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UEFA Nations League resumes amid COVID-19 fears

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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?

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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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How did figure skaters prepared for Skate America during a pandemic? It wasn’t easy

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After months of being joined at the hip, ice dancers Caroline Green and Michael Parsons found themselves cut off from each other from March until June of this year, living with their families 15 minutes apart in Rockville, Maryland, during the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The spring and early summer are normally crucial building-block times for ice dance and pairs teams constructing new programs as they choose new music and work on choreography. Green and Parsons didn’t want to lose momentum in just their second season as a duo at the senior level, so they were diligent about doing fitness workouts led by their coaches via Zoom. Parsons built a contraption to do pullups and inverted situps in his backyard, and used a downed tree limb for shoulder presses.

Staying in shape artistically was a different matter. Parsons and Green had decided they wanted to change up the music for their short program, or rhythm dance. So Green applied an old adage: She danced with the one who brought her, persuading her older brother and former partner Gordon to serve as a stand-in until she could train with Parsons again.

It wasn’t as simple as it sounds. Sure, the siblings had skated together for 10 years and won the 2019 junior national championship, but Gordon had since left the sport and was looking ahead to his freshman year of college. And the required pattern for the rhythm dance this season isn’t the easiest romp around the rink. It’s the Finnstep, a showy ballroom quickstep that, as stated on ice-dance.com, calls for “very crisp and tidy timing as well as footwork.”

“I do not know all of the boys’ steps, so it was kind of just a lot of trial and error,” Caroline Green said, laughing. “There was no video, thank goodness. I’m sure it was a little rough. Some of the things I tried — oooh, they didn’t quite work.”

In some ways, elite U.S. ice dancers and pairs skaters were no different from millions of people worldwide who adapted to taking movement classes via Zoom or other video applications. But there was one important difference. The skaters eventually had to transfer those remotely taught dance moves, intricate step sequences and lifts — the athletic maneuvers that are often the highlight of programs — to their far more slippery workplace.

The steps that worked as they slid around hardwood floors in their socks, or the flips they practiced in the backyard, didn’t necessarily fly once they got back on the ice. Imagine water polo players training on grass. It’s just not quite the same.

The programs that U.S. dance and pairs teams will debut for a national television audience at Skate America (Friday through Sunday, NBCSN) at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas — the first major event in a truncated international figure skating season — are the product of innovation born of necessity and aided by technology.

Dallas-area pairs skaters Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc assembled new short and long programs despite not having seen their choreographer, Michigan-based Pasquale Camerlengo, in person since last season. Normally, the 2019 national champions would work together on the ice for at least two weeks, with periodic checkups and fine-tunings throughout the season.

“Having to look at what they’re doing on a small screen or a computer, sometimes with bad wi-fi, and then they have to see how you’re interpreting that over a small screen, and doing all of this on the floor, so you’re not even on the same medium … oof, it was challenging,” LeDuc said. “It was definitely very outside our comfort zone. When we started, I would have been like, ‘You’re crazy, that’s never gonna happen, how on earth would we do that?’ And here we are.”

Now that they have journeyed this far, actual competition will test the athletes in a different way. Performing in an empty arena will deprive the skaters of the crowd energy they normally feed off. But the show is going on, and they are troupers, as recent months demonstrate.

For many top skaters, this season began abruptly with the end of the previous one, as the 2020 world championships in Montreal were canceled a week out.

Veteran ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates had been looking forward to competing in the city that has been their training base since mid-2018.

“The pandemic took us off the ice for the longest time since we started skating,” Chock said. Both began competing as young children and have since been selected for two Olympic teams together. (Bates made a third with an earlier partner.) “Not having that build and release and letdown after the competition — we were so ready and primed to compete, and to have to go into lockdown right after that was very strange. Our bodies were a bit confused.”

During the three months she and Bates were unable to access ice and unsure of when they might compete again, they found themselves relying on their longtime choreographer and dance coach at the Ice Academy of Montreal, Sam Chouinard, for technique and inspiration.

“Sam is the most energetic person I’ve ever met,” Bates said. “He’s like, “HEY GUYS OK WE’RE GONNA DO THIS.” The couple laughed.

Chouinard, who said he learned an enormous amount from teaching remotely, has since treated himself to what he calls a “Britney mic” — the same type of cordless headset favored by Britney Spears in concert — so his exhortations can be heard above music on a video call. His attitude helped Chock and Bates through some tedium as they danced in the entryway near their kitchen, or practiced lifts in a space thankfully high-ceilinged enough not to endanger her head.

“Prior to COVID we would have said that’s kind of silly, but we just got used to it,” Bates said. “Our norms have changed so much.”

While Chock and Bates elected to stay put in Canada, fellow ice dancers and Montreal academymates Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker moved in with her family in Buffalo. They began working on new programs almost immediately in Zoom sessions with Chouinard and their main coach, Marie-France Dubreuil.

Two-time U.S. bronze medalists Hawayek and Baker caught a break with ice time when a Buffalo rink was allowed to reopen early in order to convert one ice sheet into a daycare center for children of essential workers. The team was able to rent ice while staying sufficiently distanced from others in the building. Still, they faced the issue of being physically separated from their coach and choreographer and communicating exclusively via Zoom.

“Usually the cycles of feedback we go through, we’re always incorporating what other people want to see in our programs. We haven’t dealt with that, so everything we’ve put into this is us. Which I think is a really cool thing.” Michael Parsons, ice dancer with partner Caroline Green

Working on their own and consulting frequently with their coaches, Hawayek and Baker gradually built confidence. It was the first time they’d ever had that much input in a competitive program, although they had choreographed their own exhibition numbers.

They had a useful tool provided by the federation — an auto-follow camera system called Move N See, which can be used with smartphones or tablets that sync with a watch worn on the ice. The system tracks from multiple spots around the rink and enabled Dubreuil to give the skaters feedback in real time from the big screen in her living room.

“We would record ourselves doing the same movement three different ways, from different angles, and be inspired by the work we did in Zoom on the floor and try to make it ours on the ice,” Hawayek said.

She and Baker moved back to Montreal in June and, after an obligatory 14-day quarantine, reunited with Dubreuil on the ice in early July — properly distanced, of course. The result? A modified version of their previous season’s disco-themed rhythm dance (2 minutes, 40 seconds) and an entirely new four-minute free dance program skated to the music of Philip Glass and Blondie.

“What you can see on video sometimes is deceiving, sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s not,” Hawayek said. “Marie-France was very happy seeing only a two-dimensional view with this camera, that it worked out well in a three-dimensional way when we got here.

“We got to bring our own flair and creativity to the work. We kind of took the reins a little bit in our career in a way.”

Green and Parsons echoed that sentiment.

“I think it’s made these programs more ours, if that makes sense,” Parsons said. “Usually the cycles of feedback we go through, we’re always incorporating what other people want to see in our programs. We haven’t dealt with that, so everything we’ve put into this is us. Which I think is a really cool thing. These programs feel very genuine.”

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc livened up their at-home training with help from husband-and-wife skaters Robin Johnstone and Andy Buchanan, who have performed with Cirque du Soleil. With their instruction, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc incorporated walkovers — where Cain exits a lift by putting her hands on the ice and flipping over into their new programs.

The pairs took advantage of sunny spring weather in Dallas to try some lifts and throws in a grassy yard, and posted one Instagram video of Cain-Gribble spinning airborne over LeDuc’s outstretched arms on a concrete sidewalk outside their home.

Indoors, “we were on a hardwood floor in our socks so we could kind of shoosh around and do our best to fake ice-skate,” LeDuc said. “Everything on ice relies on speed and how we’re using the space that we have. On the floor, you can’t predict how many pushes you need, how long it will take. When we finally got back on the ice, there were times it was like, ‘We’re gonna have to retool this.’ Other parts we predicted perfectly.”

As assiduous as they’d been about trying to simulate skating, cold reality awaited when their rink reopened. “You’re super excited and you have all this adrenaline to skate, and you’re doing your jumps and everything feels good,” Cain-Gribble said. “Then a week went by. My body hurt, everything’s hurting. We had no idea what was coming next. You train, and you don’t know what you’re training for.”

Charlie White, the 2014 Olympic ice dance champion and 2010 Olympic silver medalist with his partner Meryl Davis, has choreographed programs for all levels since he retired but stepped back from the sport in this strange year. “I would want to be able to be present,” he said. “There’s nuance that comes from the physical participation of the choreographers. I really feel for those who are pushing through this.”

The 2020-21 international figure skating season keeps shrinking as the pandemic continues its global spread.

The Grand Prix series, normally six events that winnow the field for a final, is down to four after the Canadian and French skating federations canceled events in those countries. Skaters will compete in just one event apiece on their home continents in North America, Europe and Asia. Chinese officials have indefinitely postponed the Grand Prix final originally scheduled for Beijing in December. The U.S. championships in San Jose, California, in mid-January and the world championships slated for Stockholm in March are still on.

Chock and Bates never stopped trying to make the best of their situation, but karma didn’t always cooperate. An injury to Chock sidelined the duo for two weeks this past summer, and they had to retreat to their home for another two weeks of total quarantine after learning they had been exposed to COVID-19. (Neither tested positive or became ill.)

They had made good progress on their free dance for the 2020-21 season, but didn’t feel it was competition-ready this month — and traveling to Las Vegas for Skate America would have meant yet another 14 days of quarantine back in Montreal when they returned. Chock and Bates withdrew and will continue training with the goal of defending their national title in January. They also decided to table their new free dance and compete with the same two programs as last year.

“Being an athlete at this level means being adaptable and being comfortable with discomfort — the difference here is managing not knowing,” Bates said. “The unknown is greater than it ever has been. It takes a lot of commitment and faith to continue to put everything into the preparation with that unknown looming. But we still feel very motivated.”

Top U.S. skaters had a dress rehearsal of sorts for the closed-door competition at Skate America, in the form of a virtual event held by U.S. Figure Skating last month. More than 100 junior- and senior-level athletes performed programs in their home rinks and sent videos to a judging panel. Prize money was awarded and the placements factored into slots at Skate America and the national championships. In videos posted on the federation’s website, a single clap is sometimes the only reaction.

Skaters are used to doing run-throughs in near-vacant rinks, but it’s the absence of facial feedback, even from their coaches, that affects them most.

“You don’t see much when the face is covered,” Baker said. “I understand it’s for safety and that’s great, but it was very different for us. You look at them and smile and try and perform, and you’re not getting anything back. It’s something we need to work with and learn from, and imagine a smile underneath.”

Artistic and theatrical elements are a major part of figure skating. Part of the job description is to emote, tell a story through a program and project energy — unlike football, baseball and basketball players who have the luxury of executing without having to worry about their expressions or staying in character.

“What I told them is even if we can’t see them, know there’s a lot of people watching,” Chouinard said. “‘Dig into your memories of previous competition. Look at YouTube. Picture that feeling before you go on the ice. You’re backstage, you hear the crowd … be led by that feeling.’ But that’s easy to say, and not easy to do.”

Parsons said he always tries to perform in a way that will reach “the farthest audience member in the arena. Now, that will be anyone online.”

His partner is also looking for the upside on their end of what has become a season of remote learning. “It almost encourages us to be twice as big and twice as bright on the ice, because if you aren’t super expressive, some of that might not translate through the camera,” Green said. “We’ll have to step up our game.”

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Sources: Vikes ship Ngakoue to Ravens for picks

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The Vikings have traded defensive end Yannick Ngakoue to the Ravens, Minnesota announced Thursday.

Sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that the Vikings are receiving a 2021 third-round draft pick and a 2022 conditional fifth-round pick. The Vikings did not disclose the picks involved in the deal.

Ngakoue will fly to Baltimore in the next 24 hours to go through COVID-19 testing so he can be ready to join his new team next week after it comes off its bye and returns to start preparations for its Week 8 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Baltimore has attempted to acquire Ngakoue multiple times in recent months, according to Schefter. Ngakoue hoped to land in Baltimore all along. He grew up in Bowie, Maryland, and starred at Maryland before being drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016.

The Vikings had acquired Ngakoue in August by trading a 2021 second-round pick and 2022 conditional fifth-round pick to the Jaguars. Ngakoue, who had been given the franchise tag by the Jaguars in the offseason, agreed to a one-year, $12 million deal with the Vikings — instead of his franchise tender of $17.8 million — to complete the trade.

Ngakoue had five sacks and two forced fumbles in six games this season for Minnesota, but the Vikings have stumbled to a 1-5 start.

The trade reunites former Jaguars teammates Ngakoue and Calais Campbell. They were on the field together for 1,829 snaps over three seasons in Jacksonville (2017-19) and were the starting defensive ends for the Jaguars in the 2017 AFC Championship Game.

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Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, Titans’ Ryan Tannehill silence doubters by winning

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This time a year ago, Ryan Tannehill was supplanting Marcus Mariota as the starting quarterback of the Tennessee Titans after being cast away by the Miami Dolphins. Pittsburgh Steelers veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was less than a month into his rehab after season-ending elbow surgery to his throwing arm. Both of their futures were clouded with uncertainty.

Both quarterbacks came into the 2020 season with something to prove. For Tannehill, it was showing the Titans and their fans he was worthy of the four-year, $118 million extension he signed in March. And in Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger was intent on proving that he still had quality years left at 38 with elbow surgery behind him.

Through five games, Tannehill and Roethlisberger have their teams on top of their division and in contention for the best record in the AFC. Entering Sunday’s matchup of the 5-0 teams (1 p.m. ET, CBS), each quarterback and their squads are light years away from where they were in October 2019. The game will be the sixth matchup in the Super Bowl era between unbeaten teams, 5-0 or better. Of the previous five, the winner made the Super Bowl every time.

Tannehill: A return on investment

Tannehill produced an historically efficient season with the Titans last season. He led the NFL with a 9.6 yard average per attempt and finished third with a 70.3 completion percentage. Only two other quarterbacks (Joe Montana in 1989 and Sammy Baugh in 1945) in NFL history posted a 70% completion percentage while averaging at least nine yards per attempt over a full season. The Titans’ offense scored 25 or more points in eight of their 10 games with Tannehill as the starting quarterback.

Despite the success Tennessee had in 2019, many wanted the Titans to try to sign Tom Brady instead of bringing Tannehill back. There were concerns in the NFL world that Tannehill might regress to some form of the quarterback who couldn’t get it done in Miami.

But general manager Jon Robinson and coach Mike Vrabel knew Tannehill was their quarterback and he has shown why this season.

“He has the ability to coach players and leads them,” Vrabel said. “He explains to them the concepts that we are trying to accomplish and where he wants them. That’s the most critical part of the relationship between the QB and receiver. I think Ryan prepares the same and has kept a level head since the start of the season.”

Tannehill’s 13 touchdown passes place him in a tie for the fifth-most in the NFL, even though he has played only five games. Of his 13 touchdown passes, 12 have come in the red zone. In fact, the Titans are scoring touchdowns on 78% of their visits inside the 20-yard line. Since Tannehill took over as the starter in Week 7 last season, Tennessee has converted 83% of its red-zone trips into touchdowns. No team has scored at a higher rate inside the red zone over that span.

All of the players get involved in the offense. Everyone knows there is a good chance they’ll get the ball if they manage to get open. Tannehill has connected with five different pass-catchers on touchdown passes.

“Ryan has a good understanding of who those guys are as players,” receivers coach Rob Moore said. “He’s a QB that can go from read one to four in a heartbeat. They know they have to be where they are supposed to be and that he’ll get them the ball. He throws it to the open guy. As a receiver, you love playing for a guy like that.”

Tannehill has also proved to be a clutch QB for the Titans this season, having already orchestrated four game-winning drives. Per Elias Sports Bureau, Tannehill is the first quarterback to lead his team to four game-winning drives in the first five games of the season since the St. Louis Cardinals’ Charley Johnson in 1966.

When Tannehill steps to the huddle with the game on the line, his teammates have confidence he’ll lead them to victory.

“I am proud of our guys and the adversity we have faced being down in the fourth quarter now four times,” Tannehill said. “Every time we found a way.”

It’s safe to say things are pointing in the right direction for the Titans with Tannehill. The 32-year-old knows he’s a perfect fit for offensive coordinator Arthur Smith’s scheme.

“Coming in, I expected to build off of last year. We had a lot of continuity,” Tannehill said. “For me, I am finding ways to win a game. Whatever the coaching staff and my team asks me to do, it’s my job to go out there and do it to the best of my ability.” — Turron Davenport

Roethlisberger: ‘Don’t feel like I’m done’

With two Super Bowl titles, six Pro Bowl selections and two seasons leading the league in passing yards, there’s not much Roethlisberger has left to prove.

But last year’s elbow injury in Week 2 and subsequent season-ending surgery gave him something to add to the list.

Shortly after three tendons ripped off the bone in Roethlisberger’s elbow, his wife, Ashley, told her husband she would support him if he wanted to retire, according to a docuseries produced by Roethlisberger’s agent.

But that was a nonstarter.

“I just didn’t feel like I was done playing football,” Roethlisberger said in August. “I really felt that I wanted to come back. I was excited about this team, and I just didn’t feel like I was, and I don’t feel like I’m done playing football yet. If it was a thought, it wasn’t a long one.”

Through five games, Roethlisberger is proving he can be an effective quarterback at 38 years old with a surgically repaired elbow — and that he can win.

The way he’s doing it, though, is a departure from his first 16 seasons.

His 7.04 air yards per attempt are Roethlisberger’s lowest through five games since ESPN began tracking the statistic in 2006. He’s also getting the ball out of his hands quicker, leading the league at 2.33 seconds to throw — his fastest mark since ESPN Stats & Info started charting it in 2016.

“You have to get the ball out quick,” he said Wednesday. “Sometimes we do what [offensive coordinator] Randy [Fichtner] says is get the ball in the hands of our playmakers — quick-throw short, run long.”

That Roethlisberger isn’t following the script that worked earlier in his career isn’t surprising. In the offseason, the Steelers added quarterbacks coach Matt Canada, known for using misdirection and RPOs, and Roethlisberger even said he was open to adjusting his style of play.

“I truly mean it when I say we have to do whatever we have to do to win football games,” Roethlisberger said in August. “Obviously as a quarterback, you know, you want to throw the ball. It’s just natural. But at this point in my career, especially with the group we have, it really can’t be about anything other than winning football games and doing that however we have to.”

Since coming back this season, Roethlisberger has been critical of himself week to week. After each game, he has pointed out something he needs to fix. And then he’s done that.

After one game, it was footwork. The next week, he used his day off to run through footwork drills with Canada. After another, he blamed himself for not having a strong enough connection with his receivers, and then emphasized that in practice during the week. Following the win against the Eagles, Roethlisberger said he wasn’t hitting on his deep balls as often. So before facing the Browns, he practiced throwing deep tosses with stacked trash cans in the end zone, a drill usually reserved for the younger backups and practice squad quarterbacks.

“What better time than at practice to drill some things — footwork, deep ball things,” he said. “I’ll just continue to try and get better. I don’t ever want to get worse, obviously. I want to try and find little ways and things I can do to keep improving my game.”

And it’s working.

Roethlisberger is nearly the most accurate he’s been in his career, completing 69.1% of his attempts for his third-highest rate through the first five games of a season. His QBR of 60.3 is his eighth-highest through five games since 2006.

“I’m not trying to prove anything to the outside world,” Roethlisberger said. “I just wanted to keep playing the game that I love with the teammates that I love for the fans that I love. That’s what’s most important in my mind.”

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