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Arnold set to boost Houston's bid to host 2026 World Cup

Arnold set to boost Houston's bid to host 2026 World Cup
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John Arnold fell in love with soccer when he five, playing on his neighborhood fields in Dallas.

He fell in love with the World Cup watching it on Univision in 1990 and listening to Andres Cantor's now-famous 10-plus seconds, octave-sliding GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAALLLLL call.

But what really hooked him was going to watch Nigeria beat Bulgaria 3-0 in Dallas during the 1994 World Cup. It was the last time the Cup was held in the United States and the first – but hardly the last – time Arnold would feel the excitement of the World's game.

"Even by soccer standards not a marquee matchup but I remember being in the stadium and feeling the electricity; the electricity of the city,'' Arnold said. "It's a sport and a contest that brings together not only neighborhoods within the city. It brings together the globe.''

He wanted to feel that again, so he went to the 1998 World Cup in France. And he kept going - to every World Cup since then.

A quarter of a century later, the Houston billionaire philanthropist has accepted the role of chairman of the Houston 2026 World Cup Bid Committee and he'll join Bid Committee President Chris Canetti in guiding the city's efforts to become one of the 10 host cities for the 2026 World Cup.

"2022 will be in Qatar,'' Arnold said. "And in 2026 it will come full circle for me with us hosting the World Cup, the World Cup coming to Texas, the World Cup coming to my city – this time Houston.''

Sound confident? He is. The former energy trader who founded of one of the nation's top energy investment companies, retired at the age of 38 to redefine philanthropy through the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, is listed 11th on Forbes' list of Top 50 givers. Arnold is strategic in his gifting, focusing not on the usual arts, but rather on areas of national public policy, including criminal justice reform, health care costs, K-12 education, public finance, and public health. Texas Monthly just named the Arnolds to their Top 31 Most Powerful Texans.

So, when he says Houston has everything it takes to add another big event to the area's burgeoning sports resume', believe him.

"Having John Arnold head our bid committee is a terrific step forward in our efforts to bring the World Cup to our community,'' said Harris County – Houston Sports Authority Chairman J. Kent Friedman. "We know our region has what it takes to successfully host World Cup matches, but we will take nothing for granted.

"It is our job to go out and tell our story to get the local support we'll need, put together a world class bid, and show the world what the Greater Houston-Harris County area has to offer."

When the Vanderbilt grad moved to Houston in 1995, there were no major events. "That was a dark decade for Houston sporting infrastructure,'' Arnold said. "We had two professional venues – the Astrodome and the Summit and they were both at the end of their useful life. That decade, Houston did not host one major national sporting event.''

He credits the Harris County – Houston Sports Authority for the turnaround.

"Since 2000, the Harris County – Houston Sports Authority has built four world-class venues (NRG Park, Minute Maid Park, Toyota Center and BBVA Compass Stadium) and has been instrumental in bringing major events to the city,'' Arnold said.

Canetti, who left the job as President of the Houston Dynamo to take his current role with the committee, couldn't think of a better person to chair the committee than Arnold.

"It is an honor and privilege to add John Arnold to our team,'' Canetti said. "Securing Houston as a World Cup site is an important initiative, and to have one of the most influential leaders of our community on board for the process is a tremendous development.''

Both Arnold and Canetti know the bid process will be competitive. Houston is one of 17 cities vying for one of those 10 spots. Canada and Mexico have already designated three cities each for their portion of the World Cup.

"The same reason NFL chose to bring back the Super Bowl so quickly, the same reason the NCAA brought the Final Four back so quickly is why I'm confident in the success of this bid,'' Arnold said. "Houston has exceeded expectations every time it has hosted a major sporting event.''

He pointed to the downtown footprint with fan zones, hotels and easy transportation as positives as well as NRG. "We have a world class facility that is guaranteed to be 72 degrees at kick-off in the summer,'' he said smiling.

Arnold played soccer until a few years ago when, he said, "my knees told me to call it quits." Now, in addition to traveling the globe to watch the World Cup, he can help influence the next chapter in American soccer through the bid committee.

It's come a long way since 1990 when it was really, as he put it, "very much a niche sport in the U.S.''

Four years later, he was sitting at that World Cup match in Dallas.

"FIFA was prescient enough to believe if they introduced soccer to a brooder swath of America, that America would fall for the sport,'' he said.

They were right. And America did. So, did Houston.

"Houston is a city with global presence, Houston is the most diverse big city in the country,'' Arnold said. "That's what soccer is – diverse and global.''

The push starts now. Canetti has been in his role for just over a week; Arnold in his for a day. And the first big international match of the year in Houston is just around the corner – the U.S. Men play Argentina March 26 at BBVA Compass Stadium.

Arnold, Canetti and Houston's bid are just getting started.

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Jose Abreu looks lost at the plate. Composite Getty Image.

It’s a long baseball season, sure the Astros have started 4-8, and there are plenty of fingers to point around. But there’s no need to push the panic button.

Not yet.

Last year, the Astros didn’t start much better – they were 5-7 after a dozen games. It just seemed different, though. Nobody was wringing hands over the slow start. After all, the Astros were the defending World Series champions, coming off a 106-win season and figured to make mincemeat of the American League West again. Business as usual.

This year is different. The Astros are losing games in very un-Astros-like fashion. While the starting pitching has been surprisingly fine, at least the starters healthy enough to take the field, the bullpen has been a mess. The back end relievers, supposedly the strongest in all of baseball, have been disappointing. Bryan Abreu’s earned run average is 5.79. Ryan Pressly’s ERA is a sky-high 11.57 and closer Josh Hader, the best shutdown in the bigs, is at 6.00. The Astros are losing games late.

The Astros starting rotation is comprised mostly of seat-fillers. The Astros are sitting in the doctor’s waiting room for Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers to be declared fit for battle. McCullers’ contribution to the team in recent years has primarily been confined to H-E-B commercials.

Impatient fans and copy-hungry media need a target to blame for the Astros’ slow start and they’ve zero’d in on first baseman Jose Abreu.

For good reason. Abreu, 37, a former American League MVP, is being paid 19.5 million this year and next. He is having a miserable time at the plate. Originally slated for No. 5 in the batting order, now dropped to No. 7 and sinking in the west, Abreu is hitting a paltry .088. But that number actually is deceptively positive. He has three hits (all singles) in 34 at bats, with 12 strikeouts, no home runs and no RBI. Frankly one of Abreu's singles was a pity hit from a friendly scorekeeper who could have given Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. an error on Abreu’s weak grounder Tuesday night.

We can go all-analytics and brain-busting stats to explain Abreu’s troubles at the plate. But let’s use simple baseball language: Abreu is horrible. He’s done. Maybe it’s time for the Astros to cut bait. He is untradeable.

Abreu had a disastrous 2023 season, batting .237, the lowest average of his 11-year career. But after 12 games last year, he was hitting .271, not bad at all. Or as Larry David would say, pret-tay, pret-tay, pre-tay good.

This year he’s fallen off the end of the Earth. Fans groan as he swings meekly at breaking balls outside the zone. Or he fails to catch up to 95 mph-plus. Or he can’t connect on low inside pitches. Look, when you’re batting .088, it’s all bad.

Last year, the Astros actually had two, as Little Leaguers put it, automatic outs in the lineup. Abreu hit .237 and catcher Martin Maldonado blasted .191.

This year, it’s a tight battle between who’s the worst of the worst. Maldy is hitting .091 with two hits in 22 at bats and no RBI for Abreu’s old team, the Chicago White Sox. Abreu is hitting .088 for Maldonado’s old team, the Astros. This could go down to the last week of the season.

If Abreu is still with the Astros at season’s end. The Astros are no longer the high exalted dominant force in the American League West. They can’t afford an .088 hitter in the lineup. They can’t play eight against nine.

It didn’t help when manager Joe Espada recently said, “I got a ton of confidence in Abreu. I'm not going to talk about strategy. José Abreu has been a really good hitter for a very long time, and I have 100 percent confidence in José that, at some point, he's going to start hitting.”

How long is at some point? Didn’t Astros fans go through this last year with manager Dusty Baker refusing to sit Maldonado despite Maldy killing rallies in a tight pennant race?

The Astros don’t have a strong support system, especially backing Abreu at first base. But there are options. Mauricio Dubon is a jack of all trades. He could play first. Despite the funny line in Moneyball, first base statistically is the easiest position to play in baseball. Backup catcher Victor Caratini can fill the gap until the Astros sign a free agent first baseman.

Or the Astros could do something that would light a fire under fans: call up rookie Joey Loperfido, who’s belted five homers and driven in 13 RBI in 10 games for the Sugar Land Space Cowboys.

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