Colombia's coach Pekerman speaks to player Valencia during their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match against Paraguay in Barranquilla

Falcao, Pekerman have Colombia slowly changing South America’s landscape

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Radamel Falcao’s running out of ways to react. Scoring has become such a frequent occurrence, the Colombia star has had to find new ways to describe his goals.

After a double on Friday, Falcao resorted to comedy.

“[T]he right leg is getting jealous,” he said after scoring twice with his left in Colombia’s 2-0 win over Paraguay.

“Paraguay were a very tough obstacle to break down,” according to Falcao. “We had to really fight hard to get the job done.”

The performance wasn’t as convincing as last break’s blowout of Uruguay. Colombia struggled through the first half against a dogged but unthreatening Paraguay.

Seven minutes into the second, Falcao broke through.

“Thank God my goals (got us the win), but it was the work of the whole team … I’m very happy with the win and the goals.”

Both have been coming in bunches for Falcão. The Atlético Madrid striker has scored eight times in six Liga matches. He’s bagged another five in qualifying. Just as the Atleti sit second in Spain, the Cafeteros are behind only Argentina in South America.

“Our goal is the World Cup and it is a long way there,” Falcao said Friday. “We must continue with the same intensity and mentality (to achieve this goal.)”

At this point, Colombia missing out on Brazil would require a major dip in form, even if they’re only five points up on sixth place Venezuela. Four CONMEBOL teams will earn automatic qualification for the 2014 World Cup, with the fifth place team destined for a playoff against a representative from Asia.

In 2010, Colombia finished seventh in qualifying, scoring only 14 goals in 18 games while coming up one point short of the playoff spot. After qualifying for every World Cup in the 1990s, Colombia has missed out on the last three finals.

With a new decade has come a new regime and new hope. In January, José Pekerman became Colombia’s third coach of the decade. Under the former Argentina boss, the Cafeteros are a changed team, having already matched last cycle’s goal output during a 5-2-1 start.

Along with Falcao’s emergence, Pekerman’s presence is reason to believe this is more than just a hot streak for Colombia. Pekerman’s successes with Argentina’s youth teams (three U-20 World Cups) along with a strong showing with the senior team at the 2006 World Cup make him one of the most respected coaches in South America. His failures in Mexico (with Toluca and Tigres) did little to dampen his reputation, making his capture by Colombia a minor coup.

Pekerman made an immediate impact, leading the team to a 2-0 win over Mexico in his debut, implementing more proactive tactics that took advantage of talents like Falcao, Porto’s James Rodríguez, and Napoli’s Juan Camilo Zuniga. In defense, Colombia has moved even more stingy than the previous cycle, their goals allowed rate dropping from one per match to 0.75.

The Cafeteros‘ improvement makes an already crowded South American scene almost unfair. Even though the number of World Cup spots available to CONMEBOL has increased from 4.5 to 5.5 (with Brazil already awarded one), two good teams from South America are destined to miss out on the finals.

Paraguay, participants in four-straight World Cups, will almost certainly miss 2014. Friday’s match was viewed as make-or-break for a team that had lost its four previous qualifiers. While they were able to take a scoreless tie into halftime, the second half showed a Paraguayan team that has regressed starkly from last cycle. After the loss in Baranquilla, they sit in last place with only four points through eight matches.

Venezuela may be the team most hurt by Colombia’s resurgence. After a strong showing at the 2011 Copa America, the Vinotinto was picked by many to make their first finals in 2014. Halfway through the qualifying tournament, César Farías’s team sits sixth, one point out of a playoff spot. With only seven goals through eight matches, their troubles emulate Colombia’s during the 2010 cycle. Aside from 23-year-old striker Salomón Rondón, no Venezuela player has scored more than one goal in the tournament.

That Ecuador (like Colombia) is also experiencing a surge makes it even less likely Venezuela will break through for 2014. But unlike the Ecuadorians, who could push a team like Chile or Uruguay into the intercontinental playoff, Colombia’s rise looks like more like an awakening than a run. The second-most populated country on the continent, Colombia has always had the resources to challenge the big two. The only thing they lacked were the roots to cultivate those resources.

Thanks to Pekerman and Falcao, Colombia has awaken from a dormant decade. They’ve risen into the top 10 of FIFA’s world rankings, and while that may flatter the still improving team, Colombia may yet develop into the giant many used to see emerging.

Watch Live: Chelsea vs. West Brom (Lineups, Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 22:  Diego Costa of Chelsea and Joleon Lescott of West Brom battle for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge on November 22, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Chelsea hosts West Bromwich Albion from Stamford Bridge (Watch live, 7:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Blues look to extend their eight-match win streak.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

The Blues make one change from last weekend’s 3-1 come-from-behind victory over Manchester City as Cesc Fabregas makes way in the starting XI for Nemanja Matic.

Antonio Conte‘s side will be opposed by a West Brom side that is unbeaten in their last four Premier League matches. The Baggies remain unchanged from last week’s 3-1 win over Watford as the side looks to move above eighth in the table.

LINEUPS

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill (c); Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Diego Costa, Hazard. Subs: Begovic, Aina, Ivanovic, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Batshuayi.

West Brom: Foster; Dawson, McAuley, Evans, Nyom; Yacob, Fletcher (c); Brunt, Morrison, Phillips; Rondon. Subs: Palmer; Olsson, Robson-Kanu, Gardner, McClean, Galloway, Chadli.

“Pretty unreal, a fairy tale” — Alonso, Marshall celebrate Sounders title

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TORONTO — Talk about penalty kicks all you want, and definitely talk about that save, but Seattle’s formative heart kept Toronto FC’s vaunted attack off the scoreboard to win its first MLS Cup final.

Veterans Chad Marshall, Osvaldo Alonso, Stefan Frei, and Roman Torres simply got the job done against Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and the high-flying Reds.

“We knew what a great offensive team they are,” Marshall said. “Giovinco and Jozy are incredible. The amount of goals they put up this postseason is pretty ridiculous, so to keep them off the board for 120 minutes is incredible.”

[ MLS CUP: Seattle wins in PKs | 3 things ]

The man in front of him, Alonso, was a prime reason for that. Countless connecting passes and perfect spacing limited TFC’s chances with the ball. After an MVP caliber season, you could argue that Alonso deserved just as much of a shout for MLS Cup MVP as winner Frei.

“In the final you have to give everything you have to win,” Alonso said. “I step on the field to play for my team, play for myself, and play for my family. And I think I did that.”

Both Alonso and Marshall spoke of the moments following Torres’ match-winning PK, as the Sounders crew flew down to pitch to celebrate in front of a rave green and blue visitors section high above BMO Field.

[ MORE: Bradley apologizes to fans ]

[ MORE: Altidore, Frei on that save ]

“I think I threw my back out on the run to Roman, and he flew right by me,” Marshall said. “It was just nuts. I lost my voice in a matter of 20 seconds. It’s just so exciting.”

Alonso was filled with pride for the fans at the game, and the ones back in Seattle who stood by the Sounders after a midseason coaching change.

“They deserved this, the trophy, because they are always there for us,” Alonso said. “Even when we were down at the bottom of the table. This trophy means a lot for me.”

Marshall admitted the words weren’t coming to him, even an hour after the game.

“I don’t know if I can. It’s an incredible feeling, from where we in July, the Kansas City game, to this moment right now, it’s pretty unreal, a fairy tale.”

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Bradley lauds “fearless” teammates after heart-wrenching MLS Cup loss

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TORONTO — Michael Bradley paused to collect himself, several times actually, before apologizing to Toronto FC’s supporters.

The game of football, with its soaring highs and gutting lows, was the latter now. TFC had dominated Seattle over a lackluster 120 minutes, Bradley engineered several big interventions and some delightful balls that didn’t have an end product.

[ MLS CUP: Seattle wins in PKs | 3 things ]

Much of that won’t be remembered, though, because Bradley passed his penalty kick right into the path of a waiting Stefan Frei. Surrounded by reporters in the TFC locker room, Bradley chose his words carefully.

“When you put everything you have into something, when you come in every day ready to pour your heart and soul into something, the highs are amazing and emotional and incredible in a positive ways,” Bradley said. “And the setbacks… hit you hard. Every guy here is going to have to take the time to get over this one, to let it hurt, let it frustrate you, let it anger you.

“It’s not for the weak, and you see that on nights like tonight.”

[ MORE: Altidore, Frei on that save ]

Bradley was one of the final men to emerge from the showers at BMO Field, and he answered every question with brutal honesty.

“On behalf of the team, we can only thank every person in this city for their support and for the passion and the emotion and the energy that they put into this, together with us,” he said. “I’m sick to my stomach that we couldn’t reward them with the biggest trophy tonight.”

In defeat, it was easy to see why TFC’s locker room is drawn to its captain. Bradley shirked nothing, answering the tough questions and humoring those who would lob softballs about his family.

Among the former was this response, one of those quotes that moves a team into formation.

“The margins are so small, and on nights like this you have no choice but to go for it,” he said. “We talked about having a group of guy who were gonna, on the biggest of nights, be fearless and go after things in an aggressive way. And we did that. We were strong, brave, and went after the game in a really, really hard away from the first minute right up until the 120th minute.”

That Bradley missed a PK will howl to the moon in Toronto to the wee hours of this Sunday morning, and his critics will be happy to join in. But as the 29-year-old prepares for a winter that could see him head across an ocean before returning for World Cup qualifying and another MLS season, Toronto can be happy to put its faith — and its backbone — in No. 4.

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Altidore, Frei react to “that save” after Sounders claim MLS Cup

TORONTO, ONTARIO - DECEMBER 10:  Stefan Frei #24 of the Seattle Sounders stops Michael Bradley #4 of the Toronto FC during the penalty kick phase during the 2016 MLS Cup at BMO Field on December 10, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Seattle defeated Toronto in the 6th round of extra time penalty kicks. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — When it came down to it, Jozy Altidore and Toronto FC were inches away from becoming MLS Cup champions.

The man who walked away with MLS Cup MVP was the reason they didn’t land the title.

[ WATCH: Frei’s big save ]

Deep in extra time, Altidore leapt high to loft a header toward the far post. Frei adjusted his body for one dramatic lunge, just slapping the ball toward Roman Torres for a clearance.

“(Altidore) does the right thing because he goes against the way that I’m coming from, and that point you just move your feet as quick as you can see what’s possible,” Frei said.

Altidore thought it was in.

“I thought so,” he said. “It was a tough ball to begin with. … It was a hell of a save. At the end of the day you’ve got to pull off something special.”

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