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Croatia coach Dalic traveled hard path to World Cup final

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MOSCOW (AP) — In a coaching journey across Croatia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Zlatko Dalic’s belief in his own abilities never dimmed.

[ MORE: Southgate “the backbone of this team; the man’s a gentleman” ]

“I used to say, ‘Give me a Barcelona or a Real Madrid and I will win titles,’” Dalic recalled Thursday.

Such jobs no longer seem so far out of reach, especially if Dalic collects the biggest prize in soccer on Sunday. Croatia will win the World Cup for the first time if Dalic’s team can get the better of France and coach Didier Deschamps.

Receiving trophies is nothing new for Deschamps. As a player, the midfielder won titles at clubs in France, Italy and England, as well as the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship with France. As a coach, he led France to the Euro 2016 final, losing to Portugal.

But the 51-year-old Dalic had a largely unremarkable playing career before switching to coaching in his native Croatia.

[ MORE: Mourinho: England needs to keep coaches for next World Cup ]

“In my life I have always taken the harder path, had to fight for everything myself,” Dalic said through a translator at Luzhniki Stadium. “I started at the bottom of the ladder.”

The climb required a leap into the unknown with a move to the Middle East in 2010.

“I did not want to stay in Croatia and be a middling coach and to live off handouts,” Dalic said. “I went abroad whenever it was possible to find a job.”

Dalic eventually landed at Al-Hilal, where he won the Saudi Crown Prince Cup, and then reached the Asian Champions League final with Al-Ain.

“We cannot sneeze at that. These are major competitions,” Dalic said. “This brought me huge experience … and I built a name for myself. This was a hard path but I believed in myself. When Croatia called, I never had any doubts.”

[ TRANSFER RUMORS: Malcom to Spurs, Bale to Man Utd “advanced” ]

The call that ended Dalic’s nomadic seven-year journey came last year, when Croatia had a game remaining to salvage qualification.

“He is very dedicated to football,” Croatian federation president Davor Suker said, “and we gave him the chance.”

Dalic led Croatia into the World Cup playoffs, where it beat Ukraine over two matches. Now he has taken his country further than ever before in a major soccer competition, eclipsing Suker’s semifinalists in 1998.

Brand Dalic is growing after Croatia came from behind to beat England 2-1 in the semifinal in Moscow on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Deschamps: EURO heartbreak drives France to World Cup final ]

“The coach has created a special atmosphere,” said Croatia defender Dejan Lovren, who plays for Liverpool. “He knows exactly how to interact with players and does it in a unique way.”

Dalic also relished interacting with the media on Thursday in the stadium where Croatia plays its biggest-ever game on Sunday. The highly ambitious coach used his moment in the spotlight to advertise his credentials.

“Nothing was given to me on a plate, unlike some managers in Europe who can be given jobs to manage a big club because of their names as players,” Dalic said.

PSG signs American defender Alana Cook from Stanford

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PARIS (AP) Paris Saint-Germain’s women’s team has signed American defender Alana Cook from Stanford University.

The 21-year-old Cook, who was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, has signed until June 2022. She was named the Pac-12 defensive player of the year this season for her performances with Stanford and has represented the U.S. at Under-20 level.

[ MORE: Atlanta signs Watford teen ]

She played 93 games and scored five goals for Stanford.

PSG’s women’s team is second in the French first division and sits two points behind five-time European champion Lyon after 15 rounds.

Cook says “I really wanted to play in a European club and to play against the best teams in the world.”

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

MLS notes: Zimmerman spurns Europe, Vazquez sold, DC youngster in remission

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Let’s sweep up some good, somewhat-expected, and wonderful news from around Major League Soccer.

DC United defender and Maryland product Chris Odoi-Atsem announced that he is in remission after a fight with Stage Two Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

[ MORE: Atlanta signs Watford teen ]

Odoi-Atsem was expected to undergo four months of chemotherapy, and the announcement comes just under three months into the journey.

At 23, Odoi-Atsem hopes to rejoin the team after his final round of chemo later this month. He was the 12th overall draft pick in 2017.

Another defender is extending his stay in Los Angeles.

USMNT center back Walker Zimmerman was a huge part of LAFC’s success as an expansion club following his arrival from FC Dallas, and was reportedly ready to test the waters of European soccer with interest from the Premier League, Ligue 1, and the Bundesliga.

But Bob Bradley pushed the right buttons and LAFC will have its 25-year-old mainstay back in the fold via a Targeted Allocation Money contract running through the 2022 season.

Finally, one of the key pieces to Toronto FC’s 2017 MLS Cup triumph is on his way out of Ontario.

Victor Vazquez is going to be sold to an unnamed Qatari club, pending a physical according to TSN’s Kristian Jack.

The 32-year-old scored posted 18 goals and 15 primary assists for TFC.

Transfer rumor roundup: Pellegrini to Man Utd? Dabbur wants Liverpool

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As Arsenal might be losing its head of recruitment, other Premier League movers and shakers are looking to bring big names to the Top Four fight.

If Northern Ireland is the hub for transfer movement, January is going to be a wild ride for one of the Premier League’s flagship clubs.

[ MORE: Atlanta signs Watford teen ]

The Belfast Telegraph is reporting that Manchester United is pursuing young Roma midfielder Lorenzo Pellegrini in addition to the whispers linking the club to former Liverpool wizard Philippe Coutinho.

Pellegrini, 22, has two goals and six assists for Roma this season, having become a regular call-up for Italy. He reportedly has a $35 million release clause in his contract, though he is cup-tied in the Champions League (Roma next faces Porto).

His 2.6 key passes per game lead Roma and only AC Milan’s Suso and Atalanta’s Alejandro Gomez average more across Serie A. Pellegrini is second on Roma in crosses with 1.5.

How does $115 million sound for an elite 27-year-old defender? That’s what Napoli would reportedly accept from Real Madrid to bring Kalidou Koulibaly west to Spain.

The report, which also links Real with interest in Roma’s Kostas Manolas and Porto’s Eder Miliato, says United remains interested in the player despite the exit of admirer Jose Mourinho.

Anything more than $97 million, the fee Liverpool paid for Virgil Van Dijk, would break the world transfer record for a defender.

Meanwhile, Israeli striker Munas Dabbur is angling to bring his 20-goal season to Anfield.

Reports that Dabbur has turned down a move to Valencia in the hopes of joining Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino at Liverpool.

The Red Bull Salzburg striker has scored half of his 20 goals in the Champions League and Europa League, and has 11 Israel caps.

The cost for Dabbur is said to be $28 million, but is there any guarantee Dabbur can produce at a level that would demand playing time. Divock Origi has three goals in six matches and can hardly get time for the Reds, and Daniel Sturridge has only found 576 minutes in the first half of the season.

Arsenal to reportedly lose head of recruitment Mislintat

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The man expected to usher in an era of exciting new young talent at Arsenal may be leaving the club after less than 14 months.

Arsenal head of recruitment Sven Mislintat, 46, has been hailed as the man who discovered Christian Pulisic and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang while at Borussia Dortmund.

[ MORE: Atlanta signs Watford teen ]

Well-connected reporter Raphael Honigstein says Mislintat is frustrated by a change in recruitment policy since Ivan Gazidis left the Emirates Stadium. Gazidis hired Mislintat to use analytics and stats to find diamonds, whereas new head of football Raul Sanllehi prefers to work his own network for players.

Mislintat is considered the key to bringing in Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi, as well as clear connections like former BVB center back Sokratis Papastathopolous.

His departure would be a shot across the bow of an organization which enjoyed stability under Gazidis and Arsene Wenger for years.