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Del Olaleye: Here is your weekend soccer primer with the World Cup looming

Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid take center stage. Photo courtesy of Nike, Inc.

The World Cup comes as a nice little interlude between the end of the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Playoffs and the start of the football season. The buildup to the World Cup is beginning in full as teams around the world name their rosters and start playing friendlies in preparation. We’re seeing the promos consistently on FS1 as well as Fox begins their run as the broadcast partner with the World Cup.

The one caveat is the absence of the United States. The lack of home country participation certainly lessens some of the excitement here. The short of it is, the USMNT had about a 90 percent chance to qualify for the World Cup going into the final day of qualifying and failed miserably. New U.S. star Christian Pulisic attributed the failure to a lack of focus. The United States will still be playing this summer and thankfully not in that proposed also-ran tournament that never got any traction. We’ll get to the U.S. squad later. Here are a couple of competitive matches this weekend to wake up that part of your brain that pretends to like soccer every four years.

Saturday, May 26th

Champions League Final: Real Madrid vs Liverpool

The two European giants face-off in the biggest prize in all of club football. Cristiano Ronaldo and Madrid are looking to do something historic. A win over Liverpool would mean the third Champions League title in a row for the Spanish power. Liverpool is a storied club in their own right but have not enjoyed the same type of recent success that their opponents on Saturday have. A victory over Madrid would give the 5-time European champions their first European title since 2005.

Championship Playoff Final: Fulham vs Aston Villa

The lesser known of the two finals being played on Saturday is the Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Final. Lesser known but valuable just the same. The victor in this winner take all will receive just over $228 million and promotion to the highest division in English football. Fulham and Aston Villa are both familiar with Premier League football. Aston Villa spent the previous 24 seasons in the top flight before being relegated before this season. Fulham was relegated in 2014 and are looking to win promotion after finishing the season recording points in 23 out of their final 24 games.

Side note: Fulham is owned by Shad Khan, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Monday, March 28th

Friendly: USA vs Bolivia

The game against Bolivia is one of several friendly matches the USMNT team will play as they try to transition from the disappointment of not making the World Cup. The U.S. have called in a youthful roster as they look to see who can be a part of the uncertain future of U.S. Soccer. A game against World Cup qualifier France follows a match against near-qualifier Ireland in the month of June as well. If you’re interested in getting to know the future of U.S. Soccer these upcoming matches are for you.



 

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The Rockets have won 6-straight games. Composite image by Jack Brame.

The Rockets have done some pretty amazing things over the last couple weeks. While most teams and fan bases may not put much credence into a six-game win streak, things hit a little different in Houston these days. With the team looking so woefully inept last season, things got off to a rocky start this year. They were 1-16 and were on a 15-game slide prior to finding a winning formula. While some may make an argument for the who’s and why’s of the recent bout of success, I have my own opinions.

First up is Garrison Mathews. He's a 25-year-old shooting guard who's played in 92 games thus far in his career over three seasons but is still considered a rookie. He's the closest thing this team has to a 50/40/90 (percentages of field goals/threes/free throws) player as anything on this roster (48.8/42/80). He has the fifth-highest Player Efficiency Rating (14.33) on the team in only 10 games played. He's the kind of smart and efficient player that can stick around and contribute to a future playoff team here, while also helping the core guys grow.

Guard Armoni Brooks is another underrated Rocket during this recent uptick in play. He has a +19 plus/minus rating over the last few games, shooting 35% from three in the six-game win streak. Brooks is considered a rookie despite playing in 20 games last year and starting five of them. While the only stat that's gone up for Brooks has been his free throw percentage, he's managed to carve himself some playing time this season. He may earn himself more playing time if he continues to be a positive when on the court.

Jae'Sean Tate gives off P.J. Tucker vibes. Kevin Porter Jr and Jalen Green are copies of each other to me. Christian Wood should be traded to make more room for Alperen Sengun to play bigger minutes, so he develops. Sengun is a guy I believe can be a solid Robin to Green's Batman. KPJ is interesting because he and Green can either work or be a disaster. It really depends on his development as a point guard. The veteran players brought in should all have a singular focus: helping the younger guys develop, while helping create a winning culture in the organization. Sure, those guys want to come in and win, but they're also professionals and understand what's asked of them. Anything outside of that should be eliminated.

Ultimate success for the Rockets will come down to 3 key factors

Green is seen as the unquestioned future of this franchise, but guys like Sengun, Tate, Brooks, and Mathews seem like good fits to keep around Green. They should turn into complimentary pieces. Keeping young players around Green, and potentially KPJ, will help them grow together. We've seen what happens when a young team is put together and grows together. I'm not saying they'll become a Warriors, Patriots, or any other recent dynasty, but the possibilities are there. This roster can turn into something special if given the right time, opportunities, and environment to grow in.

I often wonder what would've happened to those early '00s Clippers teams if they had been cultivated properly? Could they have given the Lakers, Blazers, and Kings more of a threat? This Rockets team reminds me of them, with this collection of talented young guys. I hope they can realize their potential as a group. Imagine what this fan base would do if the Rockets actually turned into a group of homegrown winners like the Astros did?

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