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MLS nears tipping point with COVID-19 spikes. Could points per game end up impacting playoffs?

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MLS has been battling COVID-19 all season. After play was shut down in March two weeks into the 2020 campaign, the league successfully held a tournament in a bubble in Orlando, with no positive tests once the games began, despite the forced exits of FC Dallas and Nashville SC due to breakouts within their respective squads. But in recent weeks, as teams have settled into playing games mostly in home markets, the vulnerabilities have become more apparent.

Since Sept. 23, 24 players and staff have had confirmed positive tests for COVID-19, resulting in the postponement of 10 matches. This has occurred even as MLS continued regular testing and mask wearing, as well as taking steps like same-day travel for visiting teams to limit potential infection and spread.

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MLS is by no means the only sport wrestling with positive cases among its teams, their players and staff. Both the NFL and college football have been weathering outbreaks as well, as evidenced by the Tennessee Titans sustaining 24 cases as of this writing. But for MLS, the challenge remains daunting.

The question now: how much of a shadow will COVID-19 cast on the rest of the season? Can MLS finish out the five or six games that remain for most teams? Or is it destined to have the playoffs interrupted by positive tests and postponements, or seeding determined by off-field calculations like points per game?


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San Jose extend their California Clasico rivals losing streak to six games with a 4-0 win. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

“When we announced that we’re returning to play in our markets, we said we would prioritize the health and safety of the players and staff,” Mark Abbott, MLS deputy commissioner and president, told ESPN. “If at any time we thought that we shouldn’t move forward with a match, we would postpone it. We recognized that that could happen, and the health and safety protocols that we have were designed to deal with them.”

The epicenter of the league’s difficulties has been in Colorado, where the Rapids have had 18 confirmed positive tests for COVID-19, five players and 13 staff over the past three weeks. The outbreak has resulted in seven of Colorado’s games being postponed. Only two of the seven have been rescheduled, and even if the league uses the November international window to reschedule additional Rapids games, there won’t be enough time to get all their games in prior to Decision Day on Nov. 8 or the scheduled start of the playoffs on Nov. 20. Other teams will have to deal with an international travel window from Nov. 9-17, one that brings fresh concerns about player safety after Seattle forward Raul Ruidiaz contracted COVID-19 while on international duty with Peru this past week.

Colorado is by no means the only team that has been hit with postponements. Last weekend, positive tests by two Columbus Crew staffers, plus one for an Orlando City player, resulted in the postponement of their match scheduled for Oct. 11. The FC Dallas-Minnesota United game scheduled for that same day was postponed after two Loons players tested positive. Minnesota then had last Wednesday’s game against the Chicago Fire postponed after another Loons player had a “suspected positive” via what’s called a rapid point-of-care test, though subsequent tests came back negative.

After publicly stating there was no definite threshold for delaying matches, the postponements have led to a more definitive protocol from MLS. If a team has one case and everyone else tests negative, the game goes on. If there are multiple positives, the game is postponed.

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A source with knowledge of the situation told ESPN that MLS isn’t budging from its proposed MLS Cup final date of Dec. 12. In practical terms, this has left MLS in the position of likely using points per game to determine positions in the conference standings, and by extension, the playoff qualification and seeding. The approach is similar to what took place in the 2001 season, when 9/11 forced the cancellation of the last two weeks of the regular season. While playoff qualification wasn’t affected, playoff positioning and the Supporters’ Shield were. The now-defunct Miami Fusion claimed the Shield ahead of the Chicago Fire, based on having accrued 53 points in 26 games compared to the Fire’s 53 in 27.

That said, the situation is fluid. One GM said that first there would be a push “to play as many games as possible,” and that points per game would only be used as a last resort. But he acknowledges avoiding such a scenario would involve pushing back MLS Cup.

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Lucas Cavallini now has three goals in his last two games as Vancouver outlast LAFC 2-1. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

On a conference call with reporters in August, MLS commissioner Don Garber acknowledged that the 2020 campaign would have “a lot of competitive balance issues,” though not everyone is on board with that approach. One GM of a Western Conference team called the using points per game “challenging, as it takes away the competitive element,” and added he was not in favor.

Vancouver CEO Axel Schuster, whose team is clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, was a bit more philosophical, generally giving MLS high marks for navigating its way through the pandemic. The Whitecaps are also in a position where because the travel between the U.S. and Canada remains restricted, they’re playing their home games in Portland.

“Don’t ask somebody from a Canadian team about if everything is balanced and fair!” he said with a chuckle. “I haven’t seen my family in a month. So let us not speak if everything is balanced, and everything is equal at the end. Was everybody able to perform on the same level as everybody else? No, of course not. But I have never seen a pandemic before. I think that the only thing we can do is to go on and play and find the best solution. And to accept that the world is crazy.”

At this point, the league is hoping that come November, there will be playoff games to talk about instead of COVID-19 cases. Pending developments in Minnesota, the Rapids’ situation marks the third outbreak among MLS teams this season, following the well-reported situations in Dallas and Nashville that forced both teams to withdraw from the MLS is Back tournament. More than that, it points to the limitations of the league’s protocols in terms of how to control an outbreak within a team, especially when they are operating outside of a bubble.

“The devil is in the details,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, a Distinguished Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine. “The return to play plan — as far as testing, screening, monitoring — made some sense. But you’re going to have people that are going to get infected in the community, and I think that’s going to create problems. And unless you have an absolute bubble, you’re essentially going to be at risk of something like [Colorado] happening.”

That leaves plenty of responsibility up to the players to make sure they engage in behavior that maximizes their chances of remaining free of COVID-19. Even that is hard to manage: Real Salt Lake forward Sam Johnson has been a prime example of what not to do, holding a house party on Oct. 4 with upwards of 100 guests in attendance that required police intervention. Johnson has since been put under quarantine, and multiple sources told ESPN that both the club and MLS were in the process of terminating his contract.

One MLS player said via text message he was “concerned” about the uptick in cases. “Players have been mostly responsible up to this point. and we are preaching it’s up to players to keep themselves safe,” he said. Another player added, “We still have to wear masks in and around the facility, but it’s always gonna be difficult to monitor guys beyond that.” (The MLS Players Association declined to comment for this story.)

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Real Salt Lake end their three-match losing streak by beating the in-form Timbers 2-1. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

The reality is that players can follow all the protocols to the letter and still get infected. Family members, live-in partners, and the community at large can cause the virus to spread. And yet MLS’s approach to the campaign remains focused on completion. One change the league has made since returning to home markets is the implementation of the rapid point-of-care test, which is less accurate than the usual PCR test, but has a turnaround time of minutes as opposed to more than 12 hours. One source with knowledge of the situation said the rapid test was implemented in Minnesota after last week’s positive tests so that any spread of the virus would be detected quicker.

Given the way the postponements are trending, is MLS reaching a tipping point in terms of not being able to continue with the campaign?

“I know that [MLS has] done what they could. They tried, they made an effort, they tried to protect the players,” said Dr. Abraar Karan, a physician at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital working on COVID-19 response in Massachusetts. “At this point, they have to recognize when they’re struggling. And with this type of stuff, when you start to struggle, it’s much more likely that things are about to get a lot worse rather than a lot better.”

Asked by ESPN about the possibility of the season being canceled, Abbott said, “There is nothing we’re seeing that would cause us to think that we won’t finish the season.”

But Abbott’s optimism stands in contrast to what is happening in the U.S. as it relates to the pandemic, with COVID-19 cases trending up nationwide. According to the New York Times, the seven-day average of new cases across the U.S. on Oct. 15 was 54,399, a level last seen on Aug. 7. While more rural states like North Dakota and Montana are seeing the biggest number of daily cases per capita, states with MLS teams like Illinois, Colorado and Minnesota have seen a double-digit percentage rise in the seven-day moving average of new cases in the past week. Per the Times, the total number of positive cases in the U.S. is above 8 million as of Oct. 16, with the death count north of 217,000 since data collection began in the early days of the pandemic.

“I’m worried about the whole country,” said Karan. “We’re seeing levels rising everywhere. They rise slowly, initially, and they’ll rise a lot faster after that. Even in the hospital, we’re starting to see more COVID cases. There was a period of time where I saw no COVID cases in Boston for weeks, and now I’m seeing COVID cases again. So for me, it is concerning.”

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The Philadelphia Union are playoff bound thanks to Mark McKenzie’s late equalizer. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

One suggestion that has been floated in the media is that when the postseason begins, MLS should return to a bubble that worked so well in Orlando. Otherwise, as Dr. del Rio put it, “You’re stuck. Unless you go back to a bubble you’re not going to get [to zero cases].” The advantage is that doing so would have the effect of forcing players and staff to adhere more strictly to the mitigation protocols. But when asked if that was a possibility, Abbott said “Not really.”

He added, “I think that there are advantages and disadvantages to the bubble. I think that it becomes effective once you get established, but it’s also disruptive in people’s lives.”

The alternative for MLS is to press forward and hope that the playoffs will be postponement-free. Given the way things have trended the past three weeks, that seems unlikely. It also isn’t clear what the league’s plan would be if there are postponements during the playoffs.

“Something has to give. You can’t have it all,” said Karan. “You can’t have all your revenues, all the safety, and everything. That’s not how it works. I think [MLS is] well aware that there’s a safer way [in a bubble] that’s gonna cost more money. And now they have to see where their values are.”

MLS has been engaged in a high-wire act since March, balancing the health and safety of players and staff with the league’s business concerns that include satisfying sponsor and broadcast commitments. Garber has stated back in June that the league is sustaining a $1 billion revenue hit due to COVID-19.

The coming weeks will reveal how much risk it is willing to tolerate.

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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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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.

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