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UEFA Nations League resumes amid COVID-19 fears



The October international break is more congested than usual, as the soccer world adjusts to a compressed schedule by squeezing as many as three games into an eight-day sprint before players disperse and return to their clubs. There are travel concerns for all international teams as various players pull out of duty because of positive COVID-19 tests — including a spate of positives in the Liverpool squad — and issues with players joining up for their countries in South America due to ongoing coronavirus issues, but across Europe, there’s Nations League qualifying to navigate and plenty of storylines for the top countries.

Watch UEFA Nations League LIVE on ESPN, ESPN+ (U.S.)
– UEFA Nations League: All you need to know

Here’s what is happening across the continent ahead of the action.

Jump to: Expanded squads | England need to find form | Giroud’s 100th France cap | Spain’s issues at both ends | Caputo living dream for Italy | Germany struggling with fans | New era for the Dutch?

Why are the squads so big?

With international teams facing eight games in three days, a stretch that began with some friendlies on Wednesday, fans can expect to see plenty of juggling of resources and fresh faces. While usual breaks see national teams carrying 23 players for two matches, England have named a 30-man party for their three matches, while Scotland have also named a bigger squad than usual, with 26 called up for their triple-header against Israel (Euro 2020 playoff) and Nations League matches against Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Notable first call-ups across the continent include red-hot Everton striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin (England), Arsenal‘s Bukayo Saka (England), 33-year-old striker Francesco Caputo (Italy — more on him later), Lyon‘s Houssem Aouar (France) and Dortmund midfielder Mahmoud Dahoud (Germany) as national team managers adjust to the realities of 2020.

“When you have so many big games in such a short space of time, it’s important to have extra players available,” Scotland manager Steve Clarke explained. “With the coronavirus, it’s a little bit more difficult to call people in and out of your protected bubble, so we decided to go with a slightly bigger squad.” (The durability of the “protected bubble” was later tested with Stuart Armstrong arriving in camp and returning a positive COVID-19 test and Kieran Tierney and Ryan Christie having to also self-isolate as “close contacts.”)

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Germany have also gone with a 29-man squad, with some players — those from Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig — unavailable for Wednesday’s 3-3 friendly against Turkey, offering chances for the fringe members of the squad.

International managers face a difficult juggling act between short-term victories and maintaining important long-term relationships with club managers. Player welfare is paramount. Those at the clubs are already expressing their unease at the workload, with Tottenham’s Jose Mourinho calling on England to “respect the players” after a brutal start to their season in which Spurs played eight games in 22 days.

– Marcotti: Soccer faces tough road to 2022 World Cup

Causing further worry for club managers, like Liverpool‘s Jurgen Klopp, are the various logistical headaches they face ensuring their players get back home safely amid the differing COVID-19 protocols, the required testing and quarantine regulations. In short, it’s convoluted. — Tom Hamilton

England indiscipline helping mask bad form



Frank Lebeouf can’t understand why bookmakers have England at the shortest odds to win Euro 2020 next summer.

Gareth Southgate may have grown weary of dealing with off-field issues in the past few weeks, but one useful by-product has been to avoid detailed scrutiny of two underwhelming performances.

Stream UEFA Nations League LIVE on ESPN, ESPN+ (U.S.)
England vs. Belgium, Sun. 10/11, Noon ET (U.S.)
England vs. Denmark, Weds. 10/14, 2.45 p.m. ET

The build-up to Thursday’s game against Wales3 p.m. ET, ESPN+ — has been overshadowed by Jadon Sancho, Ben Chilwell and Tammy Abraham breaching coronavirus regulations to attend a party last weekend, just as last month’s matches were overtaken by events away from the pitch. Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood have been left out of this camp after arranging to meet two local women outside the bubble in the team hotel in Reykjavik hours after making their debuts against Iceland in September.

Along with Harry Maguire falling foul of Greek law while on holiday this summer, Southgate has faced the biggest spate of ill-discipline in his tenure, taking time out at St George’s Park this week to remind his players of their responsibilities. He even suggested such indiscretions could “derail” their efforts at future tournaments, but lost in the moral maze the 50-year-old has had to navigate were two poor displays against Iceland and Denmark.

England beat Iceland 1-0 before a goalless draw against Denmark, two results that leave them two points adrift of Belgium, who visit Wembley on Sunday. They had just six shots on target in those two games: one of those was Raheem Sterling‘s match-winning penalty in Iceland. The matches came prior to the start of the Premier League season and Southgate argued his players were consequently not fully fit given they were still in preseason at their clubs, but there is no such excuse now.

The friendly against Wales will stoke local rivalries as preparation for Nations League matches Belgium and Denmark.

England were outclassed by Belgium when they twice met at the 2018 World Cup, although one game featured two much-changed line-ups in a group stage match and the other came in a third/fourth place play-off which struggled to capture the imagination for either side. Belgium are the No.1 ranked side in the world according to FIFA and victory for England, currently in fourth, would put Southgate back on track on the pitch as well as off it. — James Olley

Giroud’s 100th cap the big story so far for France



ESPN FC’s Frank Leboeuf lauds fellow countryman Olivier Giroud for his strong work ethic.

Another international break means another eventful few days for France. This time, manager Didier Deschamps was able to have Paul Pogba and Houssem Aouar at Clairefontaine with the rest of the squad, after they missed out last month because of a positive test for COVID-19.

Aouar, as is the tradition for a first call-up, did his initiation song standing up on a chair in front of the whole squad and technical staff. The joy and happiness is very much present at the France HQ despite the fact that the virus is still tampering with Deschamps’ plans. This time, it’s Lyon right-back Leo Dubois who tested positive and had to leave. Adrien Rabiot is still there, but had to self-isolate because he was in contact with someone who contracted the virus — he had to miss Wednesday’s 7-1 friendly win over Ukraine.

Stream UEFA Nations League LIVE on ESPN, ESPN+ (U.S.)
France vs. Portugal, Sunday 10/11, 2.45 p.m. ET
Croatia vs. France, Weds. 10/14, 2.45 p.m. ET

As Olivier Giroud wakes up the morning after his Centenarian moment on Wednesday, where he became only the eighth player in history to reach 100 caps for France (after Lilian Thuram 142, Thierry Henry 123, Marcel Desailly and Hugo Lloris 116, Zinedine Zidane 108, Patrick Vieira 107 and Didier Deschamps 103), Les Bleus have also completed some other important business this week: the official team photo. They were wearing their new home shirt, inspired by the jersey the team wore in 1984 when they won the Euros on home soil.

Deschamps and the players are hoping this will be a good omen for the 2021 Euros this summer. Of the 23 players on the photo though, how many will make the squad for that competition? — Julien Laurens

Spain have selection stress in goal, up front



Sid Lowe marvels at Adama Traore’s impact in his first international action with Spain.

“I’d love to have Harry Kane at his best, or Luis Suárez or Van Basten, any coach would, but we don’t…” Luis Enrique said. Spain, though, do have reasons to be cheerful, and more reasons than most anticipated when the coach, back in the job a year on, named his first post-lockdown squad.

At the time, the list looked a little underwhelming. Now, while there are gaps still, the performances have been promising and this appears a stronger side. It’s also a “foreign” one: against Portugal in a friendly on Wednesday night, Spain started with just four players from La Liga. Leeds United had as many as Madrid and Barcelona put together.

Stream UEFA Nations League LIVE on ESPN, ESPN+ (U.S.)
Spain vs. Switzerland, 10/10, 2.45 p.m. ET (U.S.)
Ukraine vs. Spain, 10/13, 2.45 p.m. ET

In the first half-hour, Spain were so good that Javier Mascherano tweeted emojis with stars in their eyes. Dominating the ball and pressing very high, they didn’t allow their opponents out. Fernando Santos called it “torture.”

“They kept arriving, kept creating danger, and wouldn’t let us play our game,” he said.

Thing is, it finished 0-0. “A crime,” according to Luis Enrique, considering the chances his side had had. The best of them had actually been for Portugal, who rattled two shots off the underside of the bar. By then, Spain had lost control of the game, some of the doubts appearing again.

It wasn’t until Adama Traore came on for his senior international debut that Spain started to threaten again, opponents bouncing off him and his direct running introducing a different element to the game and suggesting that he may become a fixture. “Spain have muscle,” one headline said.

Luis Enrique says that Spain have the “best midfield in the world,” but the concerns about the goalkeepers remain — Kepa Arrizabalaga and David De Gea are both under pressure. It’s also not certain who the other centre-back will be alongside Sergio Ramos (173 caps), and there isn’t an obvious No.9, something which makes Iago Aspas‘s absence from the squad all the more surprising.

Rodrigo and Gerard Moreno will play a part for Spain in their Nations League matches, while Marco Asensio, Dani Olmo, and Ferran Torres will have roles in those wide attacking positions, too. Luis Enrique has also been thinking about using Ansu Fati — the player most exciting everyone right now — as a central striker. But the Spain coach insists: “We won’t build a system just for him. The team is above all else.

We wouldn’t be doing him any favours if we think he is going to resolve every game for us.” — Sid Lowe

Caputo proving age just a number for Italy

In an Italian side packed with creativity, there’s still an active search for that killer instinct in front of goal. Andrea Belotti is the current prime candidate to start up front, while Ciro Immobile — scoring goals for fun at Lazio in recent seasons — is still unfancied by Roberto Mancini.

Then again, there’s another option: 33-year-old Francesco Caputo.

Caputo is ruthless in front of goal and a fantasy league manager’s dream as he is perennially under-rated at Sassuolo. He is Italy’s answer to Jamie Vardy. Having cut his teeth in unfancied clubs lower down the standings, Caputo exploded into life with Sassuolo last season and finished fourth in the top scorer standings last season with 21 Serie A goals. He has a habit of scoring with his first touch and has the finisher’s instinct that’s evaded the Azzurri in recent years.

Stream UEFA Nations League LIVE on ESPN, ESPN+ (U.S.)
Poland vs. Italy, Sun. 10/11, 2.45 p.m. ET
Italy vs. Netherlands, Weds. 10/14, 2.45 p.m. ET

“It has been my dream from childhood that I will continue to pursue while I’m playing, up to the last moment,” he said back in June. It would be some story if he gets his debut in Italy’s forthcoming Nations League matches against Poland and the Netherlands. Just two years ago he was in Serie B, and now he’s spearheading a Sassuolo side that plays some of the best football in Serie A alongside Atalanta.

Like Luca Toni before him, Caputo is living proof you don’t have to be at one of the top Italian sides to deliver goals. Though he won’t be Italy’s oldest debutant — that honour goes to centre-back Emiliano Moretti who was 33 years and 160 days when he made his debut in 2014, while Caputo is merely is 33 years and 62 days old as of Wednesday — it still tugs at the heart strings of all footballing romantics out there.

Better yet, his debut on Wednesday night, leading the attack for experimental Italy team without Napoli or Juventus players — had the perfect ending: he scored his first international goal after 23 minutes in a 6-0 win over Moldova. — Tom Hamilton

Germany struggling to entertain



Steve Nicol says that despite Kai Havertz’s two assists vs. Turkey, the German remained “in and out” of the match.

Early Wednesday morning, police raided the German FA (DFB) headquarters as well as the homes of officials in search of documents related to tax evasion in 2014 and 2015 regarding pitch-side advertisement boards. It was yet another blow for the DFB and its new leadership, under president Fritz Keller, and a sign of more difficult times for the association amid an already difficult time for the sport amid a global pandemic.

TV ratings for national team games have been below 10 million viewers at peak for the past 10 matches before Wednesday’s friendly against Turkey, a 3-3 draw secured by the visitors in the last minute of stoppage time. Expectations for the match were already low: there was nothing to play for, talk of scandal for the German FA dominated the media cycle and Bayern stars like Joshua Kimmich, Serge Gnabry and Manuel Neuer were absent, too. Less than six million people considered the six-goal thriller worth watching.

Stream UEFA Nations League LIVE on ESPN, ESPN+ (U.S.)
Ukraine vs. Germany, Sat. 10/10, 2.45 p.m. ET
Germany vs. Switzerland, Tues. 10/13, 2.45 p.m. ET

Coach Joachim Low had decided to hand the Bayern Munich players, as well as most of the RB Leipzig contingent, a break. With Toni Kroos and Timo Werner also not suiting up for the friendly because of injury and illness, former world class midfielder turned pundit Lothar Matthaus fired shots against the Germany boss.

“I am astonished to see that many players who are benched at their clubs, like Nico Schulz, take to the pitch for Germany,” Matthaus told Bild. “That is the reason why nobody turns on the TV for Germany anymore.”

That, however, might be just one of the reasons for the country’s apparent withdrawal of affection for the national team, which has turned into a scapegoat for the rising discontent with the over-commercialization of football. The DFB and Germany national team director Oliver Bierhoff have yet to come up with an answer in their quest to make the Nationalmannschaft attractive to the masses again. With the pandemic putting an end to public training sessions, they have now turned to television to reach their fans.

On Monday, sandwiched between the two Nations League ties against Ukraine and Switzerland, some Germany stars including Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and keeper Kevin Trapp will take the hot seat in a “Who Wants To Be Millionaire” special. The show still is one of the most popular game shows on German TV, but whether it will help the cause is still very much open. Initial reactions have been far from favourable across the country. — Stephan Uersfeld.

A new era for the Netherlands?



Shaka Hislop wonders if the Netherlands’ loss to Mexico is a sign of them slumping under new coach Frank De Boer.

The Oranje‘s new era under Frank de Boer began this week, with the former Atlanta United FC, Crystal Palace and Ajax manager making very few changes from the Ronald Koeman regime. “Who would I be to throw the bat in the chicken coop?” he asked rhetorically last week.

So, in the short term, as they move ahead from a 1-0 friendly defeat vs. Mexico — Wolves’ Raul Jimenez scored the only goal, from the penalty spot — and prepare for Nations League matches against Bosnia and Italy, expect continuation over any drastic revolution. With PSV’s superb striker Donyell Malen back from injury and AZ Alkmaar‘s Teun Koopmeiners earning his first call-up, De Boer has put the tiniest of fingerprints on his 25-man squad.

Stream UEFA Nations League LIVE on ESPN, ESPN+ (U.S.)
Bosnia & Herzegovina vs. Netherlands, Sun. 10/11, Noon ET
Italy vs. Netherlands, Weds. 10/14, 2.45 p.m. ET

Ultimately, after a week of evaluation and three challenging fixtures, you’re more likely to see a clearer indication of what side he’ll mould in his squad announcement ahead of the next batch of Nations League matches in November.

There are still some notable absentees and inclusions. PSV forward Cody Gakpo and Feyenoord goalkeeper Justin Bijlow are still absent despite a growing clamour for their inclusion, while PSV’s young midfielder, Mohamed Ihattaren, is out through injury. Kevin Strootman keeps his spot — despite being on the bench for Marseille in their past three games — with De Boer citing his leadership qualities, and it’s clear De Boer is leaning heavily on the current knowledge base within the Oranje set-up as he settles in ahead of next summer’s rescheduled Euros. He admitted earlier in the week that he’s consulted Virgil Van Dijk for his thoughts on the squad, but looking to the long-term, De Boer is going to change very little.

“It is logical that you do not start experimenting immediately if you are national coach for such a short time,” he said. “I will first take a look at what will happen in the coming days. And that is why the KNVB has also chosen me: because they want to continue on the same line as under Koeman.” — Tom Hamilton


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Way-too-early 2021 MLB Power Rankings: What’s next for Dodgers, Rays and all 30 teams



We can only hope 2021 will be a more normal season, with 162 games and fans in the stands and hot dogs to eat and overpriced beer to drink. We don’t know what the state of things will be come April 1, when the 2021 season is scheduled to begin, but we can speculate on the state of the 30 franchises.

Yes, we’re back with our annual Way-Too-Early Power Rankings. There are a few obvious teams at the top, a handful at the bottom and a whole bunch in the middle. Throw in the difficulty of analyzing a 60-game season and the uncertainty of how the offseason will play out due to the financial losses of this season, and these are the most difficult rankings we have had to do. But we fearlessly move forward.

(Title odds for 2021 from Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill)

2020 record: 43-17
Won World Series
2021 title odds: 4-1

They’re reigning champs. They’ve won eight straight division titles. They have Mookie Betts signed for the long term. They have young starters such as Walker Buehler, Dustin May, Julio Urias and Tony Gonsolin to keep the rotation strong for years to come. They have players capable of better seasons (Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, Gavin Lux). They have a good farm system. They have financial flexibility, with only Betts signed past 2022 and all those young players to help them keep the payroll in check. Justin Turner is a free agent, but he would be a nice DH option if the NL makes that permanent. We know they will be good. But we know it’s really all about October.

2020 record: 35-25
Lost NLCS to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 12-1

The offense gives them a high floor:Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, even Travis d’Arnaud and Adam Duvall raked in 2020. Marcell Ozuna is a free agent and it would be nice to bring him back, but rookie center fielder Cristian Pache is ready and he looks like he’ll be valuable on both sides of the ball. The rotation will see the return of Mike Soroka from his Achilles injury and a full season of Ian Anderson to back up Max Fried. Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson have potential, and Atlanta will probably bring in a veteran starter on a one-year deal the way they did with Dallas Keuchel in 2019 and tried to do with Cole Hamels in 2020. The Braves will be favored to win a fourth straight division title even if they don’t do anything this offseason.

2020 record: 37-23
Lost Division Series to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 17-2

Sure, an argument can be made to put the Padres ahead of the Braves, but I think we have to first make sure Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger are completely healthy in spring training. San Diego brings back essentially every significant player after running out the youngest lineup in the NL, with Jake Cronenworth and Trent Grisham looking like foundation additions alongside Fernando Tatis Jr. (All were acquired in trades; good job, A.J. Preller!) We’ll see if Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers can match their 2020 rate of production, but if Luis Patino and MacKenzie Gore become impact starters, the Padres are poised to make a multiyear run in challenging the Dodgers for NL West supremacy.

2020 record: 40-20
Lost World Series to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 10-1

The Rays won their first division title since 2010 and did it in quite remarkable fashion, with 12 different relievers recording a save and the pitching staff overcoming a slew of injuries along the way. They were able to pull that off because of the depth of their staff, but having expanded rosters over the 60-game season made it possible to rely so heavily on the bullpen. Of course, you can argue that pitching depth will be even more valuable over 162 games. The offense isn’t elite, although we can’t wait to see what Randy Arozarena will do over a full season or if super rookie Wander Franco is ready to make an impact at some point in 2021.

2020 record: 35-25
Lost Wild Card Series to A’s
2021 title odds: 12-1

Much like the Braves, the offensive firepower of the White Sox should give them a high floor. Even if you see some regression coming from Jose Abreu or Tim Anderson, Luis Robert and Yoan Moncada should improve and a full season of Nick Madrigal will help. Michael Kopech, who opted out of 2020, will hopefully be back, but he hasn’t pitched in two years, so finding another veteran arm to go with ace Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel will be key. Closer Alex Colome is a free agent, but the White Sox have several power arms in their organization, including 2020 first-round pick Garrett Crochet, who could be a dominant reliever right away. Manager Rick Renteria and longtime pitching coach Don Cooper got the boot, with A.J. Hinch a possible replacement for Renteria. That would be an upgrade.

2020 record: 33-27
Lost Division Series to Rays
2021 title odds: 6-1

You can make an argument to put them a couple of spots higher, but not winning the AL East in 2020 points to some flaws. They simply can’t count on Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton being healthy for an entire season, plus DJ LeMahieu and Masahiro Tanaka are free agents, two important players to re-sign or replace. Of course, we know the Yankees will do something big, perhaps signing J.T. Realmuto and moving on from Gary Sanchez or trading for Francisco Lindor and shifting Gleyber Torres to second. Getting Luis Severino back from Tommy John surgery will be a big boost as well.

2020 record: 36-24
Lost Wild Card Series to Astros
2021 title odds: 14-1

The Twins didn’t do it quite like they did in 2019, when they bashed a record 307 home runs (although their 162-game pace for 2020 was still 259), as their team batting average dropped nearly 30 points, and they fell from second in the AL in runs to 10th. Still, they’ve established a foundation of success with three playoff appearances in four seasons. The big issue is they have a lot of free agents to replace or re-sign, starting with 40-year-old Nelson Cruz, but also Jake Odorizzi, Marwin Gonzalez, Rich Hill, Tyler Clippard, Trevor May and Homer Bailey. Those players were minor contributors, but with Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Taylor Rogers getting more expensive in arbitration, the Twins may not be able to fill out the roster with minor free agents the way they’ve done of late. They need a healthy Josh Donaldson, especially if Cruz leaves, and they will have to discard the emotional baggage of 18 consecutive playoff losses to get revved up for 162 games just to get back to October again.

2020 record: 36-24
Lost Division Series to Houston
2021 title odds: 14-1

The A’s weren’t as impressive as they were in 2019 — Matt Olson morphed into an extreme “three true outcomes” slugger, Matt Chapman‘s OBP dipped to .276 and Marcus Semien declined from his third-place MVP performance. They still coasted to the AL West title though, and the division projects as being pretty soft, at least right now. Semien and closer Liam Hendriks are free agents as are several other key role players, so this ranking is not presented with a high degree of confidence. The A’s always seem to maximize their talent, and I do think the rotation will be much better, making up for some of the likely bullpen regression.

2020 record: 26-34
Tied for fourth in NL East
2021 title odds: 30-1

I feel like we need another National League team here, but let’s be honest: There is a wide gap between the NL’s top three teams and the block of mediocre teams in the middle. Let’s roll the dice on the Mets with new owner Steve Cohen to the rescue (once he gets formally approved). Let’s just say Mets fans are pumped about Cohen’s WAW (wins above Wilpon). There have already been reports about all the money he’ll sink into the franchise, not just on players but things like building out a more robust analytics staff. Aside from any splashy moves Cohen may make — trading for Nolan Arenado or Francisco Lindor? Signing J.T. Realmuto or Trevor Bauer? — there is a strong base of talent here. They ranked third in the majors in wOBA (behind the Braves and Dodgers) and fifth in the majors in pitcher strikeout rate. They should be better — a familiar refrain for Mets fans, unfortunately.

2020 record: 34-26
Lost Wild Card Series to Marlins
2021 title odds: 25-1

Everyone was down on the Cubs, especially after that sad two-and-out to the Marlins, but we do need to point out Chicago still won the NL Central despite Javier Baez (59 OPS+), Kris Bryant (73) and Kyle Schwarber (88) all producing well below an average major league hitter and Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras performing below their career norms. That continues a downward trend for this once-great offensive core, from second in the NL in runs in 2016 and 2017 to fourth in 2018, fifth in 2019 and 10th in 2020. Baez, Bryant, Schwarber and Rizzo are all free agents after 2021, but frankly, the trade value for Bryant and Schwarber — and even Baez, to a lesser extent — has cratered. Theo Epstein also hinted that 2021 will be his last season with the Cubs. Does this group get one last chance? In a weak division, with some bounce-back potential, the Cubs could be better than everyone believes. Or maybe the front office will just tear it all down.

2020 record: 29-31
Lost ALCS to Rays
2021 title odds: 20-1

It promises to be a busy winter for the Astros. George Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick are all free agents, while Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr. and Zack Greinke are set to be free agents after 2021, as are Justin Verlander and Roberto Osuna, both of whom will likely miss the season following Tommy John surgery. They’ll need more from Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman (and don’t forget about Yordan Alvarez) but they could have a strong rotation if they keep McCullers and Greinke to go with Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy. The outfield free-agent market is thin, so if Springer and Brantley sign elsewhere, the Astros may have to scramble to find help for Kyle Tucker.

2020 record: 35-25
Lost Wild Card Series to Yankees
2021 title odds: 20-1

We start with one of the biggest questions of the entire offseason: Will Cleveland trade Francisco Lindor? It seems weird to say this, but there isn’t an obvious fit, as most of the top teams are set at shortstop. It will be interesting to see if a team tries to pull the Mookie Betts maneuver: trade for Lindor, then sign him to a big extension before he hits free agency after the 2021 season. Aside from the Lindor issue, it’s going to be a similar Cleveland team as we’ve seen the past two years: enough starting pitching to be a playoff team, but an offense that may prevent them from getting there. Please, find some competent outfielders. Cleveland’s outfielders hit .196/.270/.304.

2020 record: 30-28
Lost Wild Card Series to Padres
2021 title odds: 30-1

In one sense, it’s harder to evaluate what the Cardinals did in 2020 than any other team, with them having to play 11 doubleheaders after the team’s COVID-19 outbreak early in the season. On the other hand, they were exactly what we thought they would be: below-average offense with no power, good defense, good bullpen, decent starting pitching. I just don’t how they’re going to get better, especially given that some of their pitching peripheral numbers don’t quite match the ERA figures. Look, as always, you can never discount the Cardinals. They haven’t had a losing season since 2007. The division is wide open. Jack Flaherty will be better. Dylan Carlson could give them an impact outfielder. The bullpen projects as a big strength.

2020 record: 26-34
Tied for fourth in NL East
2021 title odds: 30-1

No team had less incentive in 2020 than the Nationals, and once Stephen Strasburg went down, it kind of felt like the entire team went down with him. Juan Soto played at an MVP level for 47 games, leading the NL in batting average and the majors in OBP and slugging. It wasn’t a full season so I’m not saying it compares, but his 212 OPS+ was the best since Barry Bonds in 2004.

There are concerns in the starting rotation, however, beyond Strasburg’s nerve issue. Anibal Sanchez fell apart, Patrick Corbin got knocked around (85 hits in 65⅔ innings) and even Max Scherzer had his highest ERA since 2012.The real problem may have been the defense: The Nationals ranked last in the majors with minus-43 defensive runs saved. As always, depth is an issue and they need youngsters Carter Kieboom (no home runs in 99 at-bats) and Victor Robles (.608 OPS) to contribute at the plate. If Strasburg is healthy, don’t ignore the 2019 champs.

2020 record: 32-28
Lost Wild Card Series to Rays
2021 title odds: 50-1

The Blue Jays face a very interesting offseason after making the playoffs as a wild card and ranking third in the AL in runs. The offense potentially looks even better if you’re buying the breakouts of Teoscar Hernandez and Rowdy Tellez. Worth noting: The Jays hit much better at their temporary home in Buffalo, so we have to be careful about overrating the offense. Hyun-Jin Ryu was terrific (at least until his playoff start), but the rest of the rotation was so problematic that the Jays acquired Taijuan Walker, Robbie Ray and Ross Stripling for the stretch run. Walker and Ray are free agents, but Nate Pearson will help, and the Jays should have some money to spend in free agency.

2020 record: 28-32
Third in NL East
2021 title odds: 40-1

It’s hard to see the Phillies much better than the .500 team they’ve been the past three seasons, which led to general manager Matt Klentak being reassigned within the organization. They had two great starters in Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler and finished fourth in the NL in runs, but the bullpen (6.92 ERA, worst of all time) undermined all the positives. The Phillies allowed a .345 average on balls in play, and maybe that would drop over a full season, but it stands as the highest ever. This has been a multiyear problem. They were middle of the pack in BABIP allowed in 2019, but fifth-worst in 2018 and sixth-worst in 2017. They’ve been unable to fix the defense. Anyway, J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius are free agents. The payroll would have been more than $200 million given a full season in 2020, so you wonder if there is room to re-sign Realmuto and fix the bullpen and replace/re-sign Gregorius and maybe add another starter.

2020 record: 26-34
Fourth in AL West
2021 title odds: 40-1

Billy Eppler is out as general manager after a five-year run that included no winning seasons. Yes, he inherited the bad Albert Pujols contract, but he also inherited Mike Trout and was never able to build a successful team around him, despite additions like Andrelton Simmons, Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon. Simmons is a free agent, Pujols is finally down to his final season and Jared Walsh (.971 OPS, nine home runs in 99 at-bats, a low 13.9% strikeout rate) has to play. The immediate concerns are trying to turn Jo Adell into a major league hitter (.161, 55 strikeouts, seven walks in 132 PAs), figure out what happened to Ohtani (.190) and Justin Upton (.204) and — as always — address the pitching. Sounds like the same story as the past five years.

2020 record: 29-31
Lost Wild Card Series to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 50-1

This is a difficult team to read. The Brewers didn’t hit at all in 2020 (I think the NL must have stored its balls in Lake Michigan, because nobody could hit). Two-time batting champ and 2018 MVP Christian Yelich hit just .205, and I know it was just 58 games, but his strikeout rate went from 20.3% to 30.8%. Something doesn’t add up there.

They do have two great one-two combos in Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes in the rotation and Devin Williams and Josh Hader in the bullpen. Does Williams’ stunning breakout (53 K’s in 27 innings) make Hader trade bait? Burnes certainly looked like the real deal with his new cutter, but he’ll have to prove he can do it over 30 starts instead of 10. David Stearns is one of the more creative GMs around, although he’d probably like a do-over on the Trent Grisham/Zach Davies for Luis Urias/Eric Lauer deal.

2020 record: 24-36
Fifth in AL East
2021 title odds: 60-1

This was the hardest team to project. The pitching was so awful — 5.85 runs per game, the most for the franchise since 1932 — that it’s easy to assume it will be bad again in 2021. It was also bad in 2019 (5.11 runs per game), so we have a two-year track record. Maybe they get Chris Sale back at midseason and Eduardo Rodriguez returns from his COVID-related heart issue. There is a nice offensive core with Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Alex Verdugo and Christian Vazquez (and J.D. Martinez if he bounces back). I’m not sure what Bobby Dalbec will be. I guess his upside is Joey Gallo, if that’s a good thing. More importantly, is Chaim Bloom playing the long game or will there be pressure to get the Red Sox immediately back into contender status?

2020 record: 31-29
Lost Wild Card Series to Braves
2021 title odds: 25-1

The Reds sneaked into the playoffs as a wild card with a late surge, but the team embarrassingly exited with two shutouts to the Braves, including a 13-inning defeat. The Reds have morphed into the most extreme example of a “three true outcomes” offense we’ve seen in this launch-angle era. They ranked fourth in the NL in home runs and first in walks, but hit a pathetic .212. The entire package added up to ranking just 13th in the NL in runs, then you dig deeper and realize they hit 55 home runs at home and 35 on the road, so much of their power was simply a result of their home park. It’s a bad offense, and I’m not sure it improves much in 2021. Trevor Bauer is a sure bet to sign elsewhere as a free agent, and we still don’t know if Nick Senzel is the solution in center field or an injury-prone role player.

2020 record: 31-29
Lost Division Series to Braves
2021 title odds: 60-1

It was a fun ride to their first postseason trip since 2003, but once you get past the starting trio of Sixto Sanchez, Sandy Alcantara and Pablo Lopez, holes remain. The pitching staff was next to last in the majors in strikeout rate, and the team’s top five relievers were all 30-something guys you can’t necessarily count on for 2021. There are no offensive stars as the lineup relied on stopgap veterans, while the young hitters still have trouble controlling the strike zone (and the young hitters aren’t really all that young). The minus-41 run differential is a little misleading as the Marlins had to use more players than any other team due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but I’m not sure I see another .500 season unless some of the young hitters suddenly develop into solid regulars.

2020 record: 29-31
Third in NL West
2021 title odds: 80-1

Call me skeptical. They went from the second-worst offense in the NL to a top-five offense — without making any significant additions. Brandon Belt with a 1.000 OPS? Mike Yastrzemski and Alex Dickerson over .900? Donovan Solano chasing a batting title? I smell a lot of regression coming on, and the Giants don’t have the rotation to back that up. They also had the oldest lineup in the league: Mauricio Dubon is the only returning regular who won’t be 30 or older in 2021. Maybe catcher Joey Bart makes an impact, but a 41 to 3 strikeout-to-walk rate suggests he’s not ready for prime time. Several of their big contracts come off the books after 2021 if you factor in buyouts, so look for the Giants to wait until that big 2021-22 free-agent class to start flipping over the roster.

2020 record: 27-33
Third in AL West
2021 title odds: 100-1

There were some nice positives in 2020: Kyle Lewis may win Rookie of the Year, Justus Sheffield was much improved, Marco Gonzales solidified himself as one of the most underrated starters in the majors, Dylan Moore turned into one of the best utility players as a power/speed combo. But there is still zero star power here, at least until Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez arrive as potential All-Star outfielders, Kelenic in 2021 and Rodriguez probably in 2022. Jerry Dipoto will have to reconstruct a bullpen that was one of the worst in the league (5.92 ERA). The Mariners are on the rise and have other potential impact prospects, including pitchers Logan Gilbert and Emerson Hancock, but look for them to hold the course in 2021 and push forward in 2022.

2020 record: 26-34
Fourth in AL Central
2021 title odds: 150-1

The Royals have some interesting young pitchers in Brad Keller, Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, with Josh Staumont as a potential closer, but there are still huge gaps across the roster, especially on the offensive side of things. They need to figure out center field, second base and left field, and even Adalberto Mondesi Jr. now looks like just a placeholder at short until Bobby Witt Jr. arrives in a couple of years. This ranking could be selling the Royals a bit short, as young pitching can carry a team if it comes fast (and 2020 top pick Asa Lacy may not need much time in the minors), but they need to find some hitters.

2020 record: 25-35
Fifth in NL West
2021 title odds: 60-1

That was ugly, and the fans are turning on the team after a couple of years of trades (Paul Goldschmidt, Zack Greinke and the deadline deals this season) that don’t appear to have returned any front-line talent. Ketel Marte and Eduardo Escobar, so good in 2019, fell off, with Marte inexplicably deciding he no longer wanted to walk. Robbie Ray couldn’t throw strikes and was finally traded. Merrill Kelly hurt his shoulder. Madison Bumgarner didn’t win a game. The problem for 2021? The Diamondbacks had the second-oldest lineup in the NL (six of their top eight regulars were 29 or older). Bumgarner now looks like a bad $80 million gamble. They’re only a season removed from going 85-77, so there is rebound potential, but the Snakes are a mess at the moment.

2020 record: 25-35
Fourth in AL East
2021 title odds: 150-1

Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of positives in 2020, especially after losing 108 games in 2019 and 115 in 2018. Anthony Santander had a small-sample breakout with the metrics to back it up. Ryan Mountcastle looks ready to join the lineup in 2021 and Trey Mancini will hopefully be back at full strength after finishing his chemo treatment in September. Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer could be arms to watch for the rotation.

They do have financial flexibility, especially as they get closer to the end of Chris Davis‘ deal, and with Adley Rutschman close to the majors and starters D.L. Hall and Grayson Rodriguez perhaps ready in 2022, the farm is better than it’s been in at least 10 years. But the base level of talent here remains pretty low.

2020 record: 26-34
Fourth in NL West
2021 title odds: 100-1

Right now, Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story are still on the roster. Will they be there come spring training? The relationship between Arenado and the Rockies is strained, making him a trade candidate this winter. He won’t be easy to trade, though: He didn’t have a good 2020 at the plate, ended the season on the IL, has a full no-trade clause and can opt out of his deal after 2021. If Arenado is traded, you could see the Rockies dealing Story as well since he’s a free agent after 2021. Mostly, this team just needs a makeover. They ranked eighth in the NL in runs, and for a Rockies team, that’s horrible. (They had finished below fifth just one other time in franchise history.)

2020 record: 23-35
Fifth in AL Central
2021 title odds: 200-1

Sometimes you just have to point out the obvious: Jeimer Candelario was the team’s best player in 2020 — a 26-year-old first baseman who hit .203 the year before. Look, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal project as good starters at some point, but their struggles in limited action in 2020 suggest that may not be in 2021. Along with Spencer Turnbull and prospect Matt Manning, there is a rotation to dream on, but there is no offense, and Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, their top position player prospects, are more on a 2022 timetable.

2020 record: 22-38
Fifth in AL West
2021 title odds: 100-1

The Rangers continue to go backward. They were bad in 2020 in a year they thought they could contend, they weren’t particularly young and the farm system has struggled to develop pitchers and turn toolsy position players into quality hitters. The offense had a brutal year — and not just because of the new park. They didn’t hit on the road either. It’s time to admit that Joey Gallo and Rougned Odor are never going to be the core of a championship lineup, and if Lance Lynn is traded — he’ll be a free agent after 2021 — the rotation will have a huge hole to fill.

2020 record: 19-41
Fifth in NL Central
2021 title odds: 300-1

Let’s see, a small-market team coming off the worst record in the sport, won’t spend any money in free agency, and whose three best players in 2019 were all terrible in 2020. The first step is to hope Josh Bell, Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman rebound, but with most of the organization’s top prospects still a ways off, the short-term outlook looks bleak. Heck, the long-term outlook isn’t exactly full of roses and puppies.


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Bryant, out 2 years, joins Ravens practice squad



OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Dez Bryant is back in the NFL.

The Baltimore Ravens signed the three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver to their practice squad, the team announced Tuesday. Bryant has been out of the league for two years.

Bryant appeared to acknowledge the deal in a tweet Tuesday: “My emotions running high right now… I’m thankful…I can’t stop crying”

The biggest question is when Bryant will suit up for the Ravens. Baltimore’s wide receivers rank last in the NFL in receptions (58) and receiving yards (737).

Bryant, 31, could become a physical possession-type receiver for reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and can complement the speed of Marquise Brown.

The addition of Bryant might lead to a high-profile reunion on Dec. 3, when the Ravens play host to the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday Night Football. Bryant starred for the Cowboys for eight seasons, totaling 531 receptions for 7,459 yards and a franchise-record 73 touchdown catches.

“Obviously, that’s kind of like an ‘OG’-type guy,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said when asked about Bryant on Monday. “He’s been around the league for a long, long time. He actually followed me on Twitter a year or two ago, so I’m excited to meet him, and I’m excited to [be] around him hopefully, and just learn.”

This marked Bryant’s second workout with Baltimore in two months. When Bryant left in August without a contract, he was told to improve his conditioning, a source said.

The Ravens are off to a fast start at 5-1, but their passing game ranks 31st in the NFL. It looks as if Jackson would benefit from another target on the outside because Brown is the only Baltimore wide receiver with more than 11 catches this season.

Bryant is attempting to become the second Pro Bowl wide receiver to miss two full seasons and then return to the NFL since the 1970 merger, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. Josh Gordon was the first.

Bryant hasn’t played in a game since December 2017.

In November 2018, Bryant signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal with the New Orleans Saints. But he tore an Achilles tendon during his first practice with the Saints and has been out of the NFL since.

Bryant’s 531 career receptions would be the most by any wide receiver before missing two full seasons and then returning to the NFL, according to Elias’ data.

To make room for Bryant, the Ravens waived safety Marcus Gilchrist from the practice squad.


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Augusta National to host College GameDay during Masters



ESPN’s College GameDay Built By the Home Depot show has originated from dozens of college campuses across the country since 1993.

On Saturday, Nov. 14, the show will combine two of sport’s greatest traditions — college football and the Masters.

ESPN announced on Tuesday that College GameDay will originate from Augusta National Golf Club, which is hosting the postponed Masters Tournament next month, Nov. 12-15.

Top matchups that day are No. 9 Wisconsin at No. 13 Michigan and No. 2 Alabama at LSU.

“Any time College GameDay travels to a new destination, it’s special, and the opportunity to be on the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club during the Masters is extraordinary,” said Jimmy Pitaro, chairman, ESPN and Sports Content. “As this iconic event coincides with the college football season for the first time, we look forward to getting fans ready for a football Saturday while also showcasing the Masters and the greatest golfers in the world.”

Longtime ESPN hosts Rece Davis, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and others will broadcast from the par-3 course from 9 a.m. to noon ET.

In its 13th year at the Masters, ESPN will once again televise the first and second rounds, Nov. 12-13, from 1 to 5:30 p.m. There will also be expanded coverage on ESPN+, including exclusive practice-round coverage Nov. 10-11.

Golf fans will also be able to watch featured holes coverage on ESPN+ on Nos. 4, 5 and 6 in each of the four rounds of the Masters.


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