From Columbus to the Manchester derby: Iheanacho’s remarkable rise

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Here’s something you probably didn’t know.

Two years ago Kelechi Iheanacho was playing in front of virtually nobody for the Columbus Crew in a scrimmage as Manchester City waited for paperwork to be completed to sign the Nigerian striker.

[ VIDEO: Zlatan trolls Man City ]

It’s a story which sparked few headlines two years ago when it happened but now it takes on a whole new meaning.

Iheanacho, 19, could start in the Manchester derby on Saturday as Man City head to Manchester United (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports) in what is being billed as the most-expensive game in the history of the Premier League with over $900 million spent in transfer fees on the players involved.

With Sergio Aguero suspended for the huge encounter between two bitter rivals, Pep Guardiola is ready to put his trust in the Nigerian teenager with no other strikers around at City.

[ VIDEO: How big is this Manchester derby? ]

So, how did he end up in Columbus, Ohio in 2014?

Well, former Man City player and current director of football operations at New York City, Claudio Reyna, knows the Crew’s head coach Gregg Berhalter well from their U.S. national team days together and arranged for Iheanacho to train with Columbus while City tied up the loose ends and awaited international clearance on his $400,000 transfer from Taye Academy in Nigeria.

Since Iheanacho arrived at City he’s been a revelation, scoring 14 goals in his debut season in 2015-16 and he scored a screamer for the full Nigerian national team last week as his rise from being crowned the best player at the U-17 World Cup in 2014 (he scored six goals and added seven assists as Nigeria won the competition) has been swift.

Think about this while you watch the Manchester derby on Saturday: on Sept. 3, 2014 Iheanacho was lining up in a scrimmage in Obetz, Ohio for Columbus against the Dayton Dutch Lions of the USL Pro in front of nobody. On Sept. 10, 2016 he will likely be playing against Manchester United in a huge derby match in front of 75,000 at Old Trafford and hundreds of millions watching around the world.

Oh, by the way, Iheanacho scored a first half hat trick in that game for Columbus two years ago as a 17-year-old. Oh how Guardiola would love him to repeat that on Saturday.

Southampton players first in Premier League to cut wages

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Southampton players have become the first in the Premier League to defer their wages amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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The South Coast club released a statement on Thursday confirming their players have reached an agreement to defer their wages for April, May and June to make sure non-playing staff at the club are paid in full.

Saints also confirmed they will not use the UK government’s job retention scheme to furlough staff and that directors, coaching staff and manager Ralph Hasenhuttl will also defer their wages “to help protect the future of the club, the staff that work within it and the community we serve.”

“Furthermore, the club can confirm that it will not use the government’s Job Retention Scheme during April, May and June. Our owners, Mr. Gao and Katharina Liebherr have put measures in place to ensure that all staff not deferring part of their salaries will continue to receive 100% of their pay, paid in the normal way until 30th June. Any decision on the future beyond this date will be made in advance of this, but only when more information is known.”

The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) had previously stated that players should not take a 30 percent wage cut as that would impact the money paid to the UK government via taxes, while the PL players themselves have since announced the #PlayersTogether initiative which will see them donate funds to the NHS.

Other Premier League clubs have been heavily criticized for signing up for the job retention scheme which sees the UK government pay 80 of wages to staff who have been furloughed. Tottenham, Newcastle, Norwich and Bournemouth have signed up for that scheme, while Liverpool initially did then apologized and reversed their decision.

Premier League clubs are currently negotiating with their players about wage cuts and deferrals during the COVID-19 outbreak but many are yet to come to an agreement, as it is believed Saints’ players and staff will defer over 10 percent of their pay collectively.

Southampton have also been funding and delivering over 1,000 fresh meals per week to the most vulnerable people in the city of Southampton through their own charity, the Saints Foundation.

“Everyone at the club remains fully committed to the community we value so highly in Southampton. We will continue to offer our full support to the city of Southampton through the work of the Saints Foundation and provide any further assistance we can. We will continue to prepare our club for a return to the pitch and make sure that, when safe, we are ready to play and serve the people of Southampton again. Until then, We March On. Together.”

VOTE: Premier League March Madness Final Four

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Our Premier League March Madness tournament enters the Final Four stage on Thursday with two very intriguing ties.

After a wild Elite Eight which saw Everton and Sheffield United upset Chelsea and Man City respectively, we have two wonderful Final Four games set up as 20 Premier League teams are now down to 16.

#1 Liverpool host #12 Everton as the Toffees have upset Man United and Chelsea to reach the Final Four. #7 Sheffield United and #6 Wolves go head-to-head for a spot in the final as they continue to excite neutrals. These encounters will be close.

[ LIVE: March Madness PL hub ]

If you want to see the full game schedule, seedings and bracket, here is the post you need as the tournament will run all week long:

Monday: Relegation semifinals, final – Aston Villa prevailed, Norwich, Bournemouth, Watford relegated
TuesdaySweet 16 results
Wednesday: Elite Eight
Thursday: Final Four
Friday: Championship game

Plus, our own Nick Mendola handicapped the field and here is who he thinks will be the favorites to win it all and if there will be more upsets late on. After all, this is the Premier League…

Okay, vote below (until 6:30 p.m. ET) for the two Final Four matches as our Premier League March Madness tournament continues!

Ronaldinho to leave jail for luxury hotel arrest in Paraguay

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ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) Retired soccer star Ronaldinho was released from a high-security jail in Paraguay on Tuesday after more than a month, but was ordered to serve house arrest at a luxury hotel while he’s investigated for using a fake passport to enter the country.

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Ronaldinho, the Brazilian former FIFA player of the year, and his brother Roberto de Assis were also told to pay bail of $800,000 each.

Ronaldinho, who helped lead Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title, was jailed on March 6 after entering the small South American country with a false Paraguayan passport. He told local authorities in a hearing that the document was a gift from a Brazilian businessman, Wilmondes Sousa Liria, who was also jailed.

“I decided to put them in house arrest because the investigation is now well advanced, differently from the situation one month ago,” Judge Gustavo Amarilla said when issuing the ruling.

Ronaldinho had his Brazilian passport seized at home due to an investigation into alleged environmental crimes, but the document was returned to him in September. One month later he played in a friendly in Israel.

If convicted, the former Barcelona star could spend up to five years in jail. Fourteen people are being investigated in the case.

Ronaldinho came to Paraguay to promote his autobiography. He was jailed in an improvised penitentiary in the south of Asunción, which is used for 150 dangerous criminals, including convicts of drug dealing, corruption and rape. During his stay he played soccer with inmates and took pictures with them that were shared on social media.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Court date for USWNT’s law suit versus U.S. Soccer delayed

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A court case that has dragged U.S. Soccer’s administration through the mud and led to a change of leadership may drag into the summer.

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A judge in California has delayed the May 5 trial of gender discrimination against the USSF until June 16 due in part to the coronavirus pandemic. A pretrial conference was also moved to June 1.

The federation is being sued by members of the two-time reigning World Cup champion USWNT under the Equal Pay Act.

The women are requesting more than $66 million in damages.

The extra month gives both parties more time to reach a settlement which could keep this ugly case away from trial. Given the uncertainty in our world, it could of course be delayed again.

The USSF has a new CEO in Will Wilson, who can make a major statement of change by stopping the trial from reaching court.