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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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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.

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“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.

La Liga: Espanyol up to 2nd, Athletic held again

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The top of the La Liga table is quite something.

While Barcelona continues to lead the way, below them rests nearby Espanyol after the Periquitos defeated basement-dwellers Huesca 2-0 on Borja Iglesias’s third and fourth goals of the season. The Spaniard struck just before halftime to open the scoring, before hitting again just past the hour mark to seal the three points.

Real Valladolid jumped above Real Madrid into sixth with a 1-0 road victory at Real Betis. A 35th minute goal by 30-year-old journeyman Antonioto was enough to earn the win, as Betis popped off 20 total shots, but only four were on target. Takashi Inui had a great chance but whiffed right on the doorstep midway through the second half. With Sunday’s results, Real Madrid dropped all the way down to seventh.

Getafe topped Rayo Vallecano 2-1 to jump into the top half of the table. The eventual winner was a 67th minute own-goal by 20-year-old Sergio Akieme who would have been celebrated for a quality finish tapping home a cross, although it was into his own net.

Finally, first-half goals four minutes apart cancelled out as Athletic Bilbao and Eibar drew 1-1. The home side struck first at Ipurua Municipal Stadium as the referee went to VAR 17 minutes in and found that Inigo Martinez tackled Sergi Enrich in the box, a clear scythe after the Athletic defender anticipated incorrectly the incoming cross. 24-year-old Brazilian Charles completed the penalty with a slow run-up, putting the hosts in front. Four minutes later, the visitors struck back on a fabulous moment of anticipation by Raul Garcia who headed perfectly in front of a streaking Inaki Williams who got behind the defense and put the ball into the back of the net.

Timbers tops RSL to clinch playoffs, Galaxy now controls destiny

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The Western Conference playoff picture has become more clear after the Portland Timbers clinched a playoff spot by topping Real Salt Lake 3-0.

The victory not only secured a berth for Portland, but it also left RSL in a position of vulnerability. The LA Galaxy won at Minnesota 3-1 with Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the scoresheet, pulling within a point of RSL, who is done for the regular season, meaning the Galaxy controls its own destiny.

Portland put together a comprehensive performance, disappointing from RSL’s perspective with the playoffs on the line. 15 minutes in, Diego Valeri chipped in a free-kick and defender Larrys Mabiala made a run at the back post for the tap-in. Portland defended well for the rest of the first half, and while the visitors dominated the first part of the second half, they conceded again past the hour mark through another unlikely culprit in Diego Chara. On the counter, Chara made a storming run down the middle, and after collecting a Sebastian Blanco pass, he touched past a charging Nick Rimando and finished cooly. The third came from Blanco with three minutes to go to put the cherry on top of a solid overall performance.

Los Angeles picked up a vital three points thanks to a ruthless attack. Ibrahimovic headed home a beautiful looping cross from Rolf Feltscher right on the half-hour mark, and the Galaxy went up for good.

In the second half, a ridiculous four-minute stretch saw three goals in succession. First, Ola Kamara was denied on the doorstep by Michael Boxall, but seconds later he poked in an Ashley Cole cross at the near post for LA’s second. The third came just one minute later as Minnesota turned it over in their own defensive third, and Ibrahimovic crossed to Roman Alessandrini for an absurd volleyed finish. Minnesota got a consolation just two minutes later through Angello Rodríguez, but it wasn’t enough.

So, the playoff picture is thus: Portland is in with 54 points. RSL is currently in the playoffs, but their regular season is finished with 49 points. The Galaxy, therefore, sit below the cut line on 48 points but have a meeting with Houston next weekend for all the marbles. They need to win to advance to the playoffs, as a draw would leave them with one fewer win, the first tiebreaker.

Supporters Shield still up for grabs as Atlanta, NYRB both win

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The New York Red Bulls are still in the mix, but Atlanta United has taken a one-point lead into the final matchday of the season as both teams won on Sunday.

Atlanta United topped Chicago 2-1 at Mercedes-Benz stadium. Franco Escobar opened it up early and an own-goal put them ahead for good, keeping pace with RBNY’s win over Philadelphia and leaving them a point ahead at the top of the table.

Escobar’s strike came just eight minutes in, after feeding Josef Martinez near the penalty spot who whiffed and fell down, he latched back onto the loose ball and decided to take it himself, curling one inside the far post. Chicago scored in the 24th minute to level the score, but Atlanta did not relent.

Just two minutes after Chicago’s equalizer, Atlanta was back on top. Chris McCann crossed it from the left edge, and Johan Kappelhof attempted to slide and block the cross at the near post, but instead he redirected the ball into the back of his own net.

New York, meanwhile, kept pace with a 1-0 victory at Philadelphia behind a penalty from Kaku, sending Andre Blake the wrong way. The spot-kick was given on a VAR check that determined Alejandro Bedoya handled the ball.

On the final day of the season, the Red Bulls will host Orlando City, while Atlanta is on the road at Toronto. Atlanta can secure the Supporters’ Shield with a win, but New York can jump them with a win and an Atlanta draw or loss. Should Atlanta lose by one goal and the Red Bulls draw, the teams would be level on points, wins, and goal differential, meaning the significant Atlanta lead on goals scored would give them the advantage.

Rooney scores brace, DC United completes improbable playoff push

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They’ve done it. They’ve really done it.

D.C. United, with just two league wins through the first 19 games of the MLS season, has completed an improbable playoff bid by securing an Eastern Conference berth in the postseason with a 3-1 win over NYCFC on the penultimate matchday of the season.

Wayne Rooney, the catalyst for this amazing turnaround, fittingly scored a brace, including the opener just eight minutes in on a fabulous run from Luciano Acosta down the end line.

Acosta was there to secure the win, doubling the lead in the 24th minute with a long-distance strike into the top-right corner.

Goalkeeper Bill Hamid was required to preserve the lead, getting down low to stop a tight-angle strike from David Villa towards the end of the first half. That would spur D.C. on, as they would seal the deal with a penalty from Rooney in the 74th minute, leaving NYCFC with just a consolation in the 78th minute when David Villa ended the bid for a clean sheet.

The victory caps an improbable second-half run for D.C. United, as they have won five in a row and 10 of their last 15. Rooney has been the leader, earning the role of captain despite just signing this summer, and scoring 12 goals in 19 MLS matches. With Columbus Crew drawing, D.C. jumped all the way up into fourth place with the win.