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Bayern’s triumph built upon Flick’s influence, refusal to panic



The Champions League that almost was not — the one played against a backdrop of fear and insecurity (but also solidarity and self-scrutiny) — ended with the European Cup trophy returning where it has been before. Bayern Munich’s 1-0 victory over Paris Saint-Germain marks the German club’s sixth time as champions of Europe, pulling them even with Liverpool, one behind Milan (and six behind Real Madrid).

The “big count” matters, because for most of Europe’s elite, domestic titles feel mundane to the point that they become noteworthy only when they are not delivered to the doorstep every spring. PSG hope to be among that elite one day and Sunday could have been a giant step in that direction. But while the chances were there for the French team, the finishing was not.

And that was a non-negotiable requirement against a Bayern side that have won 29 of their last 30 matches in all competitions, that have not lost a game since 2019 and that emerged as a perfect 11 for 11 in the Champions League this season.

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For long chunks in Lisbon, PSG had set up the way conventional wisdom suggested they should and it had yielded results. Manager Thomas Tuchel, the self-styled “rulebreaker,” had in fact done what many expected him to do: Stay tight and organized at the back and exploit Bayern’s penchant for playing a high press and defensive line. (Actually, is it even a line when two of your back four camp out in the opposing half like old-style wingers?)

Kylian Mbappe slipped away from his closest markers, Joshua Kimmich and Serge Gnabry, enough times to see shots blocked or help set up Angel Di Maria (skied into the second tier) or Neymar (denied by Manuel Neuer). And the biggest chance of the first half fell to the French striker, after a rare Bayern defensive blunder left him with an easy side foot, but Mbappe’s flaccid nudge was right at Neuer.

A leg injury meant Tuchel was forced to sit alone, crutches at hand, on a pitch-side picnic cooler like the weird uncle to whom nobody wants to talk at family reunions. He put both hands to his forehead when Mbappe missed, mouth open wide, before hopping on one foot to shout further encouragement. Positive reinforcement and all that… but he knew. He knew mistakes get punished.

This is not to say the first half was all about PSG, because it was not. Rather Bayern seemed unflustered by the fact that neither their furious press of the first 20 minutes, nor the somewhat more measured approach taken for the rest of the period, yielded much, beyond two brilliant Robert Lewandowski efforts. The first was an absurdly quick turn-and-shot that hit the post; the second an improbable far-post header that saw him adjust his neck in mid-air to force a save out of Keylor Navas.

Bayern looked almost carefree as they walked off the pitch at half-time, as if they were unbothered about the chances surrendered or the fact that Mbappe was now up against the hulking Niklas Sule (and large objects aren’t supposed to move fast). Their opponents, meanwhile, had the look of a teenager who had borrowed dad’s BMW, scratched up the paintwork and was terrified there would be hell to pay.

The game’s goal came just before the hour mark when Joshua Kimmich, by this point not advancing down the right flank to deliver crosses, but rather drifting inside to deliver final balls like the playmaker he is at heart, coolly picked out Kingsley Coman at the far post. The former PSG enfant prodige headed it past Navas with gusto.

Bayern coach Hansi Flick, who had chosen an all-black outfit for his first Champons League final as a boss — perhaps a nod to the monochrome he sported as Joachim Low’s sidekick with Germany’s World Cup winners in 2014 — raised an arm into the Lisbon sky and plotted his next move. It was a counterintuitive one for a team leading in the second half of a final.

Out went speedy wingers Gnabry and Coman and in came on-loan veterans Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Perisic. It was as if the man in black was saying: “Ha! I know you’re going to come at me, but rather than scoring a second with my burners, I’ll keep the ball and play through you with my ballers.”


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PSG were not done. Contrary to the popular belief of some, this is a side with character, who came back from 1-0 down in injury time to beat Atalanta in the quarterfinals. Marquinhos was put through one-on-one with Neuer, only for the big German to claw it away (and, with this performance, perhaps clawing away those who argue Marc-Andre ter Stegen is his country’s best keeper).

When Mbappe sliced through the Bayern defence before being nicked by Kimmich, referee Daniele Orsato stepped away and, with a clear sightline, said “no penalty.” VAR did not insist he change his mind and, after substitute Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting twice just failed to get on the end of crosses, that was that.

Europe has its champion and it is a worthy one, not just for the road-grading Bayern did in the past half year, but for where they were 10 months ago. Having lost half their starting back four to season-ending injuries, their big summer arrival (Coutinho) was struggling and Thomas Muller — “Mia San Mia” (the club motto) made flesh — was in and out of the side.

Their manager, Nico Kovac, had been unceremoniously dumped fewer than three months into the season and in his place came Flick, who had not actually been a No. 1 since 2006. And still, here they are, Treble winners for the second time in club history.

Sure, Bayern are beneficiaries of being a superclub and fully paid-up members of the game’s one percenters, who boast bigger, deeper and more talented squads than almost anybody else. The imbalance of power and resources in the game must be addressed (UEFA keep saying they will do just that).

But that does not explain what we have seen since the turn of the year, particularly when juxtaposed with everything that went wrong in the first few months of the campaign. So yes, they are worthy winners and, more than that, they are likable winners, something not every Bayern team has managed to be in the past.

The pastiche at the end, with Leon Goretzka rolling up his sleeves to his shoulders for a “cup’s out, guns out” trophy lift; Alphonso Davies, the fourth CONCACAF player to win the Champions League after Dwight Yorke, Rafael Marquez and Navas, displaying the Canadian flag like an apron; Muller’s grinning, overgrown hyperactive kid enthusiasm; all of it seemed as real as it was infectious. And definitely hard to argue with.

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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.”



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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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