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LAS VEGAS — When the U.S. men’s national team and Mexico meet in Sunday’s 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup final, it will be the second time in 56 days that the longtime rivals have faced each other with a continental title on the line. And yet the two matches could not be more different in terms of the relative stakes involved.

Back on June 6, the sides met in the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League final, and it was the U.S. in desperate need of a win because, for the entirety of manager Gregg Berhalter’s tenure, there had yet to be a victory that confirmed that the team was back on an upward trajectory.

A statement was needed, not only to generate some confidence in the coach’s methods but also to give this generation of players something tangible to go with its undeniable talent. And, regardless of the wild sequence of events that took place during the game, the collective group stepped up, absorbed the pressure — and a bottle or two to the head — to ultimately walk away with a 3-2 win after extra time.

As for Mexico, while the loss stung — they always do against the U.S. — there was a belief that Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s men had played well enough to win, having led twice and with the chance to make it 3-3 but for Ethan Horvath to save Andres Guardado‘s penalty. As it stood, El Tri would be back to fight another day.

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So what has changed heading into Sunday’s encounter at Allegiant Stadium? In a word: expectations.

The U.S. came into this tournament with an intentionally youthful, inexperienced roster, with one fundamental reason the desire to give presumptive first-team regulars — Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Giovanni Reyna and others — rest ahead of what is expected to be a busy season for both club and country.

But there was also a need to get a better idea of how impactful up-and-coming members of the player pool could be at the international level. This is especially important given that triple-fixture windows dot the horizon for World Cup qualifying, which begins in September, and depth will be tested.

Expectation-wise, this left the U.S. in a bit of a conundrum. Berhalter has said from the beginning that the goal was to win the tournament, regardless of roster construction. And yet there have been times when the team’s youth has been trotted out as an explanation for shaky performances.

A 1-0 group-stage win against Canada, who had a slight edge in experience but also fielded some new faces in the absence of stars such as Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, was seen as a case in point, yet it was not so much the young players who let the U.S. down that day but rather veterans who did not step up.

In Thursday’s semifinal win, Qatar looked a cut above in the first half but were unable to find a way past the impressive Matt Turner in goal, which allowed the Americans to rally late in the game and seal victory through an all-important Gyasi Zardes goal.

That this U.S. squad has reached the final speaks well of its ability to adapt, grow and grind out results. Moreover, while injuries to the likes of defender Walker Zimmerman, midfielder Paul Arriola and defender Reggie Cannon have limited options, they have also given Berhalter data points on players like Shaq Moore, Miles Robinson, James Sands and Matthew Hoppe.

Given those developments, the U.S. would seem to be playing with house money on Sunday. Its objectives have largely been achieved and little is expected against the pre-tournament favorite. Yet Berhalter wants his side to be greedy and finish the job.

“We’re not done, and that was the message to the team,” the U.S. coach said after the semifinal. “It’s nice to make the final, but we want to win the final. Our No. 1 goal is to win the Gold Cup. We said that before the Gold Cup, and we’ll say it again.”

By contrast, the stakes for Mexico could not be more different. This is a game it dare not lose, even if it almost cannot win; beating a short-handed U.S. team to claim a 12th Gold Cup title would prove little, even if there are a players absent like Raul Jimenez and Hirving Lozano.

But in the event of defeat, pressure would increase and doubts would be raised heading into World Cup qualifying. Would it even be enough to cost Martino his job?

There has certainly been that impulse at times in the past, but the tenure of predecessor Juan Carlos Osorio is instructive. The Mexico Football Federation stuck by him after a 7-0 thrashing by Chile in the 2016 Copa America Centenario quarterfinals, and that patience and emphasis on stability was rewarded with World Cup qualification and a famous victory over holders Germany in Russia.

This Mexico team has found a way to get results, even if the actual play has sometimes fallen short of its lofty standards. Jonathan dos Santos has been rallied around following the death of his father, and one would expect that its experience edge all over the field, but especially in a midfield led by Hector Herrera, will tell at some point.

Berhalter noted how poor his side was in terms of winning duels against Qatar, with just 42.7%, while the tackle success was even worse at 30%. If that happens again, the likes of Rogelio Funes Mori should benefit and make it a long night for a back line that has performed so well.

But the very nature of this long-standing rivalry means that another drama-filled chapter seems inevitable. Given the mental fortitude shown over the past few weeks by the U.S., as well as the must-win nature of the game for Mexico, expect another compelling encounter.

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College athlete employment bill moves forward

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College athlete employment bill moves forward

A Congressional committee voted Thursday to move forward with a bill that would prevent college athletes from being deemed employees of their schools, conferences or the NCAA.

The vote in the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce represents the first tangible signs of progress the college sports industry has made in its years-long push for a federal law to help reshape college sports. It comes just weeks after the NCAA and its power conferences announced they have agreed to share significantly more revenue with athletes as part of an antitrust lawsuit settlement.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Bob Good (R-Virginia) on the same day the antitrust settlement was announced, is in the early stages of the legislative process. It is likely to face opposition from Democrats in the Senate as well as legal challenges if it’s passed.

The NCAA is currently a defendant in multiple ongoing court cases that argue college athletes should be granted the rights of employees. One case in federal court — Johnson v. NCAA — is seeking minimum wage and other workplace protection for college athletes. Two other active cases in front of the National Labor Relations Board are seeking to give college athletes the right to form unions and collectively bargain.

NCAA president Charlie Baker said earlier this week that he hoped the recent antitrust settlement, if it’s approved by a judge, would provide the framework for a college sports model that allows schools to compensate their athletes without turning them into employees. Baker said he does not believe most college athletes want to be considered employees.

“A lot of the conversations I’ve had with people in Congress is: ‘The reason we’re interested in employment is because of the compensation question,'” Baker said earlier this week. “If the court blesses [the antitrust settlement], then it puts us in a position where we can go to Congress and say one of the three branches of the federal government blessed this as a model to create compensation without triggering employment.”

The NCAA and power conferences have lobbied Congress for laws that would limit their legal liability and prevent athletes from being employees for the past several years. College sports leaders say these laws are necessary to preserve many teams and athletic departments that cannot afford to pay their athletes like workers. Both the NCAA and power conferences have publicly stated their support for Good’s bill.

The bill is intended to be a narrow part of a broader package of federal legislation that guarantees more benefits for athletes in the future while preventing them from being employees. However, no partner bills that would guarantee athlete benefits have been introduced yet.

The Workforce and Education Committee voted 23-16 to move forward with the bill. All 23 votes in favor came from Republicans. All 16 votes against came from Democrats. The debate over whether Congress should weigh in on the college sports business model has been a partisan debate for the past several years.

Democrats in the House and Senate have previously co-sponsored bills that would have the exact opposite effect of Good’s bill — codifying college athletes’ right to unionize. Those lawmakers and other advocates say athletes need the ability to bargain collectively to make sure they can negotiate for items such as improved medical care and a fair share of the money they generate for a multibillion-dollar industry.

Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) — a former college volleyball player who has been an active participant in the Capitol Hill debate on the future of college sports — said she will vote against Good’s bill if it reaches the House floor.

“Once again, Republicans in Congress have decided to plow forward with legislation to limit the rights of college athletes with little to no input from athletes themselves,” Trahan said in a statement after Thursday’s vote.

If passed, Good’s bill would stop the ongoing efforts of the NLRB and in the Johnson v. NCAA case to make athletes into employees. Paul McDonald, lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Johnson case, said he believes the bill as written would violate federal equal protection laws. McDonald said it’s against the law to prevent some college students from being employees while others in that category — like cafeteria workers or teaching assistants — are allowed to earn wages and unionize.

“If enacted, [the bill] would never survive judicial challenge. To wit, it is a waste of time,” McDonald said in a statement provided to ESPN after Thursday’s vote. “Dilatory tactics have consequences. The only thing accomplished by the NCAA in needlessly dragging out the recognition of college athletes as hourly employees like their fellow students is to significantly increase the cost of resolution borne by its membership.”

In a news release issued prior to Thursday’s vote, Good said his bill was aimed at making sure the tradition of college sports wasn’t “ruined by reclassifying student athletes as employees.”

“My legislation will help maintain a balance between athletics and academics, ensuring that college sports programs remain viable, beneficial, and enjoyable for all student athletes,” he said.

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College football odds: Using FPI to gain an edge on lines

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College football odds: Using FPI to gain an edge on lines

The NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Finals are coming to an end. The men’s College World Series wraps up shortly after, and all that’s left to get us through the scorching summer months are MLB, WNBA and soccer. Of course there’s some golf and the Olympics mixed in, as well.

Without other distractions, it’s the perfect time to get a jumpstart on some college football prep.

ESPN Analytics released its 2024 College Football Power Index (FPI) ratings and ESPN BET has posted lines for Week 0 and Week 1, as well as some other marquee matchups on tap throughout the fall. Where’s the value in what has been posted? What is the public seemingly valuing early on in the process?

You might think 10 weeks is too soon to start looking ahead, but you know how the saying goes: the early Jayhawk catches the Banana Slug.

Odds by ESPN BET. For the most up-to-date lines, click here.


1. Read, then react

Before firing away at August and September bets, take some time to refresh on how last season ended and the sheer volume of change the sport has undergone this offseason. Last year’s semifinalists have vastly different outlooks heading into 2024, with all four getting a new coach, starting quarterbacks or moving into a new conference.

The Pac-12 ceases to exist, three times as many teams can make the playoff, and the transfer portal carousel continues to spin. ESPN Analytics and FPI factor all this into their projections, so it serves as an ideal jumping-off point.

2. The Florida State vengeance tour begins, but will it start with a bang or a whimper?

After an undefeated season and subsequent playoff snub due to Jordan Travis’ injury, FSU will look to silence its doubters in the upcoming campaign. ESPN BET currently has FSU as the favorite to win the ACC at +260, followed closely by Clemson at +275. Yet, the last time we saw the Seminoles, their performance was anything but spectacular, as they needed a fourth quarter comeback against Florida, squeaked by Louisville in the ACC title game and then were walloped by Georgia 63-3 after half the team opted out.

Florida State kicks off the entire collegiate season in Ireland against Georgia Tech, in what’s currently the most bet-on game at ESPN BET. They’re installed as 13.5-point favorites, a fair line since FPI has it as a 13.8-point FSU win. The Noles then travel home to face their second straight ACC foe, laying 21.5 against Boston College, where ESPN Analytics has a much less rosy outlook. The Eagles are given a 16% chance to win and should be only 17-point underdogs, according to the model, a far cry from the 9% chance to win that BC’s +1000 odds are implying.

3. Georgia will be ready to bounce back

The Bulldogs only lost two first-round picks to the most recent NFL draft, which would look like a rebuilding year to nearly anyone except Georgia, which had eight first-round picks in the previous two drafts combined.

Since November 7, 2020, Georgia has gone 46-2, with both losses to Alabama. When the Bulldogs take the field against Clemson, it will have been 1,392 days since Kirby Smart lost to anyone other than the now-retired Nick Saban.

After missing out on the Playoff last season following back-to-back title runs, Smart and Georgia will be ready to hit the ground running this year against a Tigers squad that won only half of its ACC games last season. The Bulldogs are FPI’s top-rated team heading into the season, with Clemson at No. 15. ESPN Analytics has Georgia favored by 15.2, a couple points of value on the current line of 13.5 and also crossing the key number of 14.

4. Is Colorado “primed” to make noise in Year 2 of the Deion Sanders extravaganza?

The literal answer, of course, is yes. There’s going to be a lot of noise coming from Colorado‘s campus as Coach Prime motivates his team, but are the Buffaloes ready to compete? Their season opener against FCS North Dakota State should be a great litmus test. The Summit League powerhouse could easily hold its own in a Group of 5 conference, having reached the FCS title game in 10 of the past 13 seasons, and they’re rightfully respected as just 8.5-point underdogs in Boulder (ESPN Analytics has it projected as an 8.7-point victory).

We tackled the idea of combating the hype with a true analysis of on-field play last season after Colorado started 3-0 (it promptly lost 8 of 9 to end the year), and the same can be done in 2024.

Colorado was plagued by terrible offensive line play last year, ranking at the bottom of FBS in sacks and pressures allowed and couldn’t create in the run game. But Colorado has the No. 3-ranked transfer portal signing class, adding third-team All-AAC OL Tyler Johnson, All-CUSA honorable mention OL Justin Mayers and signing the No. 1 OT in the ESPN 300 (19th overall) in Jordan Seaton.

Colorado’s O-Line last season:

  • 56 sacks allowed (second most in FBS)

  • 232 pressures allowed (third most)

  • 45.3% blown block rate (third most)

  • 0.32 yards-per-rush before contact (last)

All that being said, I can’t bet against North Dakota State in this spot. Since rising to FCS royalty just over a decade ago, the Bison are 6-1 straight up and 6-1 ATS against FBS teams, including 5-1 straight up and 5-1 ATS against power conferences. Their average cover margin is an absurd 17.2 points per game in that span, and sportsbooks have seemingly failed to rate NDSU properly.

5. Public is fading USC following the departure of Caleb Williams

According to ESPN Bet, the single most lopsided betting market is one of the crown jewels of the Week 1 slate, as the Trojans and LSU square off in Las Vegas on Labor Day eve. All eyes will be on this matchup as the final Sunday before the NFL season begins, and so far a whopping 78% of spread bets in this game are in favor of the Bayou Bengals.

The public seems to be fading USC on the basis of Caleb Williams carrying the team for the past few seasons, but ESPN Analytics sees it differently. LSU also lost the No. 2 pick in the draft in Jayden Daniels, and two of his record-setting teammates in Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr. were both first-round selections, as well. FPI suggests the Tigers should be favored by just 1.9 points, so this could be a prime upset spot for the Trojans.

6. The Big 12 has been completely flipped on its head

It’s true that the poorly-numbered conference hasn’t had 12 teams since 2011, but the massive upheaval across college sports has created a 16-team conference where half of the league was elsewhere just two years prior (BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF joined last season, Colorado has returned, along with Arizona, Arizona State and Utah having their conference unveiling this fall).

It’s rather fitting that the two favorites to win the conference, according to ESPN Analytics, have been mainstays since the formation of the league back in the 1990s. Kansas has a 17% chance to win the conference, best in the Big 12, with Kansas State nipping at their heels at 16%. Both Sunflower State schools face FCS opponents — Lindenwood and UT Martin, respectively — to open their season, and there aren’t currently lines available at ESPN BET, but FPI has both teams projected to win by 30+ points.

But don’t get too confident in rock chalk nation just yet. There are seven teams with +1000 odds or shorter to win the Big 12 at ESPN BET.

Shortest odds to win the Big 12:

Utah +325
Kansas State +350
Kansas +600
Arizona +750
Texas Tech +900
Iowa State +1000
Oklahoma State +1000

Quick hitters

  • ESPN Analytics runs simulations to project the leverage a certain game has on teams’ chances to make the CFP depending on whether they win or lose. The game with the highest leverage in Week 1 is Notre Dame vs. Texas A&M, with both teams likely in the mix for a playoff spot and both ranked top 15 in FPI, making it the second-best matchup of the opening week, as well. According to the model, Notre Dame is projected to win by 3.6 points, which is notable because ESPN BET currently has the Aggies favored with -115 money line odds.

  • The largest gap between FPI and ESPN BET on opening weekend comes in an intrastate battle between Georgia State and Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets will be coming back from Ireland and will be playing from a travel disadvantage despite hosting the Panthers. Tech is favored by both ESPN Analytics and ESPN BET, but the line is at 19.5 with Georgia State +750 on the money line. FPI has it as a 7-point game with a 34% chance that Georgia State pulls the upset.

  • Looking ahead to Week 2, the national semifinal rematch between Michigan and Texas is actually the second-most lopsided spread bet at ESPN BET, with 77% of tickets coming in on the Longhorns of the SEC. Similar to the Caleb Williams theory, this is a double fade in the public view with JJ McCarthy and Jim Harbaugh both abandoning Ann Arbor and advancing to the NFL ranks. Oh, and leading rusher Blake Corum and leading receiver Roman Wilson are gone, as are four other top-100 picks in the draft back in April. Maybe the masses are onto something here, as Texas is favored by 3.5 while ESPN Analytics sees it as a 6.3-point victory.

Where the lines don’t align

ESPN BET has a few other notable games cued up with lines for later in the season, and there are two games with significant discrepancies between the sportsbook line and the FPI projection.

  • Oregon and Ohio State face off as Big Ten opponents for the first time on October 12. ESPN BET has the Ducks favored by a single point at home, which actually means they view Ohio State as the better team on paper. ESPN Analytics projects the Ducks as the second-best team in FBS this season and would make them almost a touchdown favorite in this spot despite losing Bo Nix to the pros.

  • Alabama and LSU renew their rivalry on November 9, with LSU currently laying 2.5 points. However, FPI values Kalen DeBoer and Jalen Milroe enough to have the Tide rated fifth best entering the season and has Alabama winning by 5.6 points on average.

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Sources: Big 12 mulls windfall for naming rights

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Sources: Big 12 mulls windfall for naming rights

The Big 12 is exploring selling its naming rights to a title sponsor, with potential revenue of hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of the deal, sources told ESPN on Thursday.

The commercial sponsor would potentially take the name “Big” out of Big 12 and replace it with the sponsor’s name. It could end up as one of the largest commercial deals in collegiate athletics history, not including media rights.

The conference, which has explored this option for the past six months, has had in-depth discussions and a decision is expected in the upcoming months, sources told ESPN. A deal could mean millions of dollars annually for the conference’s member schools.

The Big 12 distributed nearly $470 million to its member schools in overall distribution last year, and that number projects to be higher once its new media deal comes to fruition in 2025-26. That projects to be tens of millions of dollars less per school annually than those in the Big Ten and SEC, prompting the league to find new revenue streams.

The Big 12 has also been in discussions with private equity firm CVC Capital Partners for a stake in the league between 15% to 20%, sources confirmed to ESPN. That could give the Big 12 up to a $1 billion cash infusion and would be the first known large-scale private equity investment in college sports.

Sources, however, cautioned that the private equity pieces include some skeptics, especially among presidents. Regardless, there is a clear desire to boost revenue in the Big 12 in the near future.

“Every commercial opportunity the commissioner is bringing is a way to close the financial gap between the Big 12 and SEC,” a Big 12 source told ESPN. “The No. 1 priority of the Big 12 is maintaining competitiveness, and these opportunities potentially help.”

Discussions between CVC Capital Partners and the Big 12 were first reported by CBS.

The Big 12 will have a new look amid the shuffled college landscape in 2024. Gone will be conference stalwarts Texas and Oklahoma (to the SEC), and a new 16-member lineup will include Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah joining the 12 returning members from last year.

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