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Season preview: Can Milan clubs stop Ronaldo, Juventus from another title?

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Are you ready for some calcio? The Italian Serie A season kicks off Sept. 19 with a doubleheader of Fiorentina vs. Torino followed by Hellas Verona vs. AS Roma (watch all Serie A matches all season on ESPN+).

There will be plenty of storylines to watch for throughout the campaign — most notably, can any club finally dethrone nine-time defending champion Juventus? Will Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic continue to play at an elite level and defy Father Time? And could U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie make an impact for new coach Andrea Pirlo at Juve?

Let’s dive into what and who to look for ahead of the season’s opening weekend. Allora!

Jump to: Title contenders | Ronaldo, Zlatan defy age | New stars | Inzaghis’ sibling rivalry | The Americans | Breakout players | Games to watch


Title contenders

It will come as no surprise that Juventus — chasing their 10th Serie A title in a row — will be the team to catch. However, on the back of an underwhelming season that saw them finish just a point clear at the top of the table and a rookie manager in Pirlo, there is a feeling they are there to be caught.

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Arthur has arrived, unwanted by Barcelona, with Luis Suarez reportedly close to a move to Turin as well, having flown to Italy on Thursday to take a citizenship test. Regardless of whether or not Suarez does join, Miralem Pjanic, Gonzalo Higuain and Blaise Matuidi have moved on, so it remains to be seen whether they have strengthened or indeed weakened their starting lineup.

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While Juve may be a daunting move, Herculez Gomez says it’s an amazing opportunity for Weston McKennie.

Inter Milan, who were runners-up last season, may fancy their chances, and manager Antonio Conte has made it clear it’s now or never for the Nerazzurri as he continues to target experience over youth. Serial title winner Arturo Vidal was preferred over Sandro Tonali (who joined Milan) in midfield, while Aleksandar Kolarov. Achraf Hakimi, who impressed on loan at Borussia Dortmund last season, has arrived from Real Madrid. Keeping hold of Argentina international Lautaro Martinez in attack could also be a key factor.

It looks likely to be a Derby d’Italia battle for top spot, though Atalanta can’t be ruled out after their astonishing performances over the past two seasons. They were within minutes of a place in the Champions League semifinals before being knocked out in heartbreaking fashion by Paris Saint-Germain late on.

Napoli, Roma and AC Milan are all looking to improve but would need to go some distance to catch the top two. Meanwhile, Lazio will really feel last season was their chance as they have struggled to seal their top targets in the transfer market this summer. David Silva looked certain to join and add some much-needed flair in midfield, only to sign with La Liga club Real Sociedad at the 11th hour instead. That decision didn’t sit well with Lazio’s sporting director, Igli Tare, which hints at the stress within the club. — Andrew Cesare Richardson

Ronaldo or Zlatan: Who is more motivated?

It’s easy to forget amid the hype around how well others played last season that Cristiano Ronaldo still scored a remarkable 31 goals in 33 Serie A games, and Juventus won the league. So working off that basis, to talk about Ronaldo’s transience is ridiculous. Yet there’s still this lingering feeling Juventus have not yet got the best out of him.

Juve have been looking for a pressing forward all summer — someone who can chase the lost causes, letting Ronaldo do his thing — as they seek to replicate the partnership with Karim Benzema that served Real Madrid so well. Aged 35 and in ridiculous shape, Ronaldo still has at least four years at the top, while Ibrahimovic, who can happily take away some spotlight from Juventus, is continuing to defy Father Time at the age of 38.

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Gab & Juls explain why Andrea Pirlo has a tougher job at Juventus than Zinedine Zidane did at Real Madrid.

Ibrahimovic’s contract saga over the summer was symptomatic of the past and future visions of Milan. He is still an exceptional player, but while they are trying to evolve and catch up on years of waste and mismanagement, the Swede is still king at the San Siro. After joining Milan in January, he was one of the prime reasons for their renaissance under Stefano Pioli — contributing 10 goals in 18 league games — and with Ante Rebic and Tonali on board at Milan, Ibrahimovic has some wonderful lieutenants to work with.

Ultimately, expect this season to be one where Ronaldo makes a bigger, consistent impact on Serie A, but not for want of some spectacular Zlatan moments. — Hamilton

New players to watch

Serie A sides have spent a total of £540 million (to date) on 129 players. We can expect more deals before the window closes on Oct. 5, but of the transfers completed so far, Arthur is a fascinating piece of business for Juventus, having signed him for £64m from Barcelona. He will aid their transitions and will love working under Pirlo. He will link up with Weston McKennie at Juve (more on him later), and while Dejan Kulusevski was signed in January, this will be his first season at the champions.

Elsewhere, Hakimi is a fantastic signing for Inter Milan, who bought the right back in for a cut price £36m from Real Madrid. Having shone for Borussia Dortmund last season, Hakimi was one of the most in-demand defenders in world football, but Inter moved quickly to sign their man. They will likely be the team to push Juventus the hardest. (Keep an eye on Alexis Sanchez to see if he can escape his wilderness years after two disappointing seasons.)

Aleksandar Kolorov is a short-term answer to their left-back conundrum, bringing his usual grit and jackhammer of a left foot from set pieces, while Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi, recruited from Cagliari and Sassuolo, are smart bits of business.

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Nicky Bandini thinks Antonio Conte will feel the pressure to win with Inter Milan this season.

Lazio have strengthened their options in the forwards with Kosovan striker Vedat Muriqi, but the marquee striker signing was made by Napoli, who recruited Victor Osimhen from Lille for £63m. He will offer a cutting edge to Gennaro Gattuso’s side and is certain to make an impact in Serie A.

– Karlsen: Tonali a glimpse at Milan’s bright new future

Elsewhere, Roma have brought in Pedro from Chelsea but still have business to do, Fiorentina have made a smart signing in bringing Sofyan Amrabat from Verona, Cagliari are closing in on the age-defying Diego Godin, and Milan have moved to extend Ibrahimovic’s deal, signed the incredibly promising Tonali and loaned Brahim Diaz off Milan. –– Tom Hamilton

Sibling rivalry between Inzaghi brothers

On the pitch, Filippo Inzaghi was undoubtedly the better known of the brothers. He was Serie A’s top scorer for Atalanta and also played for Parma, Juventus and most notably Milan. A World Cup winner with Italy in 2006, he also clinched the Champions League twice — scoring both goals in Milan’s 2007 final win over Liverpool — and was also a runner-up with Juve. He won Serie A three times as well as six other major trophies.

Younger brother Simone, however, was slightly less successful as he spent the majority of his career at Lazio, where he won seven trophies — including a Serie A title and UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup — but was capped only three times for Italy.

As managers, it has been a totally different story. Simone, 44, was sworn in to manage Lazio after Marcelo Bielsa walked out in 2016, and it has been an uphill trajectory since. He has won three major trophies (Coppa Italia once, Italian Supercoppa twice) at a time when Juve have been totally dominant in Italy, and his side’s serious title challenge was only dented due to the coronavirus outbreak. He is considered one of the best Italian managers around.

Filippo, 47, has been on a roller-coaster ride. He got his chance in management in a similar scenario when he was hired at Milan in 2014, only to be sacked after just 12 months, with the team finishing 10th. He then impressively led Venezia to Serie B as champions and immediately into the play-offs before he left to manage Serie A side Bologna but was sacked after winning just two of his 21 matches. He lost 2-0 to Simone’s Lazio.

However, last season he stormed to the Serie B title with Benevento, and there is hope he has finally found a playing style that could kick-start his managerial career. — Richardson

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With Cristiano Ronaldo hitting the 100-goal international milestone, the FC guys praise his longevity of success.

The Americans

The American contingent is growing in Serie A, both in the boardroom and on the pitch. Juventus signing McKennie is one of the biggest transfers in U.S. soccer history.

Last year he was doing his utmost to right Schalke’s dismal season, but he has earned this move to Juventus (joining on loan with the option to buy, though ESPN sources say the latter part is a mere formality) and will offer an unrelenting engine and leadership to a midfield which also includes Arthur, Rodrigo Bentancur, Aaron Ramsey, Sami Khedira and Rabiot. He will become the sixth American to play in the Italian top flight, after Alexi Lalas (Padova 1994-96), Michael Bradley (Chievo, Roma 2011-14), Joshua Perez (Fiorentina 2016-17), Armando Frigo (Fiorentina 1939-42) and Alfonso Negro (Fiorentina, Napoli 1934-38). (Another U.S. international, Oguchi Onyewu, did join AC Milan in 2009 but didn’t make a single Serie A appearance.)

This summer also saw Parma and Roma change hands, with American billionaire Kyle Krauser buying a majority stake in Parma, and the Friedkin Group buying Roma from James Pallotta, with Dan Friedkin now owner and president of the Serie A side. They join a league where Fiorentina are owned by Rocco B. Commisso, who purchased the club in June 2019 for €160m, and Milan by Paul Singer (via the Elliott fund). — Hamilton

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Ed Dove and Colin Udoh look ahead to Achraf Hakimi’s first season at Inter Milan after his move from Real Madrid.

Breakout stars

There is a strong case to be made that AC Milan did the most impressive piece of business in all of Serie A when they sealed the arrival of highly rated Tonali from Brescia, despite strong interest from Inter Milan.

The 20-year-old is a full Italy international and his signing is a statement that Milan are building to get back to the top. He will immediately improve their starting lineup, while his age means he could become a mainstay for years to come.

In addition to McKennie, Juve signed exciting young midfield star Kulusevski, who was sensational on loan at Parma from Atalanta last season. Juve signed him in January, but Parma refused to let him go. Under the tutelage of Pirlo, he could be a star. In Juve’s defensive setup, Demiral showed his class last season and could get more of a run-in alongside Matthijs de Ligt. Elsewhere, Fiorentina have Sofyan Amrabat back from Verona, where he excelled while on loan last season. — Richardson

Five games you won’t want to miss

Stream Serie A on ESPN+ all season long

Juventus vs. Napoli, Oct. 10: This match pits Pirlo against his former midfield partner Gennaro Gattuso as managers. Together, the pair won two Champions League titles and a World Cup, but it promises to be a fascinating tactical clash on the sidelines given the bitter rivalry between the two clubs.

Inter Milan vs. AC Milan, Oct. 17: The first Derby della Madonnina of the season will be a true gauge of where both teams are in terms of form and prospects. Inter, under Conte, will be gunning to knock Juventus off their perch, while AC Milan will hope to take back the city bragging rights from their fierce rivals, having lived in Inter’s shadow the past few seasons.

Milan vs. Juventus, Jan. 1: Again, the focus will be on Pirlo, who was let go by Milan in 2011 and allowed to join Juve on a free transfer. He went on to be named Serie A Player of the Year three seasons in a row and won the title four times. A two-time Champions League winner with Milan, it will be an emotional return to San Siro for the Juve boss.

Lazio vs. Roma, Jan. 17: The Derby della Capitale is one of the must-watch games of the year. Lazio enjoyed a far better campaign than their fierce rivals last season, but Roma will want to get some local bragging rights after a summer of huge change at the Giallorossi. If fans are back by then, expect fireworks in the stands, too.

Inter Milan vs. Juve, May 16: The two title favourites meet in the penultimate match of the season in a match which could decide the Scudetto. Just one point separated the two teams last season, and the match pits Pirlo up against Conte, who managed him to three Serie A titles at Juve. Pirlo played for Inter for three seasons before joining Milan in 2001.

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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.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

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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