Lars Lagerback

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EURO 2016 darlings Iceland thrive with unusual coaching partnership

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PARIS (AP) Trying to explain how Iceland has unexpectedly reached the European Championship quarterfinals, coach Lars Lagerback recalled some early managerial advice.

“Doing it simple is to be a genius,” Lagerback was told by then-West Ham manager Ron Greenwood on a visit to London in the 1970s.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s EURO 2016 coverage ]

Before Lagerback could continue his answer at a news conference on Saturday, the man sitting two seats to his left chipped in with a question of his own.

“So you’re a genius?” Heimir Hallgrimsson asked.

“You said it!” Lagerback responded in a flash to Hallgrimsson, his co-coach with the Iceland national team.

It was a glimpse into the convivial and flourishing managerial partnership behind Iceland’s stunning progress at Euro 2016 ahead of the Nordic nation’s quarterfinal against France on Sunday.

In a sport where one dominant leader is seen as an essential ingredient to controlling a dressing room, Lagerback and Hallgrimsson are jointly masterminding Iceland’s first-ever appearance at a major tournament.

In the 67-year-old Lagerback, Iceland has a wily managerial veteran of World Cups and European Championships with his native Sweden. The 49-year-old Hallgrimsson is a part-time Icelandic dentist whose previous coaching was at IBV Vestmannaeyjar in a domestic league featuring no professional clubs.

“The experience from that guy has helped a lot,” Iceland captain Aron Gunnarsson said Saturday, pointing to Lagerback before switching a thumb in the direction of Hallgrimsson. “And the more technical computer stuff has come from him. They blend in really nicely together.”

It’s an intriguing dynamic, but one that furthered Lagerback’s career when he shared the coaching responsibilities at Sweden with Tommy Soderberg. Together they returned Sweden to the international stage, reaching the round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup and the quarterfinals at Euro 2004.

Now, Lagerback is seeking to go one better with Iceland with a semifinal place on offer if host France can be beaten at the Stade de France. The Icelanders are unbeaten after four games, with a group-stage draw against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal followed by England being knocked out in the round of 16.

[ MORE: Germany outlast Italy in epically bad PK shootout to reach semis ]

“Four eyes see more,” Lagerback said. “We try to work really equally. It’s also extra important for me as I have been lazy, as I haven’t learnt the (Icelandic) language.”

Although the coaches stress they are on equal footing, Lagerback assumes the primary role without necessarily realizing it at times.

“Do you want me to answer that?” he responds when asked about the partnership.

But when the duo is asked about France and Hallgrimsson replies first at length, Lagerback follows up by saying: “I can’t put it much better, so I rest my case.”

When Euro 2016 ends for Iceland – and that might not be for another week if Iceland reaches the final – Hallgrimsson will have the managerial reins all to himself. He is trying to extract as much managerial acumen from Lagerback before then.

“Iceland is a country where there’s only amateur football. The coaches who are coaching there are amateur coaches,” Hallgrimsson said at the training camp in Annecy before making the trip to the French capital.

“To have a guy coming to Iceland with all (Lagerback’s) international experience … teach us how to do things is priceless. And he’s leaving that legacy and knowledge in the hands of the Icelandic FA.”

Such partnerships have not always thrived in soccer.

[ MORE: Wales shock Belgium | Portugal downs Poland on PKs ]

Liverpool’s gamble to use a management partnership to end a trophy drought in the 1990s quickly fractured. Former France coach Gerard Houllier was brought in to link up with incumbent Roy Evans but the ex-Liverpool player left after four months.

“Maybe at one stage (the players) didn’t know who was the boss – who they had to refer to,” Houllier said of his ill-fated partnership with Evans.

But for Iceland, two heads are proving better than one.

“You can go to both and speak to both,” said Gunnarsson, the Iceland captain.

But who has the final say in the dugout?

“We use the Swedish way,” Hallgrimsson said. “We talk until we agree.”

Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

USMNT-Iceland preview: Goalkeepers, stability, youth, Gudjohnsen, sheep eyes

Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images
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The United States men’s national team looks to continue to stabilize its footing as a program when its youth-heavy squad takes on Iceland on Sunday in California.

After losing five of six in depressing fashion, the Yanks picked up four of six points in their first two matches of World Cup qualifying.

Now Jurgen Klinsmann will look to keep the ship steady despite a roster featuring a majority of unproven players (at the international level).

[ VIDEO: Zardes, Parker talk USMNT camp ahead of friendlies ]

The USMNT hasn’t played Iceland since 1994, and has a 2-2-2 record in competitions dating back to 1955.

It’s Iceland’s only match-up of the international window, and comes on the heels of a 1-0 defeat of Finland and a 2-1 loss to UAE.

This is far from a full-strength squad for coaches Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson, who travel with 18 players. We won’t see Gylfi Sigurðsson (Spurs), Kolbeinn Sigþórsson (Nantes) or Alfreð Finnbogason (Olympiakos).

Former Bolton, Chelsea and Barcelona man Eidur Gudjohnsen will be in the mix for Iceland. Now with Shijiazhuang Ever Bright of the Chinese Super League, he’ll bring 83 caps and 25 goals to the match. Well-rated 20-year-old PSV Eindhoven center back Hjörtur Hermannsson will also be in the fold.

[ MORE: Klinsmann explains roster: “Make a point” ]

Matt Miazga left camp to get a medical with Chelsea, and he’s signed for the Premier League giants. In his place is Michael Orozco.

PST’s Andy Edwards has a nice post on five players with plenty to gain from this match — and Friday’s match-up with Canada — but we’ll proffer another thing to watch.

With Brad Guzan a backup at Aston Villa and Tim Howard growing older, three MLS keepers can make a statement. RBNY’s Luis Robles hasn’t been capped in ages, while Chicago’s Sean Johnson has yet to make a dent on the USMNT pitch. Could San Jose’s David Bingham get a look?

USMNT’s Icelandic-Alabaman, Aron Johannsson, won’t be playing in this match, but offered a rundown of views on Iceland to USSoccer.comAlso, sheep eyes:

I didn’t travel much around Iceland growing up, but people really like going to the mountains and enjoying the hot springs. You can’t find them many other places. I don’t like traditional Icelandic food, which includes sheep eyes, ears and tongues. Mostly just old people eat it. Instead, I grew up eating the same stuff as everyone like chicken and fish.

Oh, the “old people” of Iceland! So zany with their sheep eyes!

U.S. Roster by Position

GOALKEEPERS (3): David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire), Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls)

DEFENDERS (9): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), Eric Miller (Montreal Impact), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), Tim Parker (Vancouver Whitecaps FC), Matt Polster (Chicago Fire), Brandon Vincent (Chicago Fire), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC)

MIDFIELDERS (8): Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Mix Diskerud (New York City FC), Jermaine Jones (unattached), Perry Kitchen (unattached), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution), Tony Tchani (Columbus Crew SC), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC)

FORWARDS (6): Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Ethan Finlay (Columbus Crew SC), Jerome Kiesewetter (VfB Stuttgart), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Khiry Shelton (New York City FC), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)