The return of the Premier League, the impact of the spike in COVID-19 cases on sports, Timo Werner and much more in Five Things From the Week.
1. The return of sports is dependant on the choices of the general public
When major sports leagues like the NBA, NHL, WNBA, MLS and NWSL announced plans to resume playing, it was in the context of substantial improvement in the fight against COVID-19. Tests were more plentiful and the United States couldn’t stay shut down forever. As soon as the country started opening up, though, a significant number of people started acting like the global pandemic was over. The result? A record number of new cases in the state three of those leagues are supposed to play in and 23 Clemson football players testing positive. LSU then announced 30 positive tests on June 20.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver now has to either knowingly send his employees into a hot spot that could very well get worse or come up with an alternative quickly. Players who were already concerned about going to Disney feel even less safe, and those players have an incredible amount of power. Leagues can plan to return all they want, but there comes a point where it is simply too risky. If the general public doesn’t start acting with more diligence, we could get to that point before sports — or at the very least football — return.
2. Accountability is the only way to solve the social issues plaguing college football
Oklahoma State’s and Mike Gundy and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz have a combined 36 years of head coaching experience at Power 5 schools. The number of Hawkeye and Cowboy players — both past and present — coming forward with stories of racially charged behavior implies a horrific pattern of mistreatment since Gundy and Ferentz became head coaches. The reason their past and present players are speaking out now is because of the rapidly changing cultural climate. They were simply too afraid to before. And with good reason.
In less than three months, Gundy said his players need to get back to campus in spite of Covid-19 so they can help the state of Oklahoma’s economy by playing and wore a One America Network t-shirt that led to the best running back in the country temporarily disassociating himself from the program. Ferentz removing strength coach Chris Doyle and Gundy apologizing are merely the first steps on a long journey toward meaningful change. There can be no more benefit of the doubt. Only time will tell if coaches like Ferentz and Gundy truly regret what has gone on in their programs. For now, their reactions carry very little meaning.
3. The race for the Premier League’s Champions League spots is gaining clarity
For a brief moment, it looked as if five teams would be within six points of fourth-place Chelsea after matchweek 30. Instead, two second-half goals from the Blues put them five points clear of fifth. Unless Chelsea or Leicester City limp to the finish, that means everyone else is fighting for the spot theoretically vacated by Manchester City. If City’s Champions League ban is overturned, England’s four representatives are close to finalized.
Early results from Project Restart suggest the battle will be even less interesting. Wolves are the only legitimate challenger to win so far. Sheffield United took one point from its two matches since returning to action. The refereeing debacle that cost the Blades two points against Aston Villa would carry more weight if it wasn’t followed up by a 3-0 defeat to Newcastle. Even with a healthy squad, Tottenham got bossed around by Manchester United for large portions of the game. Somebody is going to have to turn things around quickly for this to be anything more than a contest between Manchester United and Wolves, who are currently at least two points ahead of everyone else.
4. Timo Werner checks all the boxes for Chelsea
While Tammy Abraham has done an admirable job for Frank Lampard this season (13 goals in 26 Premier League appearances), he is still a ways away from being able to carry the goalscoring load for a team with aspirations of winning the Champions League. Chelsea was more or less forced into using this season as a transition year because of the transfer ban, and Abraham was one of the main beneficiaries. The impending arrival of Timo Werner — who has 32 goals in all competitions this season — means the period of transition is over. The Blues are back to spending big, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Werner does not come to London just to address a need. At age 24, he fits in seamlessly with the young group of players currently at the club. Ben Chilwell and Kai Havertz — Chelsea’s other two main targets according to reports — are also under the age of 25. If either one of them joins Werner at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea has the core of a team for the next five years. Werner’s versatility allows Lampard to play the same kind of interchangeable 4-3-3 that Jürgen Kopp has used to turn Liverpool into the best team in Europe. This is more than Chelsea throwing an obnoxious amount of money at a proven goalscorer. It is the beginning of a new era.
5. The Champions League is going to be a fascinating scientific study
When the Champions League returns in August, it will feature three groups of teams. The first is PSG and Lyon, who have not played a competitive game since early March. The second is Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig, who have been playing in the Bundesliga for over a month and will have more than a month between the end of their domestic season and the resumption of the Champions League. The final group consists of the English, Spanish and Italian teams with league games scheduled into late July and early August.
All of a sudden, teams who have been sitting at home for months are facing opponents who just finished a grueling stretch of games. Does sharpness or rest win out? Are PSG’s hopes of winning a wide-open tournament destroyed due to rust? Are the German teams at an advantage because they got some fitness back but weren’t playing multiple times a week through July? These unique circumstances make for an extremely intriguing experiment.
Major League Baseball is running out of time to get a season started. If commissioner Rob Manfred has to set the length himself, so be it. Baseball cannot afford to sit out a season if it all possible when every other league plans to play. Reaching an agreement with the MLBPA would be nice, but something needs to happen fast.
Photo by KT King / Flickr