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

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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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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