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Man United’s transfer window has fans expecting the worst



It was meant to be a summer of possibilities for Manchester United, but as they prepare for their first game since transfer deadline day, there are again more questions than answers. Top targets missed, holes in the squad not filled, forgotten players still in the squad and growing fan frustration has become a familiar storyline at Old Trafford.

Saturday’s trip to Newcastle was supposed to be the next step of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s new dawn after a largely successful first full season in charge, but instead the future looks more stormy than it should.

– Notebook: Solskjaer left ‘frustrated’ by Man United transfers

It was after Louis van Gaal’s reign as manager ended in 2016, that Ed Woodward realised the way United recruited players was not good enough. Daley Blind and Morgan Schneiderlin are still held up by Woodward, executive vice-chairman, as examples of the type of deal to be avoided — two players signed for a combined £40 million at the specific request of the manager, but, in hindsight, not “United” players.

It prompted a review and revamp of the recruitment department, and last summer, when Solskjaer got his top three targets — midfielder Daniel James, centre-back Harry Maguire and right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka — signed before the first game of the season, it was celebrated as evidence that the changes were paying off. How, then, did they end up scrambling around on Oct. 5 — the revised transfer deadline day deadline day in 2020 — to sign four players, one of whom was Edinson Cavani, a 33-year-old free agent who had been available since January?

“What the transfer deadline gives you is a clear indication of which are the badly-run football clubs,” Gary Neville tweeted on the last day of the summer window in 2012. It’s a position Man United have found themselves in repeatedly since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.

The club maintain that this summer’s business (Cavani, Donny van de Beek, Alex Telles, Facundo Pellestri and Amad Traore, the latter of whom will arrive in January) does not represent a step backward, but rather a bump in the road caused by the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The club agreed upon their transfer targets in January, whittled it down to a shortlist of three for each position, and detailed meetings were held every four weeks, with input with head of global scouting Marcel Bout and technical chief scout Mick Court. But before serious negotiations could start, COVID-19 hit the UK, and Premier League games were suspended.

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United estimate that each home game played behind closed doors costs between £4m and £5m in lost revenue, while they have also paid a £20m rebate to broadcasters. (Their overall losses were reportedly in the range of 75-100m according to their upcoming financial reports.) More worrying still, there is no end in sight, and that uncertainty had a direct impact on the money available for new players, particularly primary target Jadon Sancho.

United held what have been described as “lengthy discussions” with Marco Lichtsteiner — the third-party agent Borussia Dortmund asked to handle negotiations — but a compromise over a fee was never close. Dortmund were firm in their stance that the 20-year-old was worth €120m; United, meanwhile, insisted that valuation was “unrealistic” in early March when the Premier League was suspended. There was renewed hope of pushing the boat out a little more in late July, when UK prime minister Boris Johnson suggested supporters could be allowed back into stadiums in October, but once the plan was scrapped, Woodward realised he was fighting a losing battle.

Ousmane Dembele, Kingsley Coman, Ismaila Sarr, Lucas Ocampos, Douglas Costa and Wilfried Zaha were considered as alternatives to Sancho, but United prioritised loan deals, which made negotiations difficult. Elsewhere, a personal plea from Solskjaer to test the waters with Aston Villa for Jack Grealish was ignored, and there was added frustration among the staff that Manchester City were allowed a free run at Bournemouth defender Nathan Ake.

It didn’t help that squad members considered surplus to requirements were not offloaded to raise additional funds. United tend to find it difficult to get rid of fringe players because of the high wages they enjoy at Old Trafford — interested clubs usually struggle to match their pay packets — while the Glazers nearly always demand a significant fee for any player under contract, regardless of whether they are in the manager’s plans or not.

There was interest in goalkeeper Sergio Romero, now third-choice after the return of Dean Henderson from a successful loan at Sheffield United, but both Aston Villa and Everton were put off by the £10m asking price. It left Romero — who was not informed Henderson would be returning before seeing the news for himself in the media — baffled and frustrated. He will continue to pick up wages of around £100k per week for at least another year despite having almost no prospect of playing, particularly after being left out of the Champions League squad.

Jesse Lingard was keen to explore options that would have allowed him to play more regularly, but despite having just one year guaranteed on his contract, he was told his price tag would be inflated because United tend to put a premium on their homegrown players in the transfer market.

Phil Jones signed a new contract in 2019 that could keep him at the club until at least 2023, but like Romero, he hasn’t been registered to play in this season’s Champions League. Victor Lindelof was handed a new long-term contract last year, a little over two years after joining and largely in response to speculation surrounding a move to Barcelona — a link that was laughed off by the Spanish giants. United would also have been stuck with Chris Smalling — himself a recipient of a new and improved contract in 2018 — had Roma not become desperate after missing out on Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger, returning to United with a fresh offer for the 30-year-old defender an hour before the Serie A deadline.

At that point on deadline day, the club were still locked in talks with Cavani’s representatives about image rights. Confirmation of an agreement with the Uruguay international did not come until 5:06 pm ET (10:06 p.m. UK time), 54 minutes before the deadline, despite him being a free agent since leaving Paris Saint-Germain in June. (The club could have begun negotiations for a pre-contract agreement as early as January: players over 23 are able to talk to new teams within the final six months of their existing deals. Yet Cavani didn’t need to be signed before the window closed, though it needed to happen with the deadline for Champions League registration.)

Cavani’s late arrival, and subsequent quarantine because of COVID-19 restrictions, means he is unable to make his debut at St James’ Park on Saturday.

The arrival of a forward once considered one of the best in the world is intriguing for many supporters, even if he is well into his 30s and without a competitive game since March, but it does come with the feeling of bewilderment that the deal was only done on the last day of the window.

Signing Cavani, plus midfielder Van de Beek, left-back Telles and 18-year-old wingers Pellistri and Traore, has left the majority of fans feeling underwhelmed at the end of a summer they thought would bring another step forward after finishing third last season. United argue that the €300m invested in the squad over the past three windows proves their commitment to backing the Norwegian, catching rivals Manchester City and Liverpool and competing for the biggest trophies, but plenty of supporters are not convinced.



Steve Nicol doesn’t question Anthony Martial’s ability, but is quite critical of his lack of consistency.

The theory remains that the Glazers are more motivated to invest significant funds when they’re trying to get back into the Champions League than when they’re preparing for a season in it. It’s a suggestion dismissed by those at the top of the club, but the numbers give it weight.

Since 2013, United have spent on average nearly double on transfers in summer windows after missing out on a place in the lucrative Champions League compared to summers following qualification. Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal all spent more this summer, while champions Liverpool were able to buy one of the world’s best midfielders in Thiago Alcantara.

All in all, just weeks into the new season, United supporters are left battling a familiar feeling of dread. The anticipated step forward hasn’t happened and Solskjaer’s team has started with two defeats from their first three league games — including a humiliating 6-1 home defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham, leaving them 16th in the table over the international break.

Off the pitch, Paul Pogba has again used the international break to flirt with Real Madrid, there are more questions about Solskjaer’s position, and five of the next seven games are against PSG, Chelsea, RB Leipzig, Arsenal and early Premier League leaders Everton.

The clouds are gathering over Old Trafford again.


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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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