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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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World Series Daily: Can Rays seize series lead over Dodgers in Game 5?

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After all the oddities of the MLB regular season and postseason, the 2020 World Series pits baseball’s top two teams against each other. While we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the Dodgers playing for the championship, this is the first Fall Classic for the Rays since 2008 and only the second in franchise history.

Here’s what you need to know for Game 5 on Sunday, including a look at the pitching matchup, predictions, odds, other key numbers and more.

Key links: Viewers guide | Schedule | Playoff Baseball Classic

What’s on tap

World Series Game 5: Tampa Bay Rays (Tyler Glasnow) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw), 8:08 p.m. ET in Arlington, Texas

ARLINGTON, Texas — Now that the series is tied 2-2, Clayton Kershaw won’t get the chance to pitch the Los Angeles Dodgers to a World Series championship after his team’s Game 4 collapse, but his importance in Game 5 on Sunday can’t be overstated. He’ll need to be the stopper the Dodgers always expect him to be — because all of a sudden, the Rays have grabbed some momentum.

Kershaw has a career 4.68 ERA in the World Series, though he pitched well in Game 1. He’ll take on Tyler Glasnow for a second time in this Series, and the wild and wacky finish to Game 4 will undoubtedly still be fresh on everyone’s mind.

Meanwhile, Glasnow could use some redemption after a Game 1 collapse. He walked six batters in less than five innings pitched and hasn’t completed a full six innings all season. After using their top relievers in Game 4, the Rays will take as many innings as they can get out of Glasnow in Game 5.

In a season that has been unexpectedly defined by a pandemic, followed by labor strife and a shortened, 60-game regular season, the World Series is down to a best-of-three. After the drama of Game 4, what kind of encore do the best two teams in baseball have in store? Stay tuned. — Jesse Rogers


Running World Series odds

Dodgers 66.1%; Rays 33.9%


Game 5 predictions

David Schoenfield: You want a prediction after THAT game? LOL. The Dodgers have been tested many times in the playoffs over the past eight years, but I don’t know if they’ve ever faced a tougher mental test than coming back from maybe the most shocking, heartbreaking playoff defeat since the infamous Pedro game for the Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS. What will happen? I have no idea, but I really, really want Clayton Kershaw to pitch a good game. Rays 5, Dodgers 4.

Dan Mullen: Did you see what happened last night? How is anyone supposed to pick against the Rays after that display of just-won’t-go-away magic? Throw in the fact that, as Dave writes today, the second time around in a postseason series has been the real issue for Clayton Kershaw in October, and I’m going to pick Tampa Bay to take a 3-2 series lead and send Dodgers fans into even more despair heading into another “travel” day. Rays 5, Dodgers 4.

Rogers: Kerhsaw will exorcise his World Series demons once and for all after throwing a solid effort in Game 1. We’ve seen him out-pitch Glasnow once, and he’ll do it again in Game 5, knowing the Dodgers need to get their swagger back after their Game 4 ninth-inning collapse. The Rays got their dramatic win in the series, so it’s the Dodgers’ turn to pull off a close one. Glasnow will be better than he was in Game 1, but Los Angeles wins. Dodgers 5, Rays 4.


Stat of the day

Game 4 was the third walk-off win by a team that trailed entering the bottom of the ninth in the past 15 World Series. The other two? Game 6 in 2011, the “David Freese” game for the Cardinals, and Game 1 in 2015, which ended on an Eric Hosmer sac fly in the bottom of the 14th after Alex Gordon hit a game-tying home run in the ninth. The Rays are the first team to win a nine-inning World Series game in which they trailed entering the bottom of the ninth since the Diamondbacks won Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.


Social media post of the day


Best moment of the MLB playoffs to date

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Brett Phillips’ bloop single is bobbled by Chris Taylor in center, and then Will Smith drops the ball at home, allowing two Rays runs to score and win the game.

If you were watching Game 4, you just saw it, when Rays journeyman Brett Phillips‘ two-out hit off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen — Phillips’ first hit since the regular season after Jansen walked Randy Arozarena — in the ninth scored Kevin Kiermaier from second for a 7-7 tie and then, improbably, plated Arozarena as well when catcher Will Smith lost the ball at home plate for a Rays walk-off win. Just like that, the World Series was evened up, making it a best-of-three showdown between L.A. and Tampa Bay.

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Brett Phillips’ bloop single is bobbled by Chris Taylor in center, and then Will Smith drops the ball at home, allowing two Rays runs to score and win the game.


The running MLB playoffs MVP

Randy Arozarena has gone from an unknown outfielder to this October’s breakout star. Going into the playoffs, you might have been asking, “Who is this guy?” But the Rays’ trade for him has been a huge factor in their postseason run. Arozarena is now a living, breathing postseason record book in cleats, having set MLB records for home runs (nine) and total bases (58), and he’s tied for the all-time record for postseason hits (26). What’s more, he has been flashing some leather in the outfield and some sweet celebration dance moves on the field.

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Clayton Kershaw’s real postseason problem? The second start of a series

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The narrative winds itself through every October, the constant that connects each postseason to the previous one for the past eight years, with many of the horrifying twists and turns of a Stephen King novel. Will Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation, finally get to celebrate a World Series title with his teammates?

Kershaw is back on the mound for Sunday’s Game 5 with a chance to put the Los Angeles Dodgers back on top after the ultimate gut-punch of a loss Saturday night. He has been effective this postseason, with a 13-strikeout game against the Brewers in the wild-card round and a 2.88 ERA over four starts. His one rough outing was a crucial one, though; in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, he gave up four runs over five innings as L.A. fell to the brink of elimination before rallying to win the final three games. It is perhaps notable that Kershaw did not pitch in any of those three victories. Walker Buehler is now regarded as the Dodgers’ ace, and Kershaw doesn’t have to win every game, as was expected — unfairly — for so many years. He is still one of the most valuable players on the roster, but the Dodgers have many valuable players.

That doesn’t make a Kershaw start any less full of intrigue, however. I suspect even if you’re not a Dodgers fan, you find yourself pulling for Kershaw this time of year. In his career in the regular season, he’s 175-76 with a 2.43 ERA. In his career in the postseason, he’s 12-12 with a 4.22 ERA. I saw a list similar to the one below on a recent broadcast. Since the advent of the wild card in 1995, Kershaw has the fifth-worst postseason ERA among pitchers with at least 70 innings:

David Price: 4.62
Charles Nagy: 4.46
Al Leiter: 4.38
CC Sabathia: 4.28
Clayton Kershaw: 4.22
Zack Greinke: 4.22

That’s out of 36 pitchers. Mariano Rivera tops the list, with Madison Bumgarner second and Curt Schilling third. What makes the above ranking stand out even more, of course, is the difference between that postseason ERA and the player’s career ERA:

Price: +1.31
Nagy: -0.05
Leiter: +0.58
Sabathia: +0.54
Kershaw: +1.79
Greinke: +0.85

Kershaw has been so dominant in the regular season, which has made his results in the playoffs only more frustrating. On top of that, he is held to an impossible standard. He is expected to duplicate the heroic performances of World Series legends such as Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson — who cares if they pitched in a different era and had to pitch in only one series per year — or to match an October run like his contemporary and rival Bumgarner had for the Giants in 2014.

Sunday night’s start will be a big test for Kershaw for another key reason: It’s the first time this postseason he’ll make a second start in a series. I had a theory that most of Kershaw’s postseason struggles have come the second time he faced a team in a series. Before putting theory to paper, I checked the numbers. I went back to 2013, the first postseason Kershaw pitched in after he had become the best pitcher in the game.

First game in a series: 102⅔ IP, 78 H, 44 R, 42 ER, 23 BB, 118 SO, 14 HR, 3.15 ERA
Subsequent appearances: 65⅓ IP, 55 H, 37 R, 34 ER, 16 BB, 72 SO, 11 HR, 5.44 ERA

So the theory holds. Kershaw’s major issues mostly have come the second time around. One thing I’ve heard people say is Kershaw has been pushed hard in the postseason, pitching on three days’ rest at times earlier in this run, plus making several relief appearances along the way. That’s true; he was pushed hard by Don Mattingly and then Dave Roberts. The trouble with that theory is Kershaw actually pitched well on short rest. He has made four starts on three days’ rest, all in Game 4 of a division series and his second start of a series:

2013 NLDS vs. Braves: 6 IP, 0 ER, 6 SO
2014 NLDS vs. Cardinals: 6 IP, 3 ER, 9 SO
2015 NLDS vs. Mets: 7 IP, 1 ER, 8 SO
2016 NLDS vs. Nationals: 6.2 IP, 5 ER, 11 SO

That’s a 3.16 ERA, and even the game against the Nationals is a little misleading. He left in the seventh inning with two outs and the bases loaded, but the bullpen allowed all three runners to score. That was the year he came on to get the final two outs in Game 5 for the save. He then started Game 2 of the NLCS on two days of rest (or four days of rest after his Game 4 start). You know what? He pitched seven scoreless innings against the Cubs. It was his second start of the series, in Game 6, when the Cubs knocked him around for two home runs and five runs in five innings.

So it doesn’t really hold that short rest has hurt Kershaw. Now, sure, maybe there’s a cumulative effect here. Maybe he was gassed by the time he faced the Cubs in Game 6. I keep wondering if seeing Kershaw a second time in short order helps opponents. Part of the mystery of facing Kershaw is he doesn’t look like any other pitcher with that hesitation and his windup and the over-top delivery. Maybe the familiarity of seeing him again a few days later helps — similar to how offensive numbers jump the third time through the order (part of that is pitcher fatigue, but part of that is hitters have seen the pitcher for two at-bats already).

I went back to the 2015 postseason and checked the numbers on starters for their first start in a series and then their second start. This gave a list of 80 pitchers (and 81 second starts, as Corey Kluber started three times in the 2016 World Series).

First start: 444⅓ IP, 344 H, 160 R, 153 ER, 148 BB, 454 SO, 51 HR, 3.12 ERA
Second start: 399⅓ IP, 338 H, 181 R, 168 ER, 138 BB, 434 SO, 61 HR, 3.79 ERA

So, yes, pitchers don’t fare as well the second time in a series. Their average innings pitched goes from 5.6 to 4.9. Their home runs per nine innings goes from 1.03 to 1.37. Their ERA rises 0.67 runs — but Kershaw’s ERA rises 2.29 runs.

It should be noted that Kershaw hasn’t pitched as badly as his ERA suggests. Compare his second-start numbers to the other 81 starts per nine innings:

Kershaw: 7.6 H, 2.2 BB, 9.9 SO, 1.52 HR, 5.44 ERA
Others: 7.6 H, 3.1 BB, 9.8 SO, 1.37 HR, 3.79 ERA

His raw numbers are basically the same as the control group — except the ERA. For whatever reason, his runs in the postseason too often come in crooked numbers or one bad inning.

Anyway, the Dodgers know this. Roberts won’t allow him to go too long, and the Dodgers have plenty of arms in the bullpen. In his four starts this postseason, Kershaw has thrown 93, 87, 87 and 78 pitches. He’ll be pitching on four days of rest. He gave up only two hits in six innings in the Game 1 victory over the Rays. All the signs point to another good start. I hope so.

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In Pictures: Khabib Nurmagomedov, the undefeated MMA champion

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MMA world lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov announced his shock retirement from the sport on Saturday after revealing he promised his mother his clash with Justin Gaethje would be his last fight.

The Russian, who won by a second-round technical knockout, was fighting for the first time since the death of his father Abdulmanap, who was also his coach, in July.

“I’m the UFC undisputed, undefeated champion with a 13-0 record (in UFC), and 29-0 in all of my pro MMA career,” he said after his win in Abu Dhabi.

“Today I want to say this is my last fight. No way am I coming here without my father.

“When UFC comes to me about Justin I spoke with my mother for three days. She didn’t want me to fight without father and I said this is my last fight – and I have given her my word.

“Thank you, coach, thank you, guys. Today is my last fight in the UFC.”

Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, 57, passed away after COVID-19 related complications in the summer.

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