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Gio Reyna, U.S. stars on Barcelona’s and Real Madrid’s radar

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Barcelona and Real Madrid’s interest in rising MLS and USMNT talent headlines this week’s ESPN’s Insider Notebook. PLUS: Chelsea’s squad overhaul continues.

Jump to: Chelsea maintain Rice interest | Kante edges to exit door | Solskjaer keeping faith with Maguire | Man Utd frustrated as clubs inflate transfer fees | Wenger rewrites history

MLS, USMNT talent on Barcelona, Real Madrid radar

With El Clasico a week away, Barcelona and Real Madrid are already battling off the field, with a cluster of U.S. prospects and established talent on both La Liga clubs’ radars, sources told ESPN.

Real Madrid are tracking the progress of Borussia Dortmund‘s Giovanni Reyna, club sources confirmed, with the club aware of his potential as a gifted playmaker, and off the pitch as a marketable, USMNT star-in-waiting. Reyna, 17, has caught the eye for Dortmund this season, recording a hat trick of assists in a 4-0 Bundesliga win over Freiburg earlier this month.

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– Tom Hamilton: Captain America’s son making waves at Dortmund

Sources said Madrid are actively monitoring Reyna — and will watch how he develops for club and country over the 2020-21 season — and the same goes for a large number of talented youngsters of the same age as part of the club’s extensive scouting department.

Madrid already have Martin Odegaard lined up as a long-term attacking midfield replacement for veteran Luka Modric, 35, as well as Marco Asensio, Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo in wide positions — and 18-year-old Brazilian Reiner, who joined Reyna at Dortmund this summer on a two-year loan deal.

While Madrid are casting an eye over Reyna, Barcelona are stepping up their scouting operation in the U.S. and Canada, with Brenden Aaronson, Gianluca Busio and Cade Cowell all under consideration, sources said.

Barca have closely followed the North American market for several years. In 2018 they signed Ballou Tabla from Montreal Impact, although he returned to the Canadian side permanently earlier this year. Since signing Ballou, Barca have extended their presence in North America and have received glowing reports on a number of young players making their name in MLS.

Aaronson, 19, is an attacking midfielder who plays for Philadelphia Union and is reportedly set to move to FC Salzburg. He has already been capped by the USMNT and was named in the Best XI at the MLS is Back Tournament earlier this year. Busio, 18, is another player who has caught the eye. The Sporting Kansas City forward, who is of Italian descent, has already made 44 appearances in MLS and has been capped by the USMNT at youth level. Cowell, at 17, is the youngest of the players on Barca’s radar. The California-born forward made his MLS debut for the San Jose Earthquakes earlier this year and scored his first goal for the club in a 3-2 loss against the LA Galaxy in August.

All three are being closely followed by Barca as they contemplate further adding to a growing American contingent at the club. They completed a deal worth up to €26 million for USMNT right-back Sergino Dest earlier this month, while U.S under-20 international Konrad de la Fuente has been regularly training with the first team. Elsewhere, there are two talented Americans in the club’s U15 team: goalkeeper Diego Kochen and midfielder Adrian Simon Gill.

Aside from the talent emerging in the U.S and Canada, Barca have also targeted America as a key market for growth on a marketing and sponsorship level. They regularly play games there in the summer as part of the International Champions trophy and sources say they are already seeing the benefits of having Dest and De la Fuente at the club. — Moises Llorens, Sam Marsden, Rodrigo Faez and Alex Kirkland

Chelsea plotting Rice move

Chelsea will look to sign Declan Rice in January if West Ham show signs of softening their stance in negotiations, sources told ESPN.

ESPN reported on July 7 that the Hammers were determined to keep Rice this summer despite the Blues registering their interest in the 21-year-old, and that position never changed throughout the summer window. Chelsea chose not to make any formal bid for Rice, with West Ham demanding around £80m. They instead opted to commit £220m on strengthening other areas of their squad.

However, sources said Rice remains a top target for Frank Lampard and Chelsea would be willing to make a move in January if conditions allow. A deal is more likely next summer but West Ham’s financial concerns are complicated. They are about to commit around £30m to sign Said Benrahma from Championship side Brentford but they are also exploring short-term funding options. Rice has a contract until 2024 and the player has not agitated to leave but the club may choose to cash in should wider circumstances create fresh pressures.

Equally, Lampard will need to make space in his squad. Rice is used by West Ham and England as a defensive midfielder but Chelsea are attracted by his versatility to play at centre-back.

The Blues kept midfielders Jorginho and N’Golo Kante, in addition to centre-backs Fikayo Tomori and Antonio Rudiger, in the transfer window. At least one of those players would have to leave before Rice could be acquired but regardless, they remain actively on the case. — James Olley

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ESPN FC’s Alejandro Moreno says Chelsea covered all their weaknesses in the summer transfer window.

… as Kante edges to exit door

What does the future then hold for Kante?The France international has over two years left on his contract at Chelsea but there are indications that this could be his last season at the club. While he is happy in London and playing in the Premier League, the 29-year-old does not feel he is part of the future plans at Stamford Bridge, sources have told ESPN.

Kante is also aware of aforementioned rumoured arrival of Rice. It was clear to Kante that Chelsea were to bring back former academy product Rice, who also counts Mason Mount as his best friend.

It almost felt at times that Chelsea were waiting for an offer for Kante to let him go and replace him with Rice. Inter Milan never bid for the Frenchman and as such, he remains happy to stay at Chelsea. But even in their communication, the London club and Lampard were never too clear about Kante.

Kante also didn’t take well that Lampard denied his request to take a day off training to attend one of his best friends’ wedding. Chelsea deny the story but French sources have confirmed it to ESPN — while Kante himself could have denied it while on international duty with Les Bleus last week but chose not to.

As amicable as the former Leicester City star is, he also has a strong personality. However, he will give his absolute best all season for Lampard and Chelsea as he has done since arriving in 2016. But next summer might be a totally different dynamic around him than in comparison to the last transfer window. — Julien Laurens

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Gab Marcotti outlines the impact N’Golo Kante has on the pitch for Chelsea and explains why he could be up for sale.

Solskjaer to keep faith with Maguire

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is set to keep faith with captain Harry Maguire despite the defender’s difficult start to the season, sources told ESPN.

Maguire has endured a nightmare start to the campaign, including picking up a red card in England‘s 1-0 defeat to Denmark on Wednesday, following his arrest while on holiday in Greece this summer.

Sources said that Solskjaer has had concerns about the impact the ongoing legal proceedings in Greece have had on Maguire but the United boss is keen to keep picking his captain, including for the trip to Newcastle on Saturday. United have shipped 11 goals in three Premier League games and Solskjaer’s main issue is settling on a partner for Maguire rather than coming up with a new combination at the back, though Sevilla’s Jules Kounde has been added to their list of targets.

Victor Lindelof was first choice last season but was dropped for the 6-1 defeat to Tottenham. Eric Bailly started against Spurs but there are concerns over his injury record, and that of Axel Tuanzebe. Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo are lower down the pecking order after both were left out of the Champions League squad.

Solskjaer checked on Maguire when he returned to Carrington on Thursday. Sources said he will trust Maguire to decide whether he is ready to play against Newcastle but fully expects to pick the 27-year-old at St James’ Park. — Rob Dawson

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Steve Nicol chimes in on Harry Maguire’s erratic form for club and country, but doesn’t think he should be dropped.

Man United frustrated as clubs ramp up prices

Bournemouth’s negotiations with West Ham for striker Josh King have caused a stir at Manchester United, sources told ESPN.

– Dawson: United fans expect the worst after transfer window

Bournemouth are quoting West Ham in the region of £18m to sign King, despite telling United they valued the Norwegian at close to £50m in January. Solskjaer was keen to bring in King last season when Marcus Rashford suffered a back injury, but after being put off by the price tag, turned his attention to Odion Ighalo,

United are pointing to the disparity over King as evidence of the difficulties they believe they face in the transfer market. Sources told ESPN that in January, analysts relaid to Solskjaer and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward that King’s market value was around £15m.

They were prepared to go higher given their need for a striker but were shocked when Bournemouth asked for a fee that would have made King, a former Old Trafford academy graduate, the fifth most expensive player in the club’s history despite having just 18 months left on his contract. — Rob Dawson

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Mark Ogden blasts Paul Pogba’s recent comments about wanting to play for Real Madrid one day.

Wenger rewrites history a little

The release of Arsene Wenger’s autobiography was a reminder of how much his oratory and charm are missed with his weekly Arsenal news conferences a thing of the past. However, it also provided examples of the 70-year-old’s hazy memory which sometimes had journalists at London Colney fact-checking the detail of whichever eloquent argument he was making at the time.

– Wenger’s book: The best bits

Few managers last 22 years in one job and so Wenger’s sheer longevity affords him a degree of latitude but in defending the sale of Robin van Persie to Manchester United and his arch rival Sir Alex Ferguson in 2012, the Frenchman wrote: “After three of the four years that he signed for, he was injured and Ferguson sold him to the Turkish club Fenerbahce.”

Yet when Van Persie left Old Trafford in 2015, Ferguson had been retired for two seasons, United had already hired and sacked David Moyes with Louis van Gaal then in charge.

Similarly, in explaining Arsenal‘s £40,000,001 offer for Luis Suarez at Liverpool, Wenger cites the Gunners’ pursuit taking place in 2014, adding they failed in part because “there was already an offer from Barca on the horizon.”

Arsenal’s bid actually came a year earlier. Suarez moved to Barcelona in 2014. — James Olley

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

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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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2:00

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

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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

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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.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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