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MLS Power Rankings: Toronto FC still top, Columbus Crew SC slide

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Toronto FC remained on top of the heap, and the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference came into focus as the top four sides clinched postseason berths. Yet it’s still wide open in the Western Conference, with no playoff participants yet to punch their tickets and three teams — Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City — divided by just one point at the top. There were shocks, late, late goals and plenty of drama. In short, just another weekend in Major League Soccer.

Jeff Carlisle recaps the weekend with a brand-new edition of MLS Power Rankings for all 26 clubs.

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Previous ranking: 1

Next MLS match: Saturday, Oct. 24 at Philadelphia Union (7:30 p.m. ET)

News emerged over the weekend that the Supporters Shield won’t be awarded this season, and Toronto coach Greg Vanney was less than pleased about the decision. One would hope, though, that everything TFC has been through will somehow be remembered and recognized if it secures the top spot in the standings. Pablo Piatti’s late header against Atlanta, securing a 1-0 win, put the Reds one step closer towards that goal.

Previous ranking: 2

Next MLS match: Monday, Oct. 19 at New England (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+)

With Brenden Aaronson’s January transfer to FC Red Bull Salzburg confirmed on Friday, eyes have now focused on defender Mark McKenzie. He did his prospects no harm with a late blast to secure a midweek road draw at D.C. United.

Previous ranking: 4

Next MLS match: Saturday, Oct. 24 at Inter Miami CF (3:30 p.m. ET)

The not-so-good: Wins have recently been hard to come by, with OCSC recording three draws in a row including Sunday’s 1-1 effort at New York Red Bulls. The attack has gone a bit stale as well, with just five goals in five games. The good: The Lions extended their unbeaten streak to 12 games, but best of all? The Lions are in the playoffs for the first time in their history.

Previous ranking: 3

Next MLS match: Thursday, Oct. 22 at Seattle Sounders, 10:30 p.m. ET

A loss to RSL and failing to beat a shorthanded LAFC side at home took the shine off a what had been a five-game winning streak. The Timbers also lost influential forward Jeremy Ebobisse to a leg injury as well.

Previous ranking: 5

Next MLS match: Thursday, Oct. 22 vs. Portland Timbers (10:30 p.m. ET)

A 0-0 tie on the road at San Jose isn’t the worst result, though it counts as a missed opportunity to take sole possession of first place in the West. Having Raul Ruidiaz contract COVID-19 while on international duty is yet another obstacle to overcome.

Previous ranking: 6

Next MLS match: Monday, Oct. 19 vs. Philadelphia Union (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+)

It wasn’t that long ago that Kekuta Manneh was a forgotten man. But against Montreal, the former Whitecap looked reborn and was a constant menace down the left wing. The Revs aren’t mentioned among the top teams in the East, but they are firmly ensconced within the playoff places, and boast the potential to do some damage once the postseason starts.

Previous ranking: 8

Next MLS match: Saturday, Oct. 24 at Houston Dynamo (8 p.m. ET)

The Crew needed something special to snap a four-game winless streak. Columbus got it with Artur’s first regular season goal in a 3-1 defeat over NYCFC. The injuries continue to pile up though, with Artur and another goalscorer, Pedro Santos, the latest victims.

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Gyasi Zardes and the Columbus Crew get back to winning ways with a 3-1 victory vs. NYCFC. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Previous ranking: 7

Next MLS match: Saturday, Oct. 24 vs. Montreal Impact (7:30 p.m. ET)

NYCFC’s rise up the standings has been halted, with Ronny Deila’s side now winless in three. The attack is no doubt still feeling the effects of Heber’s injury and Alexandru Mitrita’s departure via loan. Can Deila find a solution?

Previous ranking: 10

Next MLS match: Saturday, Oct. 24 vs. Colorado Rapids (8:30 p.m. ET)

Peter Vermes made his irritation plain with referee David Gantar in his postgame comments, including a penalty shout that went unheeded. But the bottom line is SKC should have been more organized than to be caught out by a long ball on Chicago’s late equalizer in the 2-2 draw. As a result, a chance to go top in the West was squandered.

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Djordje Mihailovic scores in the final minutes to earn a 2-2 for the Chicago Fire vs. Sporting KC. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Previous ranking: 9

Next MLS match: Sunday, Oct. 25 vs. LA Galaxy (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN+)

Given the attacking talent either missing through injury or the aftermath of international duty, it’s still tough to know what kind of team LAFC is at this point. But after losing 2-0 to Vancouver last week, credit is due the Black-and-Gold for scratching out a 1-1 road draw at Portland on Sunday night, with 16-year-old Christian Torres scoring the equalizer.

Previous ranking: 11

Next MLS match: Tuesday Oct. 20 at Nashville SC (8:30 p.m. ET)

The Reggie Cannon saga — in which the former defender said the club asked him to apologize to fans for taking issue with getting booed when he took a knee in a game vs. Nashville SC — overshadowed FCD’s massive 1-0 win in midweek against Kansas City. The he said/they said situation was the latest bad look for Dallas.

Previous ranking: 12

Next MLS match: Saturday, Oct. 24 at FC Cincinnati (7:30 p.m. ET)

Two goals up at home, the Loons were lucky to escape with a 2-2 draw against Houston as Minnesota appeared to be playing not to lose rather than closing it out. Was it rust from two consecutive postponements? Possibly, but the Loons still needed to do better.

Previous ranking: 13

Next MLS match: Saturday, Oct. 24 at Chicago Fire (7:30 p.m. ET)

Alumni of the Red Bulls’ USL team have long been a boon to the first team and the past week was no different, as 17-year-old Caden Clark’s equalizer secured a 1-1 draw against Toronto and Brian White did the same over the weekend in a last-gasp 1-1 tie at home to Orlando.

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Brian White scores in stoppage time for New York Red Bulls in a 1-1 draw with Orlando. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Previous ranking: 17

Next MLS match: Saturday, Oct. 24 at Vancouver Whitecaps (10 p.m. ET)

San Jose has done well to get back in the playoff race, and while Sunday’s 0-0 home draw against Seattle wasn’t perfect, it made for a four-point week. Upcoming games against Vancouver and Real Salt Lake are a golden opportunity to close the postseason deal.

Previous ranking: 15

Next MLS match: Tuesday, Oct. 20 vs. FC Dallas (8:30 p.m. ET)

Hany Mukhtar was brought in to be Nashville’s attacking hub prior to the season. Against Houston he looked the part, with two goals in a 3-1 victory that kept it just inside the playoff places.

Previous ranking: 14

Next MLS match: TBD due to postponements

As the Rapids emerge from their COVID-19 outbreak, they’ll have another week to prepare before they play again. Will their relative inactivity work for them or against them?

Previous ranking: 16

Next MLS match: Saturday, Oct. 24 vs. New York Red Bulls (7:30 p.m. ET)

Credit the Fire for battling to the end and getting a 2-2 draw against Kansas City, but Chicago really needed to do better at home. At least Robert Beric continued his hot streak, bagging his sixth goal in his last eight games.

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Maximiliano Urruti scores for Thierry Henry’s side to beat Inter Miami 2-1. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Previous ranking: 20

Next MLS match: Saturday, Oct. 24 at New York City FC (7:30 p.m. ET)

Bojan came alive in the Impact’s 2-1 win over Inter Miami with a goal and an assist. The win enabled Thierry Henry’s side to get a bit of daylight between themselves and the other teams chasing them for one of the last playoff spots.

Previous ranking: 22

Next MLS match: Saturday, Oct. 24 vs. San Jose (10 p.m. ET)

The eighth and final playoff spot is still in the Caps’ possession, due in no small part to the 2-0 win earlier in the week over LAFC. But man did the late 1-0 loss to the Galaxy sting. Next weekend’s home tilt against San Jose will be critical to the Caps’ postseason hopes.

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Kai Koreniuk finds the back of the net to give LA Galaxy three points vs. Vancouver. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Previous ranking: 23

Next MLS match: Saturday, Oct. 24 vs. FC Dallas (8:30 p.m. ET)

Just when it looked like RSL was in freefall, it conjured up a 2-1 home win over previously high-flying Portland. Damir Kreilach continues to defy any positional label other than goalscorer. His eight goals have almost singlehandedly kept RSL afloat.

Previous ranking: 18

Next MLS match: Saturday, Oct. 24 vs. DC United (4 p.m. ET)

Goals are still a rare commodity for the Five Stripes, who tied Miami 1-1 away and suffered a late 1-0 loss at Toronto. Home matches against D.C. United and Cincinnati over the next two weeks will go a long way to determine if Atlanta can sneak into the postseason.

Previous ranking: 19

Next MLS match: Saturday, Oct. 24 vs. Orlando City SC (3:30 p.m. ET)

The Brek Shea comeback tour is in full swing, with the former U.S. international scoring his third and fourth goals of the season during the week. Unfortunately for Miami, the rest of the team couldn’t make them count, tallying just one point in two games.

Previous ranking: 21

Next MLS match: Saturday, Oct. 24 vs. Columbus Crew SC (8 p.m. ET)

Two goals down at one point, the Dynamo did well to grab a point at Minnesota and it might have gotten the win were it not for the woodwork. The playoff dreams aren’t dead yet, but Houston is running out of time to make them a reality.

Previous ranking: 26

Next MLS match: Saturday, Oct. 24 at Atlanta United FC (4 p.m. ET)

There was joy in the nation’s capital at last as the Black-and-Red beat Cincinnati 2-1 for its first victory since Sept. 2, and just its third of the season. The fact that cancer survivor Chris Odoi-Atsem got the game-winner added to the positive vibes. On top of a midweek 2-2 draw against Philadelphia, interim manager Chad Ashton will consider the week a big step forward for his side.

Previous ranking: 24

Next MLS match: Sunday, Oct. 25 at LAFC (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN+)

Whoever had “Kai Koreniuk stoppage-time winner” in their Save Schelotto bingo card should head to Vegas immediately. Schelotto’s seat still seems unbearably hot – especially after getting spanked 4-0 by San Jose – but the 1-0 win over Vancouver should allow him to survive a while longer.

Previous ranking: 25

Next MLS match: Saturday, Oct. 24 vs. Minnesota United (7:30 p.m. ET)

A 2-1 win in the Hell is Real Derby against Columbus put some spring in FCC’s step. But the 2-1 home loss to DC — due in part to a keeper gaffe from Bobby Edwards — halted that momentum, as well as any faint playoff hopes.

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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.

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

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