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What’s to like, could go wrong and match predictions for Clash of Champions



It would be only natural to be down on WWE this week after five members of Retribution “revealed” themselves in what may go down with the Gobbeldy Gooker and The Shockmaster in terms of botched execution and absolute disappointment. But there’s a pay-per-view at hand, and Clash of Champions seems to be about almost anything but a crop of high-potential talents being weighed down by a poorly written “Mad Max” knockoff.

All nine titles that regularly appear on Raw and SmackDown are on the line, and if you’ll excuse the big Retribution-sized cloud hanging over everything, there’s a lot to like. Most of it boils down to well-executed, simple storytelling. Cousins who have fought since they were kids bringing it to a bigger stage. Fresh title challengers. Rivalries with solid momentum behind them thanks to weeks and months of solid writing and strong performances.

WWE seems to be on a string of strong pay-per-views with inconsistent TV programming in between, and Clash of Champions is trending in the same direction. And here’s why Sunday will be no different.

Universal championship: Roman Reigns (c) vs. Jey Uso

What’s to like: In a matter of weeks, Jey Uso went from a tag team wrestler with an injured brother/partner and no direction forward, to a compelling Universal title challenger for his cousin Roman Reigns. After the earliest days of the Reigns-Paul Heyman partnership pointing to an absolute about-face for the previously kind-hearted Reigns, his interactions with Uso have seemingly softened Reigns’ turn towards darkness. Reigns has done a spectacular job of leaning into nuance, with his smiling facade falling away only in brief moments when Uso’s joy and ambition crosses a line for him.

Where it could go wrong: It’s hard to see a way this could go astray. No one believes that Jey Uso is going to walk out of Clash of Champions with the title in hand, but he has raised his stock in what has been his first real opportunity as a singles performer in his decade with the WWE. Whether it’s Reigns dropping the hammer down on Uso on Sunday or a tenuous, slowly shifted balance that carries on beyond Clash of Champions, it’ll be hard to screw up what’s quickly become the most interesting story on WWE TV.

Prediction: Reigns wins, and then removes any doubt to where his motivations and future lie with a postmatch encore to the violence.

Ambulance match for the WWE championship: Drew McIntyre (c) vs. Randy Orton

What’s to like: Drew McIntyre, Randy Orton, Sasha Banks and Bayley have been the MVPs of WWE since the pandemic began in March. Each has performed admirably in impossible conditions, and the chemistry that McIntyre and Orton have shown since directly crossing paths is undeniable. After a surprising match won by McIntyre in which no finishing maneuvers were successfully executed, the tension has continued to build in the lead-up to Sunday.

Where it could go wrong: The story has meandered a bit in recent weeks, largely due to the cumbersome way that Keith Lee was folded into the mix. Lee got a clean win in a surprisingly short match with Orton at Payback, but he has essentially been a story device for McIntyre and Orton to build up tension. A tease of Lee potentially taking Orton’s place at Clash of Champions was never explained very well. And if Lee gets involved on Sunday, it could further muddy the waters.

Prediction: McIntyre has been nigh indestructible to this point in his WWE title reign, with few signs of true peril. The Ambulance match stipulation appears to be a way in which McIntyre could lose the title without being pinned. It’s been more than three years since Orton has been a world champion, and with the amount of attention being paid to Orton nearing Ric Flair’s record number of world title reigns in recent months, Orton will leave Clash of Champions as a 14-time world champion.

SmackDown women’s championship: Bayley (c) vs. Nikki Cross

What’s to like: There’s certainly a history between Bayley and Nikki Cross, but this matchup will be significantly different. Bayley has cast Sasha Banks aside, and Cross is dealing with her tag team partner Alexa Bliss falling further and further under the influence of “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt. Bayley has successfully defended her SmackDown women’s championship against Cross four times (once in a handicap match) over the past two years, and Bayley and Banks won the women’s tag team titles from Bliss and Cross back in May.

Where it could go wrong: The rivalry between Bayley and Banks is still in its earliest stages of blossoming into an all-out war. It’s personal enough that it doesn’t necessarily need the title to be involved, but taking some time to sell the seriousness of Banks’ injuries at Bayley’s hands in recent weeks would seemingly preclude her involvement. Cross is certainly worthy of a title reign, but the timing just doesn’t seem quite right.

Prediction: After weeks of slipping in and out of a fugue state at any mention of “The Fiend,” Bliss completes her descent into madness and outright causes Cross to lose the match. Bayley turns her focus back towards Banks.

Raw women’s championship: Asuka (c) vs. Zelina Vega

What’s to like: It’s good to see fresh faces in title contention. Zelina Vega has said “enough” with the bickering of Andrade and Angel Garza and struck out on her own. Asuka has taken on all comers, and happily welcomed a new challenger into the mix after a sharp smack to the face.

Where it could go wrong: This match being tabbed for the kickoff show feels wrong, but on a card in which every match is a title match, it’s tough to see which is the odd one out. If it gets a little extra time due to the unenviable position on the card, it would take some of the sting out.

Prediction: Asuka wins. No one has yet proved to be ready for Asuka.

Ladder match for the Intercontinental championship: Jeff Hardy (c) vs. Sami Zayn (c) vs. AJ Styles

What’s to like: With Sami Zayn’s return as the “true” Intercontinental champion, the energy surrounding the title, which was already getting interesting between AJ Styles and Jeff Hardy, has hit a new level entirely.

Where it could go wrong: It’s a ladder match, so pure chaos abounds, but barring something catastrophically going awry, this has all the makings of a show-stealer.

Prediction: There isn’t a bad outcome in the bunch, but it would make Zayn perfectly insufferable if he pulled down the title (or titles, if they go the Razor Ramon-Shawn Michaels WrestleMania X route) and backed up all of his trash talk.

United States championship: Bobby Lashley (c) vs. Apollo Crews

What’s to like: Apollo Crews and Cedric Alexander, in particular, have benefited from clashing with The Hurt Business. Now that Alexander has joined up with MVP, Shelton Benjamin and Bobby Lashley, the conflict has only gotten deeper.

Where it could go wrong: Just weeks removed from bolstering their numbers with Alexander, The Hurt Business is doing tremendous work and stood as the first true challengers to the chaos sewed by Retribution. Lashley losing the title would be premature and could hurt the group’s overall cause.

Prediction: Lashley retains. Retribution may rear their heads again as well.

Women’s tag team championships: Shayna Baszler & Nia Jax (c) vs. The Riott Squad

What’s to like: In the year and a half since its inception, the women’s tag team titles were seemingly circulated around within a small segment of the Raw and SmackDown rosters, and too closely tied into either the story surrounding either the Raw or SmackDown women’s champion at the time. Now it has its own story.

Where it could go wrong: The Riott Squad, which never should have broken up in the first place with the momentum that was behind them, is in the precarious state between reuniting and fully establishing themselves as a strong team. A loss here could be devastating.

Prediction: Nia Jax and Shayna Baszler seemed destined to clash one-on-one. With the titles quickly snatched from their shoulders by The Riott Squad, they’ll return to their natural state as enemies.

Raw tag team championships: The Street Profits (c) vs. Andrade & Angel Garza

What’s to like: If you’ve seen a bad match between these four, please point me in the direction of that footage, because I don’t believe it.

Where it could go wrong: Something has to give. We can only see this match so many times without a title change.

Prediction: While it seemed as though Zelina Vega was the only force holding Andrade and Garza together, her departure is a cold splash of water in the face, and they finally succeed in winning the titles in her absence. When her own title challenge falls short, and Vega comes back to try to mend fences, it will be too late.

SmackDown tag team championships: Cesaro & Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs. The Lucha House Party

What’s to like: Lots of flips, and other good lucha things.

Where it could go wrong: Cesaro has continued his trend in making teams with seemingly haphazardly collected partners work far beyond what anyone could have expected. He and Shinsuke Nakamura are starting to cook, and unless one of them is destined for a big move as a singles performer, now is not the time to break them up.

Prediction: The tension of Kalisto’s return leads to chaos and a failed title challenge. Kalisto ultimately moves to strike out on his own.


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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.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast


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