Star Struck

Alberth Elis plays second half as MLS All-Stars fall to Juventus on penalties

Alberth Elis plays second half as MLS All-Stars fall to Juventus on penalties
Alberth Elis represented the Dynamo in the MLS All-Star Game. Jesus Zamorano/Houston Dynamo

Atlanta set another Major League Soccer attendance record as 72,317 fans saw the MLS All-Stars and Italian champions Juventus play to a 1-1 draw (5-3 Juventus win on penalties) at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Wednesday.

The Bayou City was represented on the field by the Houston Dynamo’s Alberth Elis, who played the second half in its entirety. He became the second forward after Brian Ching to take part in the event as a member of the Dynamo.

“It's something I will not forget,” said Elis. “It’s wonderful to be here and one always works to be at these kind of events. I’m always going to keep working and trying to get better.”

The 22-year-old Honduran had three scoring opportunities, with his clearest one coming immediately after halftime. The speedy winger attempted to pounce on a pass from reigning league MVP Diego Valeri but was denied by Juventus’ backup goalkeeper Mattia Perin.

Elis was persistent in his attempts throughout the second half by applying pressure on defenders and attempting the nifty moves he displays on gamedays at BBVA Compass Stadium. 

Raising the flag for Honduras

Elis is the first Honduran player to receive All-Star honors since Roger Espinoza and Marvin Chavez in 2012 and only the third player from his country to don the All-Star jersey – the others being Alex Pineda Chacon in 2001 and the 2004 MLS All-Star Game MVP Amado Guevara.

The San Pedro Sula native has represented his nation since 2013 at the youth level, including a 4th place finish at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Five of his seven goals with the senior national team came in qualification games for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

“Very happy to be able to represent Honduras and my team,” said Elis. “Many thanks always for the support I receive from Honduras and everywhere where there’s Hondurans. I appreciate it with all my heart and I always hope to represent the country in the best way possible.”

In awe of the Atlanta support

This year’s attendance surpassed the 70,728 figure from the 2010 MLS All-Star Game that took place at Houston’s NRG Stadium to become the new standalone record for the event – the 1996 edition drew 78,416 but was part of a doubleheader featuring the Brazilian national team. It also became the second-largest attendance for any All-Star game in North America behind the 2010 NBA All-Star Game.

The match featured high-profile guests like singer Ashanti, rappers T-Pain and Waka Flocka Flame, former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White, wrestler “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and Falcons/Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank. 

Of course, none of this comes as a surprise for those that follow MLS and have witnessed the second-year club skyrocket to take all top five spots in the league’s all-time individual game attendance list. 

The first time All-Star was able to experience that homefield advantage and was impressed by the support for soccer in the heart of SEC football territory.

“The truth is that the fans here are very different,” said Elis. “They get a lot into the game. I think it’s very nice, motivating for one as a player.”

Atlanta United leads the league in average attendance this season with 51,799 through 12 home games, just over 11,000 ahead of second-place Seattle who have hosted two less matches. The Houston Dynamo, in comparison, rank 17th in the 23-team league with a 17,236 average through 11 home games.

Eyes towards the playoffs and a trophy

Despite not coming away with the victory, the Dynamo’s top player looked rejuvenated by the experience and expressed joy in being able to take part in the event. He also clarified no hard feelings towards Dynamo Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera’s preference to not see him take part in the match.

“It’s normal,” responded Elis. “The team is going through a good spell and we know every player will be needed so the concern is normal.”

La Panterita (little panther) has scored 19 goals and 12 assists in regular season play through his two seasons with the Dynamo. He will be a key part of the team’s playoff hopes.

Four points separate the Dynamo from the playoffs and they’ll hope to make up that ground in the standings with three of their next four league matches at home, beginning with rival Sporting Kansas City on Saturday. They also have the added commitment of hosting the semifinal of the U.S. Open Cup next Wednesday - with hopes to win out and lift their first major trophy since their 2007 MLS Cup title.

“We know it won’t be easy,” said Elis. “We’re fighting for the cup as well. Next Wednesday we have the semifinal and we hope to go through, to the final, and look for the championship as well.”

Follow on Twitter: @victoraraiza

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The Astros have their work cut out for them. Composite Getty Image.

Through 20 games, the Houston Astros have managed just six wins and are in last place in the AL West.

Their pitching staff trails only Colorado with a 5.24 ERA and big-money new closer Josh Hader has given up the same number of earned runs in 10 games as he did in 61 last year.

Despite this, these veteran Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series seven consecutive times, have no doubt they’ll turn things around.

“If there’s a team that can do it, it’s this team,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said.

First-year manager Joe Espada, who was hired in January to replace the retired Dusty Baker, discussed his team’s early struggles.

“It’s not ideal,” he said. “It’s not what we expected, to come out of the shoot playing this type of baseball. But you know what, this is where we’re at and we’ve got to pick it up and play better. That’s just the bottom line.”

Many of Houston’s problems have stemmed from a poor performance by a rotation that has been decimated by injuries. Ace Justin Verlander and fellow starter José Urquidy haven’t pitched this season because of injuries and lefty Framber Valdez made just two starts before landing on the injured list with a sore elbow.

Ronel Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his season debut April 1, has pitched well and is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts this season. Cristian Javier is also off to a good start, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in four starts, but the team has won just two games not started by those two pitchers.

However, Espada wouldn’t blame the rotation for Houston’s current position.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster how we've played overall,” he said. “One day we get good starting pitching, some days we don’t. The middle relief has been better and sometimes it hasn’t been. So, we’ve just got to put it all together and then play more as a team. And once we start doing that, we’ll be in good shape.”

The good news for the Astros is that Verlander will make his season debut Friday night when they open a series at Washington and Valdez should return soon after him.

“Framber and Justin have been a great part of our success in the last few years,” second baseman Jose Altuve said. “So, it’s always good to have those two guys back helping the team. We trust them and I think it’s going to be good.”

Hader signed a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason to give the Astros a shutdown 7-8-9 combination at the back end of their bullpen with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly. But the five-time All-Star is off to a bumpy start.

He allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night and has yielded eight earned runs this season after giving up the same number in 56 1/3 innings for San Diego last year.

He was much better Wednesday when he struck out the side in the ninth before the Astros fell to Atlanta in 10 innings for their third straight loss.

Houston’s offense, led by Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, ranks third in the majors with a .268 batting average and is tied for third with 24 homers this season. But the Astros have struggled with runners in scoring position and often failed to get a big hit in close games.

While many of Houston’s hitters have thrived this season, one notable exception is first baseman José Abreu. The 37-year-old, who is in the second year of a three-year, $58.5 million contract, is hitting 0.78 with just one extra-base hit in 16 games, raising questions about why he remains in the lineup every day.

To make matters worse, his error on a routine ground ball in the eighth inning Wednesday helped the Braves tie the game before they won in extra innings.

Espada brushed off criticism of Abreu and said he knows the 2020 AL MVP can break out of his early slump.

“Because (of) history,” Espada said. “The back of his baseball card. He can do it.”

Though things haven’t gone well for the Astros so far, everyone insists there’s no panic in this team which won its second World Series in 2022.

Altuve added that he doesn’t have to say anything to his teammates during this tough time.

“I think they’ve played enough baseball to know how to control themselves and how to come back to the plan we have, which is winning games,” he said.

The clubhouse was quiet and somber Wednesday after the Astros suffered their third series sweep of the season and second at home. While not panicking about the slow start, this team, which has won at least 90 games in each of the last three seasons, is certainly not happy with its record.

“We need to do everything better,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I feel like we’re in a lot of games, but we just haven’t found a way to win them. And good teams find a way to win games. So we need to find a way to win games.”

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