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Rays eke out their kind of win to beat Astros in Game 1

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The 2020 MLB playoffs are down to the final four teams with the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, and Tampa Bay Rays left standing in the League Championship Series. Starting with Sunday’s ALCS Game 1 showdown between the Astros and the Rays in San Diego through the moment that the World Series is set, this is your place for the stars, turning points and takeaways at the conclusion of every thrilling game.

ALCS Game 1: Tampa Bay Rays 2, Houston Astros 1

What it means: Game 1 of the ALCS featured a couple of twists, but ultimately was exactly the kind of game the Rays wanted. Early on, it looked as if it would be an Astros kind of night, with their hitters making frequent and high-quality contact. Rays starter Blake Snell went two times through the order with only one strikeout and — as he has all season — failed to get through six innings. But Houston could never get the big hit to break the game open, entering the middle innings with only Jose Altuve‘s solo homer on the board.

Then Randy Arozarena continued his transmogrification into the best fastball hitter on the planet with his fourth homer of the postseason. Then Mike Zunino stroked a highly rare RBI single to put the Rays ahead. Finally, the Rays protected a one-run lead, very much a part of their script. Tampa Bay followed Snell’s five innings with four shutout frames by four relievers and the Rays grabbed the opener 2-1. In doing so, the Rays improved to 16-5 in one-run games this season, a .762 winning percentage, including the postseason. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, that’s currently the best one-run winning percentage by any team over a season. Ever.

The moral of Game 1 was this: The club that dictates the terms of engagement will be in good shape. The Astros had a chance to be that club in the early innings, but when they failed to do so, it became exactly the kind of game the Rays want to see every time out. — Bradford Doolittle

Next up: Game 2: Astros vs. Rays (in San Diego), 4:07 p.m. ET Monday


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2020 MLS Cup playoffs: Who’s in, fixtures, results, final date and key info

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The coronavirus-affected 2020 Major League Soccer regular season is in the home stretch, with teams vying for places in the postseason, which begins on Nov. 20 and concludes with MLS Cup on Dec. 12.

A total of 18 teams will qualify for the postseason, four more than in 2019, with the last day of the regular season — Decision Day — coming on Nov. 8 (watch all matches live on ESPN networks and ESPN+ in the U.S.).

Below is a list of teams who have qualified, those still in the hunt and what this year’s playoff format looks like.

MLS standings | Schedule | Statistics
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Clinched playoff places

Eastern Conference (6 teams qualify straight to Round 1, 4 have a play-in game):

Toronto FC, Philadelphia Union, Columbus Crew SC, Orlando City SC.

Western Conference (8 teams qualify directly to Round 1):

None.

Still in contention

Eastern Conference:

New England Revolution, New York City FC, New York Red Bulls, Montreal Impact, Chicago Fire, Nashville SC, Atlanta United FC, Inter Miami SC, D.C. United and FC Cincinnati.

Western Conference:

Minnesota United FC, FC Dallas, San Jose Earthquakes, Vancouver Whitecaps, Real Salt Lake, Houston Dynamo, Colorado Rapids and the LA Galaxy.

Eliminated

None.

Format

The first round will be made up of a pair of one-off play-in games with the 7-10 seeds in the Eastern Conference vying to secure the final two spots in Round One of the playoffs.

Round One

Round One begins on Nov. 20, with 16 teams playing single elimination matches in the higher seeds market for a spot in the Conference semifinals.

Eastern Conference

Times and matches TBD.

Western Conference

Times and matches TBD.

Conference semifinals

Eastern Conference

Times and matches TBD.

Western Conference

Times and matches TBD.

Conference finals

Times and matches TBD.

MLS Cup

TBD vs. TBD (Dec. 12)

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Why Dortmund vs. Schalke is the Bundesliga’s biggest derby by far

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On Nov. 25, 2017, I had a spring in my step while making the reassuringly familiar, brisk walk from the Westfalenhallen S-Bahn rail station past the numerous bratwurst vendors, to my favourite football stadium: the Signal Iduna Park, or the Westfalenstadion, as Borussia Dortmund fans still refer to it.

The German Football League (DFL) had, for a second year running, assigned me to commentate for the world TV feed on the fixture that really matters in Germany’s bustling industrial west, and my heart was aflutter. To me, there’s nothing in world club football that beats it. Quite simply, Dortmund vs. Schalke is die Mutter aller Derbys (the “mother of all derbies”) and carries a resonance that’s sometimes difficult to convey to fleeting observers of German football.

Germany, unlike England, is a country without a significant culture of city derbies. The big cities tend to have one major club that serves as a focal point for local fans. Other clubs exist, of course, but their reach tends to be smaller. So the best derbies involve rival communities in close proximity to each other — in this case the cities of Dortmund and Gelsenkirchen, which are separated by 20 miles of densely populated Westfalen territory.

A Revierderby refers generally to a neighbourly meeting of two clubs from the heavily industrialised Ruhr district, but this is THE Revierderby. The Dortmund-Schalke rivalry carries echoes of a hardworking past. It’s mined from coal and forged from steel, and every game serves as a poignant reminder of Bundesliga meetings past. Here are just some of the memories:

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In September 1969, Schalke defender Friedel Rausch was bitten on the backside by an Alsatian police dog called Rex as fans stormed the pitch at Dortmund’s old Rote Erde, which adjoins the modern-day stadium. It followed a goal for the Royal Blues, and Rausch carried on to complete the 90 minutes, but only after receiving a tetanus shot. He had to sleep on his stomach for two nights.

In December 1997, just six months after both clubs lifted European trophies, Schalke’s Jens Lehmann headed home an injury-time equaliser for 2-2, thus becoming the first goalkeeper to score from open play in Bundesliga history. Five years later, Lehmann would win his solitary Bundesliga title — albeit as a Dortmund player.

Schalke had a real chance of winning the Meisterschale in 2007. It would have been their first since the formation of the new league in 1963. But naturally, on the penultimate matchday they ran into their great Ruhr rivals, who, with little to play for other than spoiling the party, sent Schalke packing with a resounding and haunting 2-0 defeat.

Let’s go back to the November 2017 meeting I mentioned earlier. I was on air in Dortmund that day with Steffen Freund, a superb companion at the best of times, but especially valuable on Revierderby days given his considerable experience of playing for both clubs.

Steffen and I could hardly believe our eyes as Dortmund, in a rampant mood, reeled off four first-half goals without reply. But the second half saw Schalke produce the best comeback I’ve ever commentated on in a major fixture, coming back to level it at the death thanks to Brazilian defender Naldo’s injury time header. This week I revisited what I said from the commentary position in the heat of a remarkable that day. “Naldooooo … 4-4 … THIS is why they call it the mother of all derbies!” My eyes were just about popping out of my head as I incredulously barked out the words.

The fixture has a way of delivering excitement against the grain of expectations. The following season, Steffen and I were back in Dortmund for another derby, this time near the end of the campaign. BVB still entertained title hopes while having little margin for error. Schalke, off form, needed all their time to stave off relegation. Greeting us pitchside as we filmed our on camera stand-up, Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc had that derby look in his eye. He knew from experience that nothing could be taken for granted. Schalke, despite being 42 points behind the Schwarzgelben, prevailed 4-2, effectively saving themselves and consigning Dortmund to another season of near-misses.

It’s important to talk about the “Ruhrpott” fans, with their distinctive gruff but enchanting humour, because they are the ones who make this rivalry special. BVB and Schalke fans actually have much in common as fellow residents of what I see as the most vibrant football area in Germany — the country’s beating heart of passion. It’s often known as Luedenscheid-Nord (Dortmund) vs. Herne-West (Schalke), reflecting the desire by both sets of fans not to even acknowledge the existence of the other club. Dortmund is technically to the north of the former, while Gelsenkirchen lies to the west of the latter.

Only 300 fans will be allowed to attend the 97th edition of the rivalry on Saturday (LIVE at 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+), and that is right as new coronavirus infection numbers climb abruptly across Westfalen. But consider what a group of around 80 Schalke “Ultras” did outside the Veltins Arena after last week’s 1-1 draw with Union Berlin. It was Schalke’s first point of the season but the fact remains, they have now gone 20 Bundesliga matches without a win, stretching back to January.

It’s traditional for teams to face their fans postgame in good times as well as bad. These were the words that emanated from the Schalke fans’ spokesman out of a loudspeaker. It tells you everything about how much Saturday means.

“That was OK today, but for the derby you must put a few more percent into it. The derby is the most important game of the year. You go out and give it everything. You can lose the game, but it’s a matter of how. If you don’t show at least what you did today, we’ll see each other again. Then it won’t be quite as peaceful though. Got it? Two hundred percent from everyone! For Schalke! Let’s go!”

The statement was followed by loud applause.

Borussia Dortmund made heavy weather of their initial Champions League assignment on Tuesday in Rome against Lazio, losing 3-1. But they are huge favourites to beat Schalke, while knowing that actually doing it can present considerable challenges. In 96 previous Bundesliga encounters, BVB have 34 wins, Schalke 32, with a draw often a good pick given that there have been 30 of them down the years.

I’ve often said, if in the hopefully very distant future, I were given the chance to pick a commentary match to bow out on, it would be the Revierderby. For now, I long for the time when I can return to the glorious Ruhrpott, chat again about the state of BVB and Schalke with fans of both while munching on currywurst and sipping a Pilsener.

The realist in me knows, bearing in mind the pandemic, it could be a long time. But mentally this weekend, I will be transported back to Dortmund.

Long live the Revierderby.

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Home Teams Aren’t Winning As Much In College Football This Season. The Big Ten Should Fit Right In.

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In the weeks leading up to this strange, limited-capacity season of college football, oddsmakers salivated over the prospect of something akin to a control study for home-field advantage. What role does geography play if crowds are reduced by 75 percent, or if there are no crowds at all?

“I think home-field advantage for everyone may be gone,” Big Ten Network analyst Howard Griffith said in mid-September. So far, he seems to have been right. Home losses have piled up regardless of conference or program pedigree.

Through seven weeks,no team has played more than six, so we looked at the first six games of any season.

“>1 overall home winning percentage (.617) is the lowest at this point in any season since at least 2008. Some of that has to do with the lack of cupcake opponents, given that teams have largely played within their conferences: Only 63 of the 167 home contests played so far in the Football Bowl Subdivision have involved nonconference opponents, for a share of just 37.7 percent; from 2008 through 2019, nonconference games made up 61.4 percent of the home games among the first six games played each season.

If we look just at the home teams favored to win their matchups, they’re also scuffling. According to ESPN Stats & Information Group, home favorites won 78.3 percent of games from 2008 to 2019; this season, they are winning just 70.1 percent, a full 5.7 percentage points lower than any season over that stretch. Even home favorites with a lead entering the fourth quarter are struggling, relatively speaking: Those teams are winning only 86.9 percent of their games, compared with the 2008-19 average of 93.5 percent.

In 2019, SEC home teams won a higher share of their conference games than any Power Five conference’s home teams, but they’re just 14-12 so far in 2020; that includes home losses to unranked teams by ranked LSU, Mississippi State and Tennessee. Only once last season did a ranked SEC program fall at home to an unranked one. This season, top 10 teams have already suffered three home losses to unranked opponents, an occurrence that since 2012 has happened at most seven times over an entire season.

As Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports noted, this downturn comes after two of the four largest home-field advantages on record were produced in the past two seasons.since 1972.

“>2 All this before two major conferences unlock the gates to public-less venues in the coming weeks.

While team success within friendly confines has nosedived, if the trend holds, it won’t be much of a departure for the Big Ten, which opens play Friday.

In an increasingly offense-ruled sport, no conference in the College Football Playoff era3 has featured worse offensive production by home teams in conference play than the Big Ten, whose home teams rank last in points per drive, score percentage and successful play rate.4 That’s last among ALL Football Bowl Subdivision conferences, not just the Power Five.

And that affects the win column. Over the past 10 seasons, Big Ten home teams have a lower win rate in conference play than any other Power Five conference’s home teams, and compared to all conferences over the past two seasons, only the Mountain West’s home teams have been worse. Since Maryland and Rutgers officially joined the Big Ten prior to the 2014 season, Big Ten road favorites have won a higher percentage of conference games than any other conference’s road favorites.

To assess whether crowd noise has had a measurable impact on offensive performance, FiveThirtyEight turned to expected points added (EPA) per play. And to filter out unbalanced matchups, FiveThirtyEight compared only favored home and away teams in conference play. While all favorites aren’t created equal, this inches the exercise closer to a fairer approximate baseline with which to compare home-and-road splits.

One might suspect that a roaring crowd would adversely affect the communication of play calls, the cadence of snap counts and the general comfort of road team offenses. It hasn’t. In three of the five seasons since the College Football Playoff was introduced,5 Big Ten road favorites generated more EPA per play in conference games than home favorites did. That is not an experience shared by any other major conference. In the SEC, for example, home favorites saw more EPA per play in every single season.

Big Ten favorites have produced a lot on the road

Expected points added (EPA) per play for home favorites minus EPA per play for road favorites by season among the Power 5 conferences

Season ACC Big Ten Big 12 Pac-12 SEC
2019 +0.02 -0.05 +0.00 +0.02 +0.04
2018 -0.06 +0.07 +0.07 +0.02 +0.01
2017 +0.05 -0.04 +0.06 +0.16 +0.04
2016 +0.00 +0.05 -0.04 -0.02 +0.07
2015 +0.06 -0.04 -0.03 +0.01 +0.06
2014 +0.04 +0.05 +0.14 -0.01 +0.06

Source: ESPN STATS & INFORMATION GROUP

But the good news for the Big Ten is that it will fit right in with the current national landscape, where road is king. This year marks the first since 2005 that EPA per play is higher for favored road teams in conference play than it is for favored home teams, and the split is the widest it’s been since ESPN’s Stats & Information Group began tracking it in 2004.

Recently, Big Ten crowds haven’t helped home teams win close games. Over the past 10 seasons, Big Ten home favorites with a lead of any kind entering the fourth quarter had the lowest win percentage of any conference’s home favorites. And in one-possession games,6 Big Ten road favorites had a .778 win percentage, the second highest rate of any conference and by far the highest of any Power Five conference.

Another way to measure home performance is to turn to betting lines. In the College Football Playoff era, the Big Ten’s home teams rank last among major-conference home teams in cover percentage during conference play.

This is surprising, at least on an anecdotal level. A cursory search will indicate that the Big Ten is home to at least a handful of the most intimidating environments in the sport. It’s a conference that includes the sport’s birthplace and one of the oldest stadiums, the nation’s longest consecutive sellout streak, The Best Damn Band In The Land and whiteout spectacles. That doesn’t even include The Big House.

But in recent years, the Big Ten’s home-stadium notoriety has hardly guaranteed a win for the host. And in 2020, a season in which anything can seemingly happen, the conference will fit right in.

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