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MLS Midseason Awards: Columbus Crew, Rossi, Pozuelo, Atlanta United all take home hardware



In MLS, chaos is the order of the day in the best of times. Teams rise and fall. There are designated player busts and out-of-nowhere successes. But in this coronavirus-hit campaign, coming up with midseason awards is even more difficult amid so much pandemonium. It’s true that some honors such as Coach of the Year are settled, but others such as Defender of the Year are a veritable shot in the dark.

With about six weeks to go in the regular season, here the teams and individuals best poised to take home some hardware.

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Best Team: Columbus Crew

Columbus has been steady and at times spectacular, although the chasing pack of the Philadelphia Union, Toronto FC and Orlando City isn’t far behind. One of them could very well nick the Supporters’ Shield — tainted as it is, given the schedule — off the Crew. That said, Caleb Porter’s side has delivered with solid contributions offensively and defensively. Forward Gyasi Zardes has scored nine goals, while defender Jonathan Mensah has massively upped his game.

The key to their chances down the stretch will be the health of Darlington Nagbe. He’s missed the past four games, and while the Crew have gone 2-1-1 during that stretch, they missed him in the defeat to TFC. If the Crew are to claim their second MLS Cup, they will need all of their players operating at their peak.

Most Disappointing Team: Atlanta United

This was a photo finish between the Five Stripes and the LA Galaxy, but Atlanta grabs the “honor” given that it was thought to be one of the league’s powers heading into the regular season. The ACL injury suffered by Josef Martinez in its first game of the season on Feb. 29 was a huge blow, but high-priced acquisitions Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez and Ezequiel Barco have done little to pick up the slack.

“Pity” is now gone and Barco was rumored to be, although a move in this window seems unlikely. And even if Atlanta does manage to qualify for the generously expanded postseason, it’s clear it is nothing close to the force it was even last season.

Yet there’s still time for a different team to take this “honor,” as the Galaxy have been all over the place and might yet edge out Atlanta. They were poor early on, continued that trend during MLS is Back and then enjoyed a brief revival, but are trending downward again. With just 15 points on the season, LA currently finds itself outside the playoff places. High-priced forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez has been injured for much of the season, but even when he’s been on the field, the Galaxy have gone 0-5-2. Time is running out to pull things together.

This is one of those awards with no shortage of candidates. Diego Rossi has 11 goals. Gyasi Zardes is top-of-the-table Columbus’ top scorer. Then there’s the Seattle trio of Raul Ruidiaz, Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris. Had Portland’s Sebastian Blanco not gone down injured, he would be in this group as well. But Pozuelo’s overall contribution of five goals and a league-leading eight assists gives him the nod, at least right now. His efforts might yet be enough to grab the Supporters’ Shield for the Reds, too.

Golden Boot: Diego Rossi, LAFC

LAFC’s defense might not be worth much of anything, and Carlos Vela has missed most of the season, but the Black and Gold are still a terror going forward thanks mostly to Rossi. The Uruguayan’s 11 goals so far has given him some daylight with the competition, although Zardes and Ruidiaz are certainly capable of making a run. That said, Rossi’s lead and LAFC’s “attack first, ask questions later” approach should see him hold onto the Golden Boot.

Coach of the Year: Oscar Pareja, Orlando City

This one is a no-brainer. While general manager Luiz Muzzi laid some of the groundwork for a turnaround last season, Pareja’s arrival has accelerated the improvement for an Orlando team that prior to this campaign had never qualified for the postseason. That streak seems a cinch to be broken, so much so that the Lions have set their collective sights on bigger prizes. Orlando’s style has been easy on the eyes, too.

The likes of Porter and the forever underrated Brian Schmetzer should round out the top three, but barring a major loss of form by the Lions, Pareja should win the award for the second time in his career.

Defender of the Year: Jonathan Mensah, Columbus Crew

This award is another with plenty of deserving nominees. Mark McKenzie has been outstanding for the Union, as has Xavier Arreaga for Seattle after some early struggles. In the full-back division, New York City FC‘s Anton Tinnerholm, Toronto FC‘s Richie Laryea and Orlando City’s Ruan have been excellent, but Columbus’ defense has been airtight for much of the season — at least before the Toronto match last weekend — and much of that has been down to the efforts of Mensah.

The Ghanaian had been pretty average in previous seasons, but he’s been marvelous in 2020 with his defending and tidiness on the ball.

Newcomer of the Year: Lucas Zelarayan, Columbus Crew

It must be said there aren’t a ton of obvious candidates this season. Chicago’s Robert Beric is finally getting goals, and Miami’s Rodolfo Pizarro has put up some decent numbers with three goals and four assists. Zelarayan, though, has put up the best numbers of all, with five goals and four assists, while also giving the Crew a creative force that they lacked in previous seasons.

A lack of consistency has dogged Zelarayan throughout his career and there have been hints of that in Columbus, but so far, he’s been worth every penny the Crew spent on him last December.

Goalkeeper of the Year: Andre Blake, Philadelphia Union

This award looks to be a three-player race among Blake, NYCFC’s Sean Johnson and the New England Revolution‘s Matt Turner.

Blake has enjoyed the biggest of bounce-back years. In 2019, he looked a mess and nearly cost the Union their first playoff win in team history. In 2020, he’s been much more consistent, and his save percentage of 81.1 is tops in the league. Johnson leads the league in goals prevented (which incorporates expected goals) with 8.80, while Turner is second at 7.09.

At this stage, Blake gets the nod given he’s been the busiest of the three in terms of shots faced and dealing with crosses into the box, and he’s been integral to the Union being second in the Eastern Conference standings.

Deciding when to say goodbye to a productive and charismatic player is difficult, but it certainly looks as though the New York Red Bulls gave up too soon on Wright-Phillips. Granted, Wright-Phillips made 24 appearances (just nine starts) in 2019 due to a groin injury, but the Red Bulls’ loss has been LAFC’s gain, with the 35-year-old Englishman netting seven times and adding three assists.

This award will go down to the wire, with the Chicago Fire’s Mauricio Pineda likely pushing the Revs center-back to the very end. A goal scorer like Orlando’s Daryl Dike could alter the race, but he needs to get on the field more and of late has been coming off the bench. Of the two defender candidates, Pineda has been tidier on the ball and is the bigger threat on set pieces. Kessler has excelled a bit more defensively, though, winning a higher percentage of his duels both in the air and on the ground. Given defending is the primary job, Kessler just shades it, although both players look to have bright futures.


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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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