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Toronto FC Puts on a Clinic in New York, Advance to Eastern Conference Final



NEW YORK – We sat in a circle Saturday night, completely enthralled by Toronto FC’s past.

A who’s who of TFC reporters reminisced — most snickered — about bad signings, bizarre moments and every prior failing throughout the team’s history.

Things weren’t just bad in TFC-Land three years ago, they had flatlined, with little to no hope of resuscitation. The Reds were seemingly out of lives after having been pronounced dead every year since 2009.

Yet here we are, someone reminded the room. The eternally-damned Reds a game away from a berth in the Eastern Conference final, an event forecast to bring unprecedented attention to Major League Soccer in the Big Smoke.

Things were dark here to start at Yankee Stadium Sunday night. New York City turned down the lights to showcase a pre-playoff pump-up video before a pyrotechnic display that brought 28,000 City fans briefly to life.

Then, in a matter of minutes, Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco instantaneously turned out the lights on New York City’s season.

The Atomic Ant — fresh off an MVP snub — received a deft pass from Jozy Altidore before turning a hopeless City defender and firing past Erik Johansen in the sixth minute to extend TFC’s aggregate lead to 3-0.

Series over. Considering the away goals tie-breaker, the hosts, at that point, needed four goals to advance beyond this East semifinal.

“We were pushing to get the goal,” TFC coach Greg Vanney said. “We really wanted to get the goal. We were fortunate it came pretty early and we were able to keep the momentum going and add to that.”

The Reds smelled blood in a first half nobody could have predicted.

In full control from the first whistle, back came Giovinco in the 20th minute, latching onto a clipped-in ball before twisting a defender ironically named Frederic Brillant, who chopped down the Italian inside the penalty area.

Giovinco converted the ensuing penalty to, again, extend Toronto’s series lead to 4-0 — a deficit that sealed Toronto FC’s place in the Eastern Conference final. Only Altidore didn’t get the memo.

The on-fire American torched City’s defence 10 minutes later before lashing an angled half-volley that gave Johansen no chance. It prompted City fans to hurl beers as the Reds celebrated near the supporters’ section.

It completed the scoring in a first half that, reflecting back, was identical to TFC’s tragic playoff exit last October. At 3-0, the Reds were saluted by roughly 300 traveling supporters as they entered the visiting dugout.

“You can see the difference,” New York City coach Patrick Vieira said. “We still have to work very hard to build up a strong team. We have a gap between Toronto and ourselves. The best team won. They deserve to go through.”

By the break, Yankee Stadium already had thinned out amid one the most ineffective performances in the 21-year history of Major League Soccer’s playoffs — something TFC coach Greg Vanney predicted weeks earlier.

The Reds, he said, tried New York City’s brand last season, conceding goals galore while scoring just as many. City conceded 57 times this year — the most of any playoff team. It was a recipe for disaster here Sunday.

“If you look back on the history of this league, the teams that do well are the stingiest,” Vanney added. “It’s very difficult in this league to be just a goal-scoring team and get through these key matches.

“In terms of us, we tried to be an aggressive, attacking team today, but we wanted to do it through our defensive effort.”

Just when home support thought it couldn’t get worse, City’s calamitous work continued. Ronald Matarrita played a horrendous back pass that Giovinco collected. Two passes later, Jonathan Osorio converted an open look.

“It really hurt me, the team, the staff and the fans,” Vieira said of the blowout loss. “We need to take a step back to analyze the season.”

Not to be forgotten, Giovinco tacked on a fifth in stoppage time. It wasn’t necessary, he just wanted a hat-trick. Vanney said post-game Giovinco was motivated “a lot” by last week’s MVP snub.

Down the road in Newark, the New York Red Bulls still were licking their wounds after being punted 3-1 on aggregate by the visiting Montreal Impact. It sets up a dream, all-Canadian matchup for viewers north of the border.

Even better, the clubs and rights holders now have two weeks to promote this series, making it certain to be the most-talked about event East of Winnipeg. This truly could be the moment MLS rises to another level in Canada.

“It’s big because of the pain and the suffering the season seat holders and fans in Toronto have gone through for a number of years,” TFC GM Tim Bezbatchenko told the Toronto Sun in the locker room post-game.

“We want to deliver them with what they’re looking for — home playoff matches and meaningful games.”

It almost certainly will be the moment TFC finally becomes something bigger after close to a decade of futility.

“One of our things we wanted was to get back to Toronto to play in front of our home fans again,” Vanney said. “We’re grateful for the ones who were here tonight.”

And to think, it was just a few years ago that the Reds, a franchise teetering on irrelevancy, were considered irredeemable. Now they’re going to be the biggest thing in this city.

And the Grey Cup, at least this year, won’t be the biggest deal at BMO Field.

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Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020



Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.

Theo Bair (MLS)

This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.

Source: Pixabay

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)

Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.

Baseball by andrewmalone, on Flickr

Baseball” (CC BY 2.0) by andrewmalone

Connor McDavid (NHL)

McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.

Chuba Hubbard (College Football)

The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.

2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.

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Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo



Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.

Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.

Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.

“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”

Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.

Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.

“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”

Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.

“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”

Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.

Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.

“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”

After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.

“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”

None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.

“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.

Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.

“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”

That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.

“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.

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Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month



NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.

The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.

Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.

“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.

“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”

It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.

For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.

Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.

A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.

It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.

Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.

“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.

“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”

Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.

“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.

“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”

And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.

“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”

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