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Can Kepa, the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, save his Chelsea career before it’s too late?



Kepa Arrizabalaga is used to things happening fast. Aged 23, he had made 53 La Liga appearances when Chelsea made him the world’s most expensive goalkeeper in the summer of 2018. Athletic Bilbao finished a modest 16th place that season. Kepa had one international cap for Spain, earned in a 5-0 friendly win over Costa Rica. Despite possessing more potential than proven pedigree, the Blues handed him a seven-year contract in a remarkable show of faith for a club famed for its capriciousness.

Just two years later, Kepa is losing the battle to save his Chelsea career as head coach Frank Lampard harbours mounting doubts over whether he will ever become robust enough to form the first line of defence in a Premier League title-winning team.

With Edouard Mendy‘s imminent £20 million arrival from Stade Rennes and Willy Caballero trusted to play in the cup competitions, is it already too late? There are precious few examples of goalkeepers who recover from the position Kepa finds himself in now. Some sympathy should exist given the dramatic trajectory of his career thrust immediate expectations on a player palpably yet to fully mature.

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Kepa was twice dropped for Caballero toward the end of last season, but Lampard’s faith in restoring him to the No. 1 position has not been rewarded. He failed to get down to a low shot from distance from Leandro Trossard in their opening game, though Chelsea won that game 3-1. However, his woeful attempted clearance, with his team down to 10 men, gifted Sadio Mane the opening goal in Liverpool‘s 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

It feels significant these days that Kepa’s price tag was not the product of negotiations between two clubs. Athletic put an €80m (£73.5m) release clause into Kepa’s contract to essentially ward off interest from Real Madrid, aiming to prevent a young talent born in the Basque town of Ondarroa and developed entirely through the Bilbao academy from leaving on the cheap. It was Chelsea who decided simply to cut to the chase, paying that fee in the belief comparable business elsewhere made it more palatable, chiefly the £66.8m Liverpool paid Roma for Alisson, which first broke the world record for a goalkeeper that had stood since Juventus paid Parma £32.6m for Gianluigi Buffon in 2001. Yet Alisson is almost exactly two years older than Kepa and was much further along in establishing himself for club and country.

Prior to Lampard’s arrival, Chelsea were so often criticised for short-term thinking and so the willingness to offer a young talent such a long contract should be lauded in one sense. But the concern internally now is that this major judgement call was misguided. The coronavirus pandemic has depressed some elements of the transfer market to the extent that Chelsea would have to take a huge loss to jettison Kepa now.

Kepa certainly hasn’t helped himself. A competent debut season was undermined by a staggering show of indiscipline when refusing to be substituted when he appeared to be injured in the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City. He has since claimed the Wembley row was a misunderstanding, and although the situation pointed to a wider malaise as part of then-coach Maurizio Sarri’s tenure unravelling, Kepa’s attitude was publicly called into question.

Last season, criticism of his performances followed. There are a plethora of statistics available to underline the issues but perhaps these two are most relevant: Kepa has conceded 19 goals from outside the box since he joined Chelsea, more than anyone else in the Premier League, and his expected goals against differential is 12.7. That means Kepa conceded almost 13 goals more than would reasonably be expected from the shots he faced. This is simply an unsustainable deficit for a team that has spent £220m in an attempt to bridge the gap to Liverpool and Manchester City.

Off-field issues are reported to have made matters worse, chiefly his slow progress in learning English and a split from his childhood sweetheart of nine years, Andrea Perez.

The club are acutely aware of the pressure Kepa’s price tag can bring. Sources have told ESPN that senior figures at the club were determined to keep Kai Havertz‘s final fee under the £71.4m paid for Kepa, something they managed with the eventual acquiescence of his former club, Bayer Leverkusen.

Lampard appreciates how delicate the situation is, combined with the unique challenge of restoring confidence in goalkeepers, a task complicated by the idiosyncrasies of the role.

“I think it is the hardest position [to rebuild a player’s confidence] because of the individual nature and mistakes generally get punished with goals,” Lampard told ESPN. “That doesn’t happen necessarily with other places on the pitch. The eyes can be drawn to that and I understand that. As a manager I also have to be sympathetic to that point.



Craig Burley shows empathy for Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga, who is clearly struggling in goal for Frank Lampard.

“Last year, I changed the goalkeeper between Kepa and Willy a few times. When I do it I do it with a different mindset to outfield players because I understand the different elements to it. I am very aware of that. At the same time we are always striving for the best performance we can get and that is what we must continue to do.”

Chelsea’s defensive problems are not solely down to Kepa. They conceded more goals from corners than any other team in the Premier League last term and had the worst defensive record of any team in the top 10. Thiago Silva‘s arrival from Paris Saint-Germain is an admission there is an absence of leadership at the heart of the defence. But Kepa is currently a distraction for a team aiming for a title challenge rather than a central component of it.

Perhaps Kepa can draw inspiration from his compatriot and friend David de Gea‘s initial experience at Manchester United. De Gea joined United from Atletico Madrid in 2011 for £18.9m, then a British record for a goalkeeper. He was younger than Kepa, aged just 20, but there were similar issues with language and conditioning. De Gea weighed just 71kg when he arrived and was put on a programme which involved five additional gym sessions per week, beginning a transformation he later described as becoming “Captain America in one year.”

Former United goalkeeping coach Eric Steele explained: “There were lifestyle issues. He’d sleep two or three times a day. He’d have his main meal late at night. He’d eat too many tacos. We pushed protein drinks on him straight after training. We physically made him drink. We had him in the gym a lot. He hated it. They don’t do the gym in Spain as much. We needed to build his core strength.”

Sources have told ESPN there are some at Cobham who believe Kepa could be doing more to improve his ability to compete. There are also understood to be technical concerns, chiefly that he is too late getting down to shots and could take steps to simplify how he dives for the ball.

Goalkeepers usually aren’t given long to rectify these errors. Just ask Loris Karius, who left Liverpool on loan for Besiktas in 2018 after a series of high-profile errors aged 25. It feels premature in some regards to dismiss a relatively young goalkeeper but with the stakes so high at Stamford Bridge, the clock is definitely ticking for Kepa.


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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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