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Premier League roundup: Chelsea’s Dr. Jekyll, Reading’s big comeback

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There’s no explaining this Chelsea team. The ups and downs are too extreme, too often. In the last month, they’ve lost to Corinthians, Queens Park Rangers, and Swansea (the last two at home) while beating Aston Villa and Southampton by a combined 13-1.

Today was more of the latter, though they got some help. Two own goals from Jon Walters staked the Blues to a 2-0 lead. Sprinkle in insurance  via Frank Lampard (from the spot) and Eden Hazard and Chelsea was back in the win column. Combined with Spurs’ draw at Loftus Road, the 4-0 result vaulted the Blues back into third place.

The scoreline was deceiving, though. Chelsea weren’t that good. Through most of the first half they looked the better team in talent but not in execution. The match was playing out as a game Stoke could steal via defensive mistake or a set piece.

But fortune went the other way, starting in first half stoppage time. Walters headed a cross into his own net to send Chelsea into halftime up 1-0. A second own goal in the 63rd minute and Lampard’s 194th goal for Chelsea (second on the club’s all-time list) two minutes later eliminated all doubt. Hazard’s tally was pure icing.

It’s the type of result that will obscure the fact Chelsea are still performing nowhere near their capabilities. People will see the lopsided score and make positive inferences, but it’s unclear this team is making progress. They may be within four points of second place Manchester City, but Chelsea are still more third/fourth place battlers than title contenders.

Which, incidentally, is right where most predicted them to land at the beginning of the season.

Mid-week, I rolled out the trite Dr. Jerkll and Mr. Hide analog (though I used it incorrectly). It’s cliché, but it’s an apt shorthand for Chelsea’s schizophrenia behavior, especially if you’re trying to avoid too many mental illness metaphors.

You really can’t predict which Chelsea team is going to show up. Today, the good one got three points at the Britannia.

source: Getty ImagesEight minutes, three goals, three points for Reading

When QPR drew this morning, we talked about the importance of going for three at home, especially if you’re fighting relegation. One point is nice, but at this juncture of the season, holding serve is not enough.

Through 80 minutes on Saturday, Reading weren’t even in frame for a draw. Nineteenth and 69th minute goals from Romelu Lukaku gave West Brom a 2-0 lead at the Madejski Stadium. The Baggies were on their way to snapping a two-match losing streak.

Then came the onslaught. Jimmy Kebe broke through in the 82nd minute, with mid-week hero Adam Le Fondre equalizing from the spot two minutes later. Not content with the lesser comeback, Reading got a winner from Pavel Progrebnyak in stoppage time to claim their third win in 22 games.

With neither Aston Villa nor Wigan winning, the three points loom particularly large. Not only did the Royals vault out of the basement, they’re now within three  of both the Villans and Latics. Plus, Brian McDermott’s team holds the goal difference advantage on each.

The comeback underscores the importance of full points. QPR walked off the pitch at Loftus Road feeling good about their 0-0 with Tottenham, but after the result at Reading, Rangers are worse off than they were before the day’s opening whistle.

Elsewhere in England

Aston Villa 0-1 Southampton – Ricky Lambert’s first half penalty conversion holds up to move Saints into 15th place. Villa drops into the relegation zone. Make a list of the potential reasons you should replace a coach mid-stream then ask yourself whether Villa should move on from Paul Lambert. Given their recent managerial history, is easier said than done, but it’s hard to see how, based on what he’s done at Villa, Lambert’s the man to keep them up.

Everton 0-0 Swansea – Swansea hasn’t lost since a 1-0 at White Hart Lane on Dec. 16. In that respect, this is an understandable result for Everton, though for a team chasing a Champions League spot, this looks like points dropped.

Fulham 1-1 Wigan Athletic – A 71st minute Franco Di Santo goal gets the Latics a valuable road point, temporarily pulling them out of the drop. Fulham started all of Dimitar Berbatov, Mladen Petric and Bryan Ruiz but were unable to snare a crucial second goal before Martin Jol started changing things just after the hour.

Norwich City 0-0 Newcastle – Everything I said about Paul Lambert, above? Apply them to Alan Pardew. Newcastle snaps a three-match losing streak (in league) but are only two points above the drop.

Sunderland 3-0 West Ham United – It’s the kind of result that makes you wonder if West Ham’s hat a wall. You can point to the absence of midfielder Mohamed Diamé, but it takes more than one man’s absence to explain conceding three times to Sunderland. Seb Larsson, Adam Johnson, and James McClean scored for a Black Cats side who’ve taken nine points from their last five games.

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

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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)
Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images
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When it comes 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.

[ 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 clear.

“(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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Three things we learned from Seattle Sounders’ MLS Cup triumph

Seattle Sounders players chase defender Roman Torres (29) after he scored the game-winning shootout goal to defeat the Toronto FC during shoot out MLS Cup soccer final action in Toronto on Saturday, December 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP)
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP
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MLS Cup 2016 was the most well-played game of soccer all year — far from it, in fact — but the Seattle Sounders are MLS champions for the first time in their eight-year history anyway.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS Cup coverage ]

Three thoughts on a poorly-played, but thoroughly intense 2016 finale…

A cup final, it most certainly was

The numbers of cup finals which feature brilliant, composed attacking play is hugely outweighed by the number of cup finals featuring a total lack thereof. Whether it was down to nerves, the frigid conditions in which the game was played, or a combination of the two, Saturday’s final at BMO Field was yet another example of the latter.

The telling stats: 40 fouls between the two sides (just three yellow cards shown); zero first-half shots attempted by the Sounders, and just three shots in total over 120 minutes (zero on target).

The only moment of true quality came in the 108th minute, when Stefan Frei made the best save you’ve seen all year to deny Jozy Altidore and keep the Sounders on level terms (WATCH HERE).

Michael Bradley, man of the match (until his PK)

As we’ve come to expect, Bradley was anywhere and everywhere on the field for TFC, at all the right times. With Osvaldo Alonso playing the part of warrior in the Sounders midfield, and Jonathan Osorio’s attacking prowess preferred to the defensive chops of Will Johnson alonside Bradley, it was up to the U.S. national team captain to singlehandedly track and mark Nicolas Lodeiro out of the game. He did just that, and so much more.

Then, came his penalty kick, TFC’s second, which was hit with so little pace and no more than three feet to Frei’s left for the easiest save he’d make all night.

The greatest comeback in MLS history

You’ve heard it all by now, but it doesn’t make what the Sounders did from August to December any less remarkable — from ninth place on the day Sigi Schmid was fired (two days before Lodeiro arrived), to the MLS summit in four and a half months. No team in MLS history had ever overcome a points gap that large (10) that late in the season to even qualify for the playoffs, let alone advance in said playoffs, reach MLS Cup, and lift the trophy.

Brian Schmetzer, a Seattle native and member of the Sounders family since his own playing days beginning in 1980, replaced Schmid with (presumably) the idea that he’d see out the lost season as interim head coach before making way for a big-name hire this winter. He won eight of his first 14 games as a head coach instead, led the Sounders to the four-seed in the Western Conference, and delivered to his hometown the ultimate prize on Saturday.

Watching the Portland Timbers lift MLS Cup 2015 was undoubtedly the toughest pill to swallow for anyone in Rave Green, but to end their Cascaida Cup rivals’ reign as defending champions by winning that very piece of silverware themselves … that’s a one-up that’ll last a lifetime.

Frei leads Sounders to first MLS Cup title in penalty kicks

Members of the Seattle Sounders celebrate after winning the MLS Cup soccer final over Toronto FC in Toronto, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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TORONTO — With tackles that matched the bitter temperature, Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders had little trouble providing intensity.

Goals were another story.

[ MORE: Three things we learned ]

In a game only its champion could love, the Sounders defeated TFC in penalty kicks at BMO Field on Saturday after 120 minutes of 0-0 play with precious few threats on goal.

After the teams traded goals to start PKs, Michael Bradley flubbed his shot right to Stefan Frei. But Clint Irwin stopped Alvaro Fernandez’s shot, Seattle’s third attempt, to keep things 2-2.

It went to bonus kicks, and Justin Morrow hit the bar to set the table for Roman Torres. Yes, the big man, and he nailed it.

The first chance belonged to Altidore, who took a classy ball from Giovinco and had his far post shot deflected off Roman Torres for a corner.

Giovinco had trouble with his service in the cold, and a fifth minute offering was returned by Joevin Jones on a long counter which finished in the hands of Clint Irwin.

Seattle gained its footing and held the ball deep in Toronto’s end, but wasn’t able to trouble Irwin. Jonathan Osorio was next to trouble a keeper, though ex-Reds backstop Frei collected his effort.

[ MORE: Frei makes the most amazing, unbelievable save in ET ]

A scary moment arrived in the 27th minute, as Giovinco ripped a left-footed effort into Roman Torres’ face just inside the 18. The Sounders defender fell hard (and surely the 25 degree weather didn’t help the impact).

Justin Morrow then supplied a lofted cross from the left fringe that Altidore headed down to a sliding Frei. Still 0-0, 30′

Service left a lot to be desired on set pieces, and Giovinco earned a free kick before firing it off the wall in the 39th minute.

Giovinco teed one up right after the break, but hit it off the outside of the net with the outside of his boot and it remained scoreless.

Though the chances remained scarce, the hosts had a few. Bradley picked out Giovinco with a diagonal ball that the Italian slid square for Altidore. The striker was held from getting to the ball, but no call came and Toronto won a corner that came to nothing.

The chippy play continued, and the chances remained few. Seattle called upon Andreas Ivanschitz  and Toronto turned to Will Johnson and ECF hero Benoit Cheyrou. Extra time seemed predestined, and so it came to pass.

Cheyrou won a corner with a left-footed shot just after play resumed. Giovinco teed him up for a similar chance three minutes later, but Frei collected the low offering. That was about it for the first 15 of ET.

Toronto’s third sub was Tosaint Ricketts, and he took a ball out of the air from 15 yards only to miss wide of the right post. Kicks were looming. Ricketts then picked out Altidore in the center of the box, but Frei flew to palm the headed ball off the line (WATCH HERE).

Seattle nearly went on top via a deep throw-in, as Lodeiro spied Torres at the back post and Beitashour whiffed on his attempted clearance. Irwin grabbed the loose ball first.

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