ over to Southampton in August.

source: Getty Images
Krueger is adamant to include Saints’ fans in the conversation, as he wants to make the people who love the club a big part of the future.

The former Edmonton Oilers head coach, who coached the team during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, left the door open for a return to NHL, but insisted his sole aim is working as hard as he can to bring success to Southampton.

“I was confronted with NHL options around the Olympics and I had to make a decision immediately after Sochi,” Kruger said. “Honestly, this was the best fit for me as a person in my life. That other world doesn’t go away, that’s the beauty of sports. Even though you throw yourself whole-heartedly into one thing, it doesn’t mean  the other world is over. But this could be my last stop as a professional in sports.”

As for Southampton’s future, Krueger remained tight-lipped despite plenty of talk of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League in the not so distant future, and insisted his only job is to squeeze every ounce of potential from the upstart PL club. His drive and determination could be exactly what Saints need to get to the next level, as their rapid rise continues.

“I don’t like to promise results, that’s cheap,” Krueger said. “I like to promise that we will create processes that enables us to reach our potential. Where that takes us, nobody knows. The sky is the limit in sports. We would like to build a model where we are striving for that potential. My sole focus is on the process. If our environment feels that we are doing the best on a daily basis, we will accept the results that come with that. Maybe we can reach those high aspirations that everyone likes to talk about… let the process decide that and let’s throw ourselves into that. That’s what I’m all about.”

Guardiola: I’m staying at Man City and I love this challenge

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This year’s managerial merry-go-round tells us that nothing should surprise us, and there are few high-profile jobs that feel safe from changes at any given time.

Manchester City is one of them, but upheaval at old club Bayern Munich and uncertainty at Barcelona have had many linking Pep Guardiola with an early exit from the Etihad Stadium.

[ PL PREVIEW: Man City v. Chelsea ]

But as Chuck D warned us so long ago, don’t believe the hype; Guardiola says he’s very happy at Man City and not quitting on the project or the season.

“We don’t have a joker in our pocket,” he said. “I know, all around the world, people are saying the Premier League is done.”

“But if people think I am going to resign for these results, they don’t know me. I like this challenge. I love to be in this position. If the club wants me next season, I want to be here 100 percent.”

Few would be surprise if Man City went on a wild run of wins, especially once Aymeric Laporte and Leroy Sane return to the team. The reason folks think the Premier League is over is the idea that Liverpool would lose nine more points than City seems so unlikely (though they do meet again).

Milan hoping to woo “great champion” Zlatan next week

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Serie A mainstays AC Milan are trying to woo Zlatan Ibrahimovic back to the San Siro.

The full-court press makes sense, as it will take some financial sacrifices for Ibrahimovic to join the side given Financial Fair Play problems in Milan.

[ PL PREVIEW: Man City v. Chelsea ]

Coach Stefano Pioli called Zlatan “a great champion” while admitting he has to focus on the table and not transfers, while former AC Milan CEO Adriano Galliani issued a glowing call for the Swede to return to town.

From Football-Italia.com:

“It would be romantic if he returned. But I have a rule, I don’t talk about teams I’m not involved with anymore. I’m only a fan of Milan now. Still, his arrival would enrich Italian football, similar to when Cristiano Ronaldo came to Italy.”

Man, they know how to speak this guy’s language, don’t they?

Sky Sports says Ibrahimovic’s agent will meet with Milan again next week in the hopes of convincing him to take a lower wage deal, and the 38-year-old showed he’s willing to take one for the team during his stint with the LA Galaxy.

The move makes too much sense, with Milan’s 11 goals well below its expected goal number. They need a finisher, and Zlatan sure does that. And if lower wages means Zlatan gets to play mercenary for five months while proving he’s got the goods for a big wage for 2020-21, that’s an easy concession for the striker.

U.S. U-17 keeper Odunze learning from Schmeichel at Leicester City

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Leicester City’s huge secret was told to the world at the U-17 World Cup in Brazil, where imposing goalkeeper Chituru Odunze made several big saves in the United States’ quick exit from the group stage.

Odunze, who turned 17 last month, joined the Premier League outfit from the Vancouver Whitecaps last season, and is already getting some first team training time.

[ PL PREVIEW: Man City v. Chelsea ]

This is all good news for a USMNT program which has a long history of goalkeepers shining at the top levels in Europe, including Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, Tim Howard, and now Zach Steffen.

Odunze admits to being pleased at the tests provided by Jamie Vardy and the Leicester attackers, but says he’s learning more from the expertise on show from a trio of wise first team goalkeepers: Kasper Schmeichel, Danny Ward, and Eldin Jakupovic.

Schmeichel is a Premier League winner, Jakupovic a former regular PL starter with Hull City, and Ward helped Huddersfield Town to promotion during a loan from Liverpool. From The Leicester Mercury:

“They’re all really good role models at the club, and they sort of take you under their wing. They’ve taught me to calm down and be confident in my abilities,” Odunze said. “Of course, there are little pieces of technical information they give me while we’re training, but a lot of the lasting information I get from them is mental.”

The 17-year-old has a monstrous frame, so learning from Schmeichel and company at such a young age while getting tested by the Foxes’ electric attackers is a great combination. He is 2W-2L at the U18 Premier League level.

Premier League Preview: Manchester City v. Chelsea

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Manchester City and Chelsea both defend their slimmed title hopes when they meet Saturday at the Etihad Stadium (Watch Live at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

City is hoping to avoid a second-straight loss after dropping nine points behind prohibitive title favorites Liverpool last match day, while Frank Lampard‘s Blues know a loss could see them drop as many as 11 points behind the Reds.

And, of course, a win will give either side the table advantage over the other.

Ederson and David Silva are available again for Man City. Christian Pulisicis in contention to play” for Chelsea after missing the international break with the United States.

A Champions League match day follows this one, with Man City meeting Shakhtar Donetsk in Manchester on Tuesday and Chelsea in Spain to meet Valencia one day later.


Injuries/suspensions

Manchester City: OUT — Bernardo Silva, Aymeric Laporte, Leroy Sane. QUESTIONABLE — None.

Chelsea: OUT — Ruben Loftus-Cheek. QUESTIONABLE — Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi.


Probable lineups

Manchester City: Ederson; Walker, Stones, Fernandinho, Mendy; Rodri, Gundogan, B.Silva, De Bruyne, Mahrez, Aguero.

Chelsea: Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta, Tomori, Zouma, Alonso; Kovacic, Kante, Mount, Pulisic, Willian; Abraham.


What they’re saying

City’s Pep Guardiola on Frank Lampard’s young managerial career: “From my experience, experience doesn’t count much. I would say that when you know the club it is a good advantage and Frank Lampard knows Chelsea perfectly and everything behind the scenes – media, fans, players – so that is good. When I arrived (at Barcelona) not many people trusted me, honestly. Few, few people. Maybe the president, sporting director and not many. “Maybe Frank was similar at Derby. It was a big club, he didn’t take results in the beginning and people said he didn’t have experience. Look now.”

Frank Lampard on being above Man City after 12 matches: “For us to be in that position is something I am pleased with, I actually want more as well. I look at ourselves and don’t consider others, only where we could have got more points too, and there are times where we could have done. At the same time it is nice to be up there and around it. It’s a great test tomorrow, head to head to see where we’re at. It won’t be the end story, anyone can go to Manchester City and lose, they are such a strong outfit. That is what Pep Guardiola and the club have built over recent years. So I won’t be making huge judgements win or lose tomorrow without a doubt.”


Prediction

Could go either way, couldn’t it, but it feels more likely we see a vintage, defiant bounce back effort from City that looks a bit too easy given Chelsea’s strengths. This is the first big league test for Chelsea since its narrow loss to Liverpool on Sept. 22. We see the six-match winning streak ending via a 3-1 final score.