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Soccer success: Iceland investment takes tiny nation to WCup

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REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) Sunrise is still two hours away when 700 boys arrive for a Sunday morning soccer tournament in Reykjavik, the world’s northern most capital.

[ MORE: Mourinho hits out at Arsenal after Man United win ]

It’s snowing and freezing outside but the players have overcome the natural barrier of playing football on a wind-lashed North Atlantic island by gathering at an indoor hall with a full-size artificial grass field.

If they dream of playing in a World Cup they know it can come true because their national team is going. On Friday, Iceland, the smallest nation ever to qualify, was drawn with Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria in Group D.

The latest achievement has left many wondering if the island nation of nearly 340,000 people is benefiting from its investment in the sport, or is it only temporary success?

Speaking with The Associated Press at the national football stadium, Laugardalsvollur, former Iceland manager Gudjon Thordarson said the investment was paying off.

“Place Iceland’s seven indoor halls in Coventry,” he said, mentioning an English city with a roughly matching population, “and just wait and see what happens over, say, 15 years.”

What has already happened, according to Thordarson, is that when Icelanders were able to play soccer year-round, the rest of the sport became more professional. Coaching became a paid part-time job with required qualifications, instead of a volunteer role given to any involved parent.

Iceland has 460 coaches with a UEFA B license for training children up to the age of 16, or one per 740 people.

Hakon Sverrisson, who left his job as a math teacher to become head coach at the Breidablik club, said he wanted the best coaches to stay with the youngest players because “that’s when they learn the most.”

Every child pays the club’s tuition with a 300 euro ($355) voucher provided by the local municipality to support after-school activities.

Public funding toward sport clubs and their facilities mean children need to be provided with equal opportunities. “This means it’s hard for us to select the 15 or 20 best players and train them extra hard,” Sverrisson said.

Iceland’s place at the World Cup in Russia comes after a stunning run at the 2016 European Championship, where the team made it to the quarterfinals, knocking out England before losing to France 5-2.

Vidar Halldorsson, a sociology professor at the University of Iceland, argued in a recent book that in an era of big money the Icelandic team preserves an amateur spirit of friendship and sacrifice “while the elite teams have been weakened by greed and individualism.”

The Icelandic players have relatively modest careers as professional footballers – team captain Aron Gunnarsson, for example, is with second-tier Cardiff in the English League Championship.

“Together the players are ambitious and supportive,” Halldorsson said, “and always willing to put the team first.”

The success is not “sport specific,” he said, pointing to top-class performances by the Icelandic handball and basketball teams.

“Icelanders have not forgotten the `play’ in sports,” Halldorsson said, “and with that they champion the values the larger teams have lost in recent years.”

The matches at the Korinn indoor hall are watched by proud parents, catching up with friends and relatives. Faces are familiar in a country this small, and even Iceland President Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson was there to watch his 8-year-old son.

“The kids here, they learn their game and are encouraged to pass the ball to the next player instead of just kicking it as far as you can – tiny things like that give them an understanding of the game,” Johannesson told the AP.

[ MORE: A look back at Saturday’s action from around the Premier League ]

A father of five and long-time volunteer in youth clubs, the president said the most important thing was that everybody is involved. “We just make sure that everybody has fun, everybody improves himself and everybody has a good time,” Johannesson said.

“That is what matters to me, not that we are creating professional football players 10 years on or something like that.”

Americans on both sides, Weah scores as PSG fall to Bayern (video)

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Two hopes of the USMNT’s future — one more immediate than the other — squared off in the International Champions Cup on Saturday.

Paris Saint-Germain teenager Timothy Weah, 18, went 90 minutes and scored his side’s only goal in the 3-1 loss in Austria.

[ MORE: Neymar on diving ]

On the other side of the field was 62nd minute substitute Chris Richards, far less known to the American supporter.

Richards is on loan from FC Dallas, where he’s a Homegrown Player. The 18-year-old center back is going to play for Bayern’s U-19 side following a successful trial in April.

Both Bayern and PSG were without key pieces, as Weah went up against a decent Bayern back line of Juan Bernat, Javi Martinez, Josip Stanisic, and Rafinha.

Arjen Robben, Sandro Wagner, and Franck Ribery were the biggest names in Bayern’s XI, while David Alaba, Kingsley Coman, and Serge Gnabry came off the bench.

For PSG, Gianluigi Buffon started as did Adrien Rabiot.

Weah’s goal is below, and here’s what he had to say about it:

“It’s an amazing feeling and getting a well-done job. Me scoring goals, I was really happy to get my first goal for PSG and first goal in this competition. We’re going to Singapore with our head on our shoulders. We’re going to be really humble and keep playing.”

Klopp talks Pulisic, Liverpool’s spending

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Jurgen Klopp admits he’d love to work with Christian Pulisic again, but isn’t going to butt his nose into Borussia Dortmund’s business.

Speaking ahead of Liverpool’s International Champions Cup match against BVB, Klopp was asked about his interest in the American teenager.

[ MORE: Josef Martinez bags 3 more ]

Klopp was quick to point out that Pulisic is under contract to Dortmund and not for sale, as much as he’s aware.

From The Liverpool Echo:

“He had not his best season last year but he was still a decisive player but it’s important in that age group that there’s no rush. He still has 14 or 15 years to play in his career and that’s good and he wants to be the best Pulisic he can be. For this, there is still space for development.

“If – at one point – he will join us, I don’t know. I like him, it’s not that that could be the problem, but we respect contracts still and there’s no market I know about at the moment. We did our business and Dortmund are doing theirs. All good.”

Also all good? Klopp’s evolution on spending after blasting other Premier League clubs for big money buys in the past.

Klopp said he would quit football if transfer fees like Paul Pogba‘s became the norm. Well, they have, and no club has spent as much money as the Reds this summer.

“That’s the problem these days, hey? Whatever b.s. you say, nobody will forget it. On the other side, it’s still kind of true. I couldn’t have imagined since then that the world would change like it has. Two years ago £100million was a crazy number. Since then the world has changed completely.”

He said he’s going to do whatever it takes to make Liverpool successful, and Klopp now has the world’s most expensive goalkeeper and most expensive defender in his squad.

Lodeiro brace gives Seattle’s faint playoff hopes a lifeline

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In Major League Soccer’s forgiving playoff structure, there’s almost always a way back into the mix.

When your team has a talent like Nicolas Lodeiro, your chances get magnified quite a bit.

[ MORE: Josef Martinez bags 3 more ]

Lodeiro scored twice, once from the spot, and Seattle debuted its new Designated Player in a 2-0 Cascadia Cup win over Vancouver on Saturday.

Seattle is now eight points back of the West’s final playoff spot with 15 to play in its season. And the Sounders join Portland on three Cascadia Cup points, with the Timbers beating Seattle in the other cup match of the season.

Raul Ruidiaz came off the bench for the Sounders, and showed early glimpses of why Seattle wanted the World Cup participant from Peru.

The ‘Caps finished the match with 10 men thanks to a red card on Efrain Juarez, who saw yellow and then made contact with the referee.

The second goal took a vicious turn on its way to making goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic look capital-A awkward.

MLS 3 Things: Unstoppable Martinez grills DC in surge toward record

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Josef Martinez bagged his MLS record sixth career hat trick, and moved to within five goals of the single season goal record as Atlanta United battered DC United 3-1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday.

[ MORE: Caps’ Davies nears Bayern move ]

1) The MLS record book better get used to his name: Martinez now has 22 goals in 22 matches this season, and he’s going to break the Major League Soccer single season goal record if he’s at least half as productive over the final 12 matches.

Martinez has goals in nine of his last 10 matches. He got luck to set up his third, but look at this composed finish.

2) Another American milestone: 18-year-old USMNT prospect Andrew Carleton made his first MLS start and helped set-up Martinez’s second goal, which gave Atlanta United its first lead.

3) Rooney fails to find score sheet: England hero Wayne Rooney couldn’t find a goal or assist after picking up one of the latter in his debut. This time it was a start for Rooney, who went 66 minutes and earned a yellow card to go with his second shot.