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Sunderland’s escape: Tracking the key moments in Black Cats’ dramatic season

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With today’s win over West Brom, Sunderland became the first team since the 2004-05 Baggies to survive after spending Christmas at the bottom of the table. The close quarters of this season’s bottom helped the Black Cats, but over time, that will be forgotten. For years into the future, fans and pundits will be referring to this as the club’s great escape.

Here’s how Sunderland’s improbable  run played out, from August to May:

August 17 – The Black Cats open the season as victims of a smash-and-grab, with Fulham taking full points out of the Stadium of Light. Though they drew at Southampton a week later, a 3-1 loss at Selhurst Park in round three proved the turning point of Paolo Di Canio’s tenure at Sunderland.

September 21 – Sunderland’s 3-0 loss at West Brom caps a disastrous opening month of the season. At 0-1-4, the team’s Premier League obituary’s already being written, with famous Sundlerand fan Jonathan Wilson (author of Inverting the Pyramid) expressing the ironic hope the team can “best” the 15-point season that saw the club relegated in 2006.

September 22 – Paolo Di Canio is gone. Five games into the season, having won two of 12 since being brought in at the previous campaign, the former Swindon Town boss is fired. In search of its next manager, Sunderland would lose its next three matches.

October 8 – After two weeks’ speculation linking him to the job, former Brighton & Hove Albion manager Gus Poyet is appointed as Di Canio’s successor. After winning two of his first four games in charge, Poyet lost three of four, leaving Sunderland at the bottom of the table in mid-December.

December 14 – Sunderland ends a two-game slide with a 0-0 at Upton Park, a result that stirs discontent about Sam Allardyce’s job at West Ham. The result begins a seven week,  16-point run, with the Black Cats surviving in both the FA and League cups.

February 1 – Sunderland claims a 3-0 win over rival Newcastle at St. James’ Park, leaving the team unbeaten in four and 4-4-1 in its previous nine. It’d be 87 days before the Black Cats claimed their next Premier League victory.

March 2 – Sunderland lose the Capital One Cup final to Manchester City, but along the way  (and during an FA Cup run), the club piled up games in hand. For months, they’d prove supporters’ only consolation as their club struggled to find its form.

March 31 – If Sunderland can’t win these, they’re destined to go down. You’d forgive a supporter for thinking that after the team’s 2-1 home loss to West Ham. Though Gus Poyet felt his team “better in every respect,” West Ham still left with full points against the league’s cellar dwellers. It’s the third in a five-match losing streak Sunderland would carry into mid-April.

April 3 – Sunderland hear its penalty for playing an ineligible Ji Dong-won earlier in the season: a six-figure fine. The leniency surprised Gus Poyet, but the Black Cats’ survival hopes are bolstered by avoiding a points deduction (hopefully).

April 12 – An own goal by Wes Brown leaves the Black Cats 1-0 losers to visiting Everton. In last place and winless in league since Feb. 1, Sunderland’s matches in hand are the club’s only reason for home.

April 16 – Let the dream begin. In last place coming into the match, Sunderland gets two goals from Connor Wickham to briefly take a late 2-1 lead on Manchester City. A late Samir Nasri goal made it 2-2, but Sunderland still take a point from the then-title favorites.

April 19 – Handing Chelsea its first loss at home under Jose Mourinho in 77 matches, the Black Cats continue their climb out of the cellar, with Fabio Borini’s 82nd minute winner giving the team a 2-1 upset against another title frontrunner.

May 3 – Thanks to a Sebastian Larsson goal, the Black Cats take a 1-0 win out of Old Trafford. With a huge goal difference edge on Norwich, Sunderland needs only one point in its last two games to survive.

May 7 – Who needs one in two when you can claim three all at once? Goals from Jack Colback and Fabio Borini lead Sunderland to a 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion, giving the team 13 points in its last five games. Going into the last round of the season, the Black Cats sit 15th, their four-game winning streak confirming another season in the Premier League.

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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