The highs and lows of soccer’s return


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Here’s what you need to know right now from the world of sports:

Soccer is leading the charge — and taking a few arrows

When it comes to pro sports leagues returning from their pandemic-induced breaks, soccer has had the most success. In Europe, the German Bundesliga became the first league to return (way back in mid-May) and completed its season pretty smoothly. Since then, the English Premier League, Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s La Liga have restarted without major issues.

Soccer is also leading the way in North America. Two weeks ago, the National Women’s Soccer League became the first team-sports league on the continent to return when it opened its month-long Challenge Cup tournament. Last night, Major League Soccer became the first North American men’s league to resurface when it kicked off its MLS is Back Tournament.

But things have been a little bumpier for the NWSL and MLS. They’re both based in the United States, where the coronavirus situation is currently much worse than it is in Europe. The higher degree of difficulty is reflected in the ups and downs these leagues have experienced over the last few days. Here’s a look at those:

Up: The MLS is Back Tournament kicked off with a powerful moment. Before Orlando beat Miami 2-1 in last night’s opener, more than 100 Black players from around the league took the field for an 8-minute, 46-second period of silence. Those players, who are members of the Black Players for Change group, stood around the perimeter of the field and raised a black-gloved first for the entire time while Orlando’s and Miami’s starters kneeled around the centre circle. The national anthem was not played, and won’t be for the duration of the tournament (MLS says this is because there are no fans in attendance). Watch video of the protest and read more about it here.

Down: Another team got itself kicked out of the MLS is Back Tournament. Like FC Dallas before it, Nashville SC was removed today because of a COVID-19 outbreak on the team. Nine Nashville players tested positive, according to the club. Dallas had 10 players test positive before it was taken out. That leaves 24 teams in the tournament. To even out the groups, Chicago was moved from Group A to Group B, which includes Vancouver Whitecaps FC. Vancouver was originally supposed to open tonight vs. Dallas, but will now have to wait until Wednesday vs. San Jose. Montreal faces Toronto that night, so all three Canadian teams will be in action. Montreal’s opener is tonight vs. New England, and Toronto begins Sunday vs. D.C. There’s no change to the qualification for the knockout round. It’ll still be the top two finishers in each group and the four best third-place finishers advancing.

Up: Life in the NWSL bubble is pretty good, says Kailen Sheridan. “We’re impressed with how our league has handled it,” Sky Blue FC’s Canadian goalkeeper says. “People should be looking at what we’re doing.” Good advice. While we’ve seen some grumbling from MLS and WNBA players about the food and living conditions at their bubbles in Florida, Sheridan says “the facilities are great” at the NWSL’s setup in Utah. Also, no players have tested positive since the Orlando Pride’s pre-tournament outbreak got the entire team kicked out. The action on the field has been competitive too. With one preliminary-round match left for all eight teams, five of them have identical 1-1-1 records. Defending-champion North Carolina sits above them at 3-0-0. This stage wraps up with a pair of matches on both Sunday and Monday. All eight teams will move on to the single-elimination knockout round, which begins next Friday. Read more about Sheridan and her thoughts on how the NWSL has handled its return to play in this piece by CBC Sports’ Signa Butler.

Players from throughout the MLS participate in a Black Lives Matter ceremony before the start of the first match of the league’s return tournament on Wednesday. (MLS via Getty Images)

Quickly…

Tiger Woods is back next week. He looked alright in that exhibition match with Phil Mickelson, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in May, but golf’s biggest star has sat out every official tournament since the PGA Tour returned in mid-June. At 44 years old (and with a back that seems much older) Tiger plays a limited schedule at this stage of his career. But he announced today that he’s set to return at next week’s Memorial Tournament in Ohio. The Jack Nicklaus-hosted event comes three weeks before the first major of the reconfigured season — the PGA Championship in San Francisco. Read more about Tiger’s return here.

China cancelled international sports for the rest of the year. The country has mostly halted the spread of COVID-19 within its own borders, but wants to avoid importing cases from abroad. So the only international competitions it will host from now through December are test events for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Tennis is the sport most affected by this move. The men’s and women’s tours each had a handful of events scheduled in China this fall. That includes the prestigious WTA Finals in Shenzhen. Last year’s winner of that tournament, Ash Barty, took home $4.42 million US — the biggest cash prize in tennis history. Two significant golf tournaments and a Formula One race were among the other events China was slated to host. Read more about the decision to call them all off here.

The Ivy League cancelled sports too. It’s the first of the NCAA’s Division I conferences to nix intercollegiate competition for the fall semester. Ivy League schools are elite academically, but not so much when it comes to sports — particularly football and men’s basketball, which are the big money-makers. So this decision was easier for them to make than it will be for the conferences who excel in (and make a lot more cash from) those sports. But as college football’s hotbed, the American South, continues to also be a coronavirus hotbed, it’s looking more likely that the season will be altered, delayed or even cancelled altogether. Kickoff is usually in late August, so those tough decisions will need to be made fairly soon.

The New Jersey Devils recycled Lindy Ruff. Veteran NHL coaches never really die. They just go into the blue box. Ruff enjoyed an unusually long tenure as Buffalo’s head coach from 1997 until he was fired in 2013. Dallas snapped him up before the next season, and he lasted four years there before the Stars canned him. He spent the last three seasons as an assistant with the Rangers. Now he’s a head coach again with New Jersey, which did not qualify for the expanded 24-team playoff tournament that will start in a few weeks. Read more about Ruff’s hiring here.

And finally…

Andre De Grasse won a weird race today. It was a 100-yard (not -metre) dash, which is rarely run at the international level. But that’s not the half of it. The meet was based in Zurich, but only a few of the 30 athletes involved in the eight-event card were actually there. Others competed at one of six empty stadiums in Europe and the United States. This quasi-virtual meet was organized in place of Zurich’s stop on the Diamond League circuit, which hasn’t been able to get started this year because of the pandemic. De Grasse’s race took place in Bradenton, Fla., and he only had to beat two other sprinters — his training partners Omar McLeod and Jimmy Vicaut — to win the $10,000 first-place prize. Read more about De Grasse’s win and watch it here.

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