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. 

Spurs’ Son happy South Korea “unscathed” in North Korea qualifier

Photo by Korea Football Association via Getty Images
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As expected, North Korea did not broadcast its World Cup second round qualifier against South Korea this week, making for an old school “wait and see” for fans back home in South Korea.

The match ended 0-0 in front of no fans in Pyongyang, with just police in the stands as Heung-Min Son and South Korea kept their group lead over the North Koreans on goal differential.

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Son, the Tottenham Hotspur star, says it was an odd experience. From The Korea Herald:

“The opponents were pretty physical, and we exchanged some terse words,” Son told reporters at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul. “It might have been their strategy. They played it rough, and they took exception to our own physical play. …. Rather than focusing on the match, we started worrying about trying not to get hurt. It means a lot to have come out unscathed from a match like this.”

The few videos released by journalists show an eerie scene, and South Korea’s status as AFC powers probably played in North Korea’s lack of desire to broadcast a potential home loss. But you have to think that also lived in the home players heads a bit, too.

Atlanta heads into MLS playoffs looking to defend its Cup

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MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) It’s been a strange season for Atlanta United.

They’ve added more two more cups to their collection.

They’ve endured some rather baffling losses.

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After all that, the defending MLS Cup champions are heading into the postseason from essentially the same position as last season.

Atlanta, which was runner-up in the Eastern Conference, will host the New England Revolution on Saturday in the opening round of the playoffs, a rematch of their Oct. 6 game to close out the regular season.

“We’ve put ourselves in a pretty decent spot, as strange as the season has maybe been,” midfielder Julian Gressel said Wednesday after a training session. “We’ve already won two trophies, and now we have a chance for a third.”

In mid-August, United broke out the champagne after a 3-2 victory over Mexican powerhouse Club America to capture the Campeones Cup.

A couple of weeks later, they were celebrating again with a 2-1 victory over Minnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup final, guaranteeing a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.

“I felt like we were always there and pretty much at our best in those games,” Gressel said. “That’s why I’m pretty confident we’ll be at our best when it really matters.”

But there are reasons to be concerned. Atlanta struggled badly in some league games – especially on the road – and rarely looked like the dynamic team that won the MLS Cup in just its second year under former coach Tata Martino.

With Frank De Boer now at the helm, United got off to a sluggish start and spent much of the season juggling lineups and switching up tactics in a desperate bid to find some consistency. Atlanta never put together an unbeaten streak longer than five games – it had three such stretches a year ago – and finished with 58 points, 58 goals and a plus-15 goal differential. All were short of the 69 points, 70 goals and plus-26 differential from the 2018 season.

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Still, United’s second-place showing in the East behind New York City FC matches last year’s finish, guaranteeing the team at least one home game in the playoffs and another in the conference semifinals should it beat the Revolution.

That’s a crucial edge for a franchise that has essentially broken every MLS attendance record and again averaged more than 52,000 per game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, doubling up every team in the league except Seattle and Cincinnati. In 17 home games, Atlanta lost only twice.

While United closed out the season with a 3-1 victory over New England, the Revolution has been one of the league’s hottest teams over the second half of the season.

Atlanta will be further tested by the possible absence of its best defender, Miles Robinson, who is dealing with a strained left hamstring sustained during a workout with the U.S. national team last week.

If Robinson can’t go, United will have to change up their lineup once again and possibly adopt a more defensive approach to Saturday’s game.

“If I do push up, it’s more so getting back a little faster than I normally would, things like that,” said midfielder Darlington Nagbe, one of those who may be affected if Robinson can’t go. “Just feel the game out and see how it plays out.”

In the regular-season finale, Ezequiel Barco got the start over Pity Martinez, a lineup that de Boer might go with again in the playoffs.

Barco played only 15 league games this season because of injuries and a lengthy stint with Argentina at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, but he provided the sort of spark de Boer was looking for against New England. Martinez, who was the 2018 South American player of the year and Atlanta’s major acquisition during the last offseason, has struggled to find his nice in MLS with just five goals in 32 appearances.

“We have to see,” de Boer said. “The only thing that concerns me is to win the playoffs.”

MLS switched up the playoff format this season. Instead of the top two teams from both the East and the West receiving byes and two-legged rounds to determine the winner of conference semifinals and finals, only the first-place finisher gets the opening round off and every step of the playoffs is a single-game elimination.

There is no room for error.

“If you have an off day, you might be out,” Gressel said. “I feel like it’s a format that favors the underdog a bit more, or gives the underdog a bit more hope.”

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com

Zlatan paces MLS jersey sellers, offers fresh quip on Minnesota challenge

AP Photo/Chris Carlson
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic: He’s like a more charming, less anarchist version of Tom Hardy’s Bane.

The LA Galaxy man was revealed to again have the top-selling jersey in Major League Soccer on Wednesday, days before the club begins its 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs run with a match in Minnesota.

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Snow is in the forecast, but Zlatan is not bothered by such weather.

“I’m from Sweden I was born in the snow. When it snows, I’m a viking. When it’s warm, I’m a lion. We adjust for every condition there is.”

Back to the jerseys, the MLS MVP finalists are 1-2-3 in sales. Ibrahimovic is first, followed by Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, and LAFC’s Carlos Vela.

The top sellers amongst Americans are Seattle’s Jordan Morris (7) and Cristian Roldan (12). Chris Wondolowski of San Jose is 13th, while other domestic names on the Top 25 include Sebastian Lletget, Brad Guzan (!?!), Dom Dwyer, Jozy Altidore, and Graham Zusi.

Midweek El Clasico possible in December following political unrest

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Political unrest in Catalonia has both La Liga and the Spanish government looking to move the first El Clasico of the season.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are scheduled to meet at the Camp Nou on Oct. 26, but the jailing of nine Catalan separatists has caused uproar in-and-around Barca.

In fact, Barca as a club has denounced the imprisonment, so it plays more than a peripheral role in the controversy.

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Players heading to and returning from international break have faced in challenges in getting to the club.

Instead, Marca says that we may see a midweek match played in Madrid on Wednesday, Dec. 18, with the reverse fixture in March moved from Madrid to Barcelona.

Dec. 18 would give both teams three matches in eight days before La Liga’s winter break. Barca would play Real Sociedad, Real Madrid, and Alaves, while Real would play Valencia and Real Betis in addition to the Clasico. Both difficult runs, but fairly even.