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Bayern Munich looks dominant in Bundesliga, but is it too thin to defend Treble?



It may seem unconscionable to suggest that a club that won the Treble last season, a club that’s coming off 22 wins on the spin (including an 8-0 drubbing of Schalke in their season opener Friday), a club that last lost a match on Dec. 7, 2019 — and has won every game, bar one, since then — might be a little bit short-handed going into the season. But that’s exactly where Bayern Munich find themselves right now.

Manager Hansi Flick said as much last week, and he’s right. He said he’d be assessing his squad and wasn’t ruling out the possibility of new signings. You hope the people upstairs are listening — not something to take for granted. As successful as Bayern have been, this is also the club that thought Philippe Coutinho would be a good fit, that in the past three years has twice changed managers just after the start of the season and the close of the market and where, at times, it feels like there are too many cooks.

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The fact is this team is short — or at least, shorter than they need to be — in a number of positions. The starting lineup isn’t the issue; it’s the depth. And that matters when you consider that this promises to be one of the most congested campaigns in recent history: if they advance all the way to the Champions League final, like they did last season and like they hope to do again, it will last 253 days.

Contrast this with their last non-COVID-19 affected campaign, 2018-19, which lasted 288 days. More games in less time generally adds up to more fatigue and less recovery time, which means more injuries. Throw in the fact that the Bundesliga’s customary monthlong winter break has, by necessity, been reduced to two weeks over Christmas and New Year, and there won’t be the usual opportunity to recharge the batteries in midseason either.

There are at least three evident areas of concern.

The most obvious is right-back. Benjamin Pavard is a World Cup winner, but there is no natural backup for him unless you want to move Joshua Kimmich there, opening up another hole to plug in the middle of the park. (And, as we’ll see, that’s not easy to do.) What’s more, Pavard is more of a recycled central defender than the sort of attacking fullback best-suited to Flick’s system. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Bayern are actively looking for an alternative in that position. They’ve been linked with Ajax’s much-hyped U.S. international Sergino Dest on and off all summer. He certainly fits the bill in terms of characteristics, though the most recent reports suggest he could be heading to Barcelona.

Then there’s central midfield. Thiago Alcantara‘s departure has left Bayern with three reliable options for two positions: Leon Goretzka, Joshua Kimmich and Corentin Tolisso. And even Tolisso requires a bit of a leap of faith to be placed in the “reliable” category: he missed most of 2018-19 following a cruciate injury and is coming off ankle surgery last spring.

Get past them, and you’re looking at Michael Cuisance, who made all of 10 appearances last season, mostly after Bayern clinched the title and they were playing out the string of games. He only turned 21 last month, so he can still grow, but his performances have been uneven. Dig even deeper and you’re talking about Javi Martinez, who is 32, coming off a string of injuries and, most important, with a year left on his contract, is on the verge of moving to Athletic Bilbao.

Want to talk wingers? Flick, ideally, would love to have four. Instead, he has three: Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman and the newly arrived Leroy Sane. The latter, of course, is a magnificent talent, but he’s also a guy who played just 12 minutes of football last season. Coman, too, hasn’t exactly been the epitome of durability: he missed at least two months in each of the last three seasons.

Those are the big ones. If you want to be a stickler, you note concerns in other areas. Bayern have four options at center-back, which is good, but one of them (David Alaba) is a year away from free agency and embroiled in a renegotiation that threatens to turn nasty (none other than Uli Hoeness called his agent, Pini Zahavi, a “money-grubbing piranha”). Another, Niklas Sule, missed six months last year with a cruciate injury. Lucas Hernandez? He was out for three months (and, the year before, missed six months with an MCL injury). That leaves Jerome Boateng, who is 32.

Or you might note that should something happen to Robert Lewandowski — knock on wood, the man has been a machine in terms of durability — you either turn to Joshua Zirkzee, who is 19 and only made his debut last season, or you move somebody else (Thomas Muller? Coman? Sane?) and therefore creating another hole to plug. The same principle, of course, applies to Muller’s attacking midfield role. You can replace him with Cuisance or you can add a midfielder, which means Cuisance becomes your only option on the bench.

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Here’s the thing: Bayern lost Sule, Hernandez and Tolisso for long stretches last season and still won the Treble. You can look at it as evidence of their resilience and their capacity for ingenuity, like giving Alphonso Davies a shot at left-back after Alaba was moved into the middle and discovering he was a world-class left-back. Or you can take it as a warning: Bayern players aren’t invulnerable, far from it, and while they were able to absorb last season’s injuries, they might not be so fortunate this year.

There are fringe youngsters who might step up: Tanguy Kouassi, Chris Richards, Zirkzee, Jamal Musiala and even Cuisance, frankly, has to fall into that category. But the thing with youngsters is that ideally, you want to be the one to decide when to give them a shot, rather than being forced to do so by circumstances.

The versatility of many Bayern players — Alaba, Kimmich, Mueller, Hernandez, Pavard — allowed them to weather injuries without missing a beat. But that’s not something to be taken for granted. And the fact that all of the above (bar Hernandez) are starters right now means you’re effectively playing whack-a-mole, plugging one hole by making another appear.

Relative to this time last year, Bayern have said goodbye to Thiago, Philippe Coutinho, Ivan Perisic and Alvaro Odriozola. Throw in Javi Martinez and the departed (or near-departed) accounted for 5,213 (13.9 percent) of the club’s total league minutes played. Expecting Sane, a bunch of kids and the guys who were long-term injuries last year to stay fit and make up the difference is a gamble.

It’s also an unnecessary one. Bayern, like all clubs, have been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis, but smart management from on high has ensured that they perennially turn a profit for the past two decades-plus. It would be incredible — if not downright negligent — if they didn’t use the cushion they had to buy themselves some “insurance” in the form of a few extra bodies.

That could mean Dest or another attacking fullback. It could mean a winger, perhaps Perisic, who did fine on loan last season: Bayern passed on the option to buy, but the truth is they have leverage over Inter, who need to balance the books. Expect his price to come down as the Oct. 5 transfer deadline approaches or, possibly, Bayern to work out another loan deal. And, of course, another midfielder who can help share the load with Kimmich and Goretzka.

We’re not talking about bringing in superstars at great expense; we’re simply adding extra padding to smooth out what is going to be a brutally intense season. It would be a shame if the unexpected — whether injuries, positive COVID tests or simply the biweekly wear-and-tear of playing in Flick’s high-intensity system — derails the defence of Bayern’s Treble when they have the tools to repeat.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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