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Suarez, Simeone union at Atletico could be beautiful byproduct of Barca’s implosion



From a neutral standpoint, it would be absolutely thrilling if Luis Suarez joined Atletico Madrid. From an Atleti point of view, it might — just might — be sufficient to give them the natural, instinctive goal threat they’ve been missing for years. From La Liga’s vista, retaining a world-class superstar and legendary talent — rather than seeing him join Ever Banega, Santi Cazorla, Aritz Aduriz and Sergio Reguilon in disappearing from Spain‘s fields of play — is gold dust.

From the Barcelona side of things, the whole idea is a small-visioned, deeply flawed, personality-based error of pretty huge proportions. Some may disagree, but I think it’s blatantly obvious. More of that in a moment.

Let’s start with the absolutely delicious prospect for those — like most of you, and me — who would stand back and expect the blue touchpaper to be lit if explosive Suarez meets abrasive Atletico. (Barca are apparently going to fight not to let this happen and might yet keep Suarez, which speaks further to their disarray.) You could begin it like one of those hackneyed old jokes: “Heard the one about an Argentinian, a Brazilian and a Uruguayan walk into a football club…?”

Why Suarez would make sense at Atletico

Diego Simeone may have lost his right hand, Mono Burgos, but his left still carries a powerful hook, jab and haymaker. The Argentinian has always been ferocious. As a player, like Suarez, he would do practically anything to win. This would make their union a meeting of like minds, but Simeone’s most impressive components, like Suarez’s, weren’t pure dark arts — they were his calculating brain and his relentless commitment to giving a bare minimum of 100%. That meant working hard every day in training, then upping the intensity in matches.

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You’ve witnessed what an electrifying, galvanising effect that’s had on Atleti in the past decade, when he’s achieved several things that will mark him down as, probably, the greatest individual figure in the entire, garlanded history of Los Colchoneros. He’s earned the club many hundreds of millions of euros from relentlessly muscular performances in Europe — hence a salary that is rumoured, and I believe it, to be the biggest for a manager anywhere in club football. He’s consistently made any group of players the club has given him at least as good as the sum of the parts, and often greater.

That, I’d argue, is the No. 1 skill of any manager. And it’s very, very rare.

He’s completely catalysed the fanbase, drawing them like a Pied Piper, in ever more hungry, vociferous droves, to the Vicente Calderon, and then to the Wanda Metropolitano. Above all, he’s won trophies — seven of the beauties.

But Atleti are desperately short of scorers. Since losing Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona little more than a year ago, they’ve not had a proper lead striker (Alvaro Morata was top last season with 12 in La Liga) and since Kevin Gameiro scored 12 league goals three long years ago, Atleti’s second-highest La Liga scorer, whoever it has been, hasn’t managed to hit the net more than eight times. Not only is that not good enough, it’s puny verging on pathetic.

Now the Brazilian. Diego Costa, for the moment, doesn’t have any buyers. He’s pretty static, reliant on trying to bully and frighten defenders because he’s still one mean son of a gun. It’s not that he doesn’t have technique nor lacks ideas, but the cumulative weight fluctuations and injuries throughout the years have left him prematurely unable to make his body do what his mind and eyes can imagine.

What unifies him and his coach is their unwavering commitment to bulldozing all obstacles in their way in search of victory. Simeone and Costa represent the fiery, fighting, ferocious face of Atletico Madrid — which is not to say, for one single moment, that the team, the squad, the coaching staff and the big bosses don’t also possess football smarts, imagination, flair and athleticism. They do, but this remains a warrior club.

Whether Costa makes the cut and remains a Colchonero beyond the Oct. 5 transfer deadline remains to be seen. Frankly, I’d pay good money to watch him and Suarez gang up together; in training, in the dressing room, on away trips and, even if only occasionally, up front as a pairing. More often one would be replacing the other, given their age and the battle scars their bodies bear. But if there were a short series of months when Costa and Suarez were in the same team then it would be worth saying fervent prayers for goalkeepers, centre-halves and referees all over Spain and Europe.

What about Barca letting Suarez go?

Right now it’s fashionable for disillusioned Barcelona fans to be ridiculously derogatory about Suarez. He’s never had the most outstandingly athletic physique. Add to that the fact that he’s turning 34 in January, that he’s disconsolate at the way the Camp Nou authorities are running (down) his current club, and that he’s constantly had someone poking or prodding with scalpels and sutures at one area or another in his knees and ankles in the past few seasons means that he’s not in peak, peak shape.

However, and this is vital: Suarez is not due massively more respect and better treatment from Barcelona, and some of their disgruntled fans, simply because of his stats, though they are, of course, extraordinary. He’s Barcelona’s third all-time leading goal scorer (198 in 283 games), and winner of 13 trophies in six years. But crucially, he is, by far, the greatest, most mutually beneficial strike partner Lionel Messi has ever had. And despite any decline in athleticism, Suarez remains just about as smart, bright, technical and resourceful a striker as you’ll find anywhere in Europe.

That brain, that tungsten-edged ambition, that vision — Suarez has few peers. It’s for that reason4 I would be fascinated to see what he can manage with Koke, Saul, Angel Correa, Joao Felix, Yannick Carrasco and, hopefully, Thomas Partey supplying him — to say nothing of Atleti’s flying wing-backs. To boil it right down, they do the running and the hunting, he finishes the job.

Assuming all this comes to fruition because the transfer market is quixotic beyond belief, it’s true Suarez would suffer if “Professor” Oscar Ortega, Atleti’s ruthless fitness coach, gets his hands on him. But you’d pay to witness that, too. All of which leaves Suarez’s employers since 2014, a club he helped to a Treble and the squad in which he’s become, with Messi, the reason that the Catalans have so successfully been able to rage against the dying of the light.

What the Suarez mess says about Barcelona

Barcelona have been an increasingly ill-run, badly focused, self-absorbed, money-obsessed mess for quite some time now. The fact that Suarez brings the absolute best out of Messi, as friends, as born winners, as teammates and as an instinctive anticipator of genius, has been crucial in the Blaugrana not sinking into their sticky, embarrassing morass long before now. But here’s the rub: President Josep Maria Bartomeu is ruthlessly determined to prove that this is his club, completely set on breaking up the Suarez-Messi axis.

Bartomeu believes he can’t be seen to let Messi leave, thus the axe falls on the axis by pushing Suarez out. That Ronald Koeman reportedly told the Uruguayan “I’d keep you but the club wants you out” tells the full story.

Bartomeu won’t say it in public, at least until it comes to some self-justifying interview or paid memoirs when he’s long out of office, but it’s true that there are many people around Barcelona who resent the Messi-Suarez axis and who shrivel in their presence. Just the other day, in conversation with Vicente del Bosque for El Pais, ex-Barcelona keeper and ex-Camp Nou director of football Andoni Zubizarreta said: “Much depends on the generosity of [great] players. When Tata Martino was in charge at Barca he said to [Messi], ‘I know that if you call the president, he’ll sack me, but hell, you don’t need to demonstrate that to me every day. I already know it.'”

That is a fierce, even startling, image.



Julien Laurens cannot believe how late Barcelona have left it in the transfer window to do their business.

Just last week Koeman, for the first time since taking over, felt the need to impose himself.

For the longest time — certainly since Messi, Suarez and Neymar were routing Europe up front — it has been traditional that Messi and one or more of his closest Praetorian guard wander out to training last. Often that’s a noisy process; the laughter and clatter of studs on the concrete stairs up to the Tito Vilanova pitch indicating that, a handful of minutes after the penultimate players and longer after the eager ones, the little genius and his gang are ready to work.

Most accept it readily, some resent it and a few wish they could bring that state of affairs crashing down. It’s an emblem of the fact that there’s a bubble of “Thou shalt not” around Messi, best summed up with the phrase, “Don’t tick him off unnecessarily.”

But then greatness, especially greatness like this, carries privilege. Until now.

The rule now is that players must report to the training ground by 9.30 a.m. Training will usually be at 11 a.m. and one day last week, the new Dutch boss wasn’t pleased that the last couple of his squad (guess who) weren’t out on the field until 11.03 a.m. instead. Koeman took that as a disrespect, told them so and work commenced. But a marker was laid down. Like the reports of that first meeting between Koeman and Messi a couple of weeks ago: No more privileges, mate.

So where we stand is that Bartomeu thinks that he can win an internal battle by shooing Suarez off the premises. And he thinks he can do this at the same time as he’s made Messi stay, by force, when the player claims he was repeatedly told that he could leave this summer and when Bartomeu said that very thing on television the season before last, he has opted to strip Messi of his third-greatest asset (Suarez) after that magical left foot and his brilliant brain.

The logical thing for a smart president to do, rather than to stick two fingers up at Messi by forcing out Suarez and paying to terminate the remainder of his Barcelona contract, would be to swallow pride and keep the Uruguayan. If there were financial resources to bring in a young, quick, ready-to-go striker like Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez then the argument would be different. But there aren’t.

Suarez staying would mean a happier Messi, a centre-forward for Koeman to plan around, a good supply of goals (21 in 5,670 minutes, meaning one every 122 minutes last season) and a structure whereby Griezmann wouldn’t have to play either at centre-forward or left wing where he struggled last season. It’s simple logic. But, instead, Bartomeu is determined to win this battle — even if it means him losing the war.

I told you two weeks ago that Simeone wanted Suarez and that the Uruguayan’s arrival might well make Atleti true title challengers. I haven’t changed my mind. Now it’s down to the bean counters, the lawyers and the agents. Suarez is furious that the club are seemingly backtracking on their willingness to let him leave now that Atletico have emerged as his strongest suitor.

But from this unholy mess something beautiful, dressed in red and white, might be born.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



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.”



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



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



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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