Michelle Kaufman

March Madness comes late for Leicester City

FILE- In this Monday, March 14, 2016 file photo, Leicesters Shinji Okazaki, left, celebrates with teammates Jamie Vardy, right, and Daniel Drinkwater, after scoring during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Newcastle United at the King Power Stadium in Leicester, England.
FILE- In this Monday, March 14, 2016 file photo, Leicesters Shinji Okazaki, left, celebrates with teammates Jamie Vardy, right, and Daniel Drinkwater, after scoring during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Newcastle United at the King Power Stadium in Leicester, England. AP

College basketball fans spent March and early April talking about upsets and Cinderella teams and wild finishes in the NCAA Tournament. But there is no underdog team more endearing and no unlikelier league leader anywhere in the world than Leicester City.

In fact, if Leicester City wins the English Premier League title — which it very well might — it will be one of the biggest upsets in sports history.

The Foxes were fighting relegation at this time last year and were 5,000-to-1 preseason odds to win the league championship this season. Read that again slowly: 5,000-to-1. Not 500-to-1, but 5,000-to-1.

Leicester City, with an $85 million payroll that is one-tenth the size of Manchester City’s, sits atop the EPL table with a seven-point lead over Tottenham with six games remaining. The Foxes have 69 points, Tottenham 62 and Arsenal 59.

Consider that over the past 20 years, no team outside the big four — Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea — has won the league title.

And yet, here are the Foxes, on the verge of history.

How did this happen? How did a team languishing in the league basement last year get to this point? How did a team that fired its coach because his son, a reserve player, was involved in a racist sex-tape scandal become the toast of soccer fans everywhere?

It seems to have started with the hiring of coach Claudio Ranieri, a laid-back, grandfatherly Italian who had coached Inter, Juventus and Chelsea but had never won any big trophies. He took his collection of talented but uncelebrated players and has turned them into a spirited, cohesive team.

When they recorded their first shutout in November, he took the entire team out for pizza — and he had the players knead the dough themselves. Corny as that might sound, it was the start of a bond that only got stronger as the season wore on.

His top players are not world-known superstars and yet they are in contention for EPL Player of the Year.

Jamie Vardy, a 29-year-old journeyman, is the league’s second-leading scorer. He worked in a factory and played semipro until his mid-20s, and finally found success a few years ago. Riyad Mahrez is a French Algerian who came from the French second division. And N’Golo Kate, 24, has skyrocketed from the sixth division of the French league to one of the top players in England in the span of four years.

And at goalkeeper is Kasper Schmeichel, son of the Manchester United goalkeeping legend Peter Schmeichel.

As the season heads into the final stretch, it’s hard not to root for the Foxes. And if they win, a One Shining Moment montage would be in order.

▪ Happy anniversary, MLS: Meanwhile, stateside, Major League Soccer celebrated its 20th anniversary this week. On April 6, 1996, D.C. United and the San Jose Clash played the first game in league history. MLS has grown from 10 teams to 20, and 15 of those play in their own soccer-specific stadiums.

Eric Wynalda scored to give the Clash a 1-0 win on that day. Other players in that game were Eddie Lewis, Jeff Agoos, Marco Etcheverry, John Harkes and Raul Diaz Arce. Bruce Arena, now with the Los Angeles Galaxy, coached D.C. at the time.

“We all had basically thrown together new teams,” Arena told the Washington Post recently. “We had practiced for about a month. The league, at that time, was not prepared to be a professional sports league. The game itself was of horrendous quality. It might have been the worst game ever played. And that’s quite a statement. It was a real bad game.

“At that point, we were all trying to figure out what we got into and what it was going to be. It was easier to put a man on the moon than to put together a professional soccer league in this country. It was harder than to form the NFL, NBA, baseball or hockey. Because they created those [pro] sports in this country and made it an American product. We’re competing against the world. It took those leagues 50 to 60 years to make it. I say we’ll be there in 40.”

Who’s leading

EPL: Leicester City (69), Tottenham (62), Arsenal (59), Manchester City (57), Manchester United (53).

La Liga: Barcelona (76), Atletico Madrid (73), Real Madrid (72), Villarreal (57), Celta Vigo (49).

Serie A: Juventus (76), Napoli (67), Roma (63), Inter (58), Fiorentina (56).

Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (75), Dortmund (67), Hertha (49), Bayer, Monchengladbach and Mainz (45).

Ligue 1: PSG (83), Lyon and Monaco (55), Rennes and Etienne (51), Nice (50).

MLS: East — Philadelphia (9), Orlando (8), Montreal and New England (6). West — Dallas (10), K.C. (9), Real Salt Lake (8).

On the tube

Sunday: Leicester City vs. Sunderland (8:25 a.m., NBCSN), Tottenham vs. Manchester United (10:55 a.m., NBCSN, TELEM), Houston vs. Seattle (4 p.m., ESPN, ESPND), N.Y. vs. Chicago (7 p.m., FS1, FOXD), L.A. vs. Portland (9:30 p.m., FS1, FOXD).

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