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Championship Sunday focus: Sunderland

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Story so far…wow. What a roller-coaster of a season for Sunderland. Less than a month ago, Gus Poyet said his side would need a miracle to survive. On Wednesday, playing host to West Brom, the Black Cats made that miracle happen.

Sunderland’s season started miserably, and seemed destined to end the same way. Paolo Di Canio was shown the door after just five league games, only one of which, a 1-1 draw with Southampton, produced a point. When Poyet was appointed, Sunderland were still last, with just a point to their name. The first win came against Newcastle, which always produces bragging rights, but only two more came before January, leaving the Black Cats last in the table.

MORE: Head here for all things Championship Sunday

Cup competition, however, gave suffering Sunderland fans some comfort. In addition to their commendable FA Cup performance in which Sunderland made it to the quarterfinals, the Black Cats made it to Wembley, taking on, and eventually losing to, Manchester City after knocking out Chelsea and Manchester United.

But a Cup run, particularly one without a trophy lifted at the conclusion, is no compensation for slipping out of the Premier League. And when April began with Sunderland losing to Spurs, 5-1, it looked like that was exactly what would happen. They were seven points from safety and expecting a visit from Everton – who won thanks to yet another own goal from Wes Brown.

Then the miracle began. A 2-2 draw at the Etihad. A win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. 4-0 at home to Cardiff, then 1-0 over Manchester United – Sunderland’s first win at Old Trafford since 1968. Everything culminated in a relatively easy victory over West Brom, giving the Black Cats 13 points from their last five matches. But more importantly, giving them another season in the Premier League.

Who do they play and where can I watch it?
Along with over 40,000 Sunderland fans expected to be cheering their side on at the Stadium of Light, you, too, can tune in to see if the season ends on a high note, with a win over Swansea.  Watch the game at 10am ET on Esquire or live online via NBC Sports Live Extra.

Form guide:

April 12 vs Everton, L 0-1
April 16 at Manchester City, D 2-2
April 19 at Chelsea, W 1-2
April 27 vs. Cardiff City, W 4-0
May 3 at Manchester United, W 0-1
May 7 vs. West Bromwich Albion, W 2-0

What’s at stake?
Nothing! Yay for Sunderland! Seriously, those at the Stadium of Light deserve to enjoy this party. This is one roller-coaster everyone thought would end in a final drop of terror. The Black Cats’ rise should be celebrated.

When the final whistle blows…enjoy. Yes, this is getting repetitive. But some Sunderland fans are already questioning the state of the squad, the chaos of the season and whether Poyet is fit to remain in charge. While those questions deserve to be raised, they can wait until Monday, at least. Next week, the questions of how many on-loan players will remain, or what should happen with Jozy Altidore, or how to keep Seb Larsson or Jack Colback – next week, those questions will still be around, and there’s still a free month before the World Cup begins. So enjoy. 

Frei leads Sounders to first MLS Cup title in penalty kicks

Seattle Sounders forward Nelson Valdez, left, and Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley challenge for the ball during first-half MLS Cup final soccer action in Toronto, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Nathan Denette/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.

In a game only its champion could love, XXXX defeated XXXX 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.

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.

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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WATCH: Stefan Frei made the most amazing, unbelievable save in ET

Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei reacts as time runs out in the second half of the second leg of an MLS Western Conference soccer finals game Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016, in Commerce City, Colo. Seattle won 1-0 to advance to the MLS championship game. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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Words simply fail at at a time like this.

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Stefan Frei made the best save you’ll see for quite some time, 108 minutes into MLS Cup 2016, to deny Jozy Altidore on the doorstep. The distance covered across the face of goal, the leap, the stretch, the strong hand underneath the ball … it’s all straight out of a Hollywood film which you’d question its legitimacy.

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

MLS Cup 2016 will be decided on penalty kicks.

FT — MLS Cup 2016: TFC, Sounders headed to extra time

Toronto FC forward Sebastian Giovinco, left, battles Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan during second-half MLS Cup final soccer action in Toronto, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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After 90 minutes of knock-down-drag-out soccer, MLS Cup 2016 is headed to extra time.

[ FOLLOW: Live score and updates from MLS Cup 2016 ]

The score, just as it was when proceedings kicked off at BMO Field nearly two hours ago, is 0-0. Toronto FC have had the majority of the game’s chances, but never really threatened Stefan Frei and the Seattle Sounders’ superbly organized defense. Seattle, on the other hand, managed all of three shots in the first and second halves combined, the first of which didn’t come until the 76th minute.

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

PST’s very own Nicholas Mendola is reporting live from a frigid, frozen BMO Field (gametime temperatures in the low-20s), so make sure you follow him on Twitter, right here, and check back to PST for live updates, full-match recap, and post-game reaction from every angle.

FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup 2016 — Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders

KANSAS CITY, KS - DECEMBER 07:  The Philip F. Anschutz trophy is seen on the field before the start of the match between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City in the 2013 MLS Cup at Sporting Park on December 7, 2013 in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
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279 days after First Kick, it’s all come down to this: MLS Cup 2016, between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders, a pair of first-timers in MLS’s postseason title decider.

[ FOLLOW: Live score and updates from MLS Cup 2016 ]

Fighting out of the red corner, it’s Sebastian Giovinco (4 goals, 4 assists in five playoff games in 2016), Jozy Altidore (5 goals, 4 assists) and Michael Bradley. Fighting out of the blue (and Rave Green) corner, it’s Nicolas Lodeiro (4 goals), Jordan Morris (2 goals, 1 assist) and a suddenly stout Sounders defense (3 goals conceded).

[ MORE: TFC, Sounders present unique tactical challenges for each other ]

PST’s very own Nicholas Mendola will be reporting live from a frigid, frozen BMO Field (gametime temperatures expected to be in the low-20s), so make sure you follow him on Twitter, right here, and check back to PST for live updates, full-match recap, and post-game reaction from every angle.

Who: Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders
What: MLS Cup 2016
When: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET
Where: BMO Field, Toronto, Canada
Why: To crown a champion