Getting their kicks

5 Houston pro athletes who are avid soccer fans

5 Houston pro athletes who are avid soccer fans
James Harden has rubbed shoulders with biggest stars in soccer. Houston Rockets/Facebook

There may be no bigger show of respect for a pro athlete than admiration from their counterparts in other sports. A big sign that soccer has become more mainstream in the United States is just that.

Current and former pro athletes with Houston ties are no strangers to “the beautiful game.” Here are five:

1. James Harden

The face of the Houston Rockets has rubbed shoulders with biggest stars in soccer, not to mention the most expensive.

Neymar, as an example, made headlines this summer by becoming the most expensive transfer in soccer after a €222 million move from Spanish giants FC Barcelona to France’s Paris Saint-Germain. The flamboyant Brazilian loves to vacation stateside during the European soccer offseason, which coincidentally matches up with the NBA’s, and a 2015 trip to Vegas saw him catch a party with Harden and another Rocket, Trevor Ariza.

In 2016, “The Beard” took a trip to the iconic Old Trafford (the home of Manchester United) to witness the debut of Paul Pogba at the start of the 2016-17 season. Harden also received a visit from 2002 FIFA World Cup Winner Kaká, who was in Houston with his team Orlando City, during the 2017 NBA Playoffs.

2. Hakeem Olajuwon

Born in soccer crazy Nigeria, “The Dream” grew up playing “the beautiful game.” The basketball Hall of Famer has even been quoted as saying soccer gave him “a natural advantage over many of the American-born players” in basketball.

The two-time NBA Finals MVP also grew up a fan of English giant Liverpool F.C., and his footwork would lead you to believe he might’ve had a chance to don a different red shirt. The city of Houston is glad he chose basketball.

3. Jose Altuve

Born in Venezuela, it’s pretty safe to assume Jose Altuve would run into some of that South American soccer passion. The MLB standout even practices the sport in the offseason to keep himself in shape.

Altuve’s favorite club? None other than the New York Yankees of the soccer world, Real Madrid.

4. Andrew Luck

Andrew Luck doesn’t ply his trade full-time in Houston (unless he’s in town with the visiting Indianapolis Colts) but he spent the latter part of his youth as a quarterback for Stratford High School. This is because his father, former Oilers QB Oliver Luck, was the president of the Houston Dynamo at the time.

Naturally, Andrew became a fan of the Dynamo and has stopped to visit his favorite club on more than one occasion.

5. J.J. Watt

Houston’s beloved football icon and humanitarian has shown a soft side for soccer. In 2015 he was present in London to witness Chelsea F.C. clinch their fourth Premier League at Stamford Bridge.

In Houston, he’s taken of advantage of visits from Argentinian stars like FC Barcelona’s Leo Messi and Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero. He even took part of a skills challenge with the City player during their 2017 U.S. tour.

But what about playing the game? Watt’s done that, too.

The Texans defensive end took part in practice with a local girls soccer team as part of a commercial for one of his sponsors. To top off his love for soccer, Watt is dating Houston Dash forward Kealia Ohai.

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The Astros are back in action Friday night against the A's. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

The Astros need to whip up on the Oakland A’s this weekend in California as they did in sweeping four from them last week at Minute Maid Park. That was the start of a homestand which ended up with seven wins in 10 games. That goes down as a successful homestand, especially since it felt like the Astros’ prior winning homestand came while Donald Trump was President (it actually started in late July). Still, 7-3 doesn’t feel like a smashing success with it ending by dropping two of three games to the lowly Los Angeles Angels.

It is not exactly with bated breath that anyone should be waiting on Jose Abreu’s return to the lineup, but it’s coming. It should not be on this road trip. After the three games with the A’s the Astros move up the coast for a big four game set with American League West leading Seattle. The M's start all right-handed pitchers. That is no time to sit Jon Singleton to see if Abreu has managed to pump a few drops of gas into his tank while spending the better part of this month at the Astros’ minor league complex. It’s not as if Singleton has been stellar since Abreu’s departure, but by comparison, he’s been Lou Gehrig-esque. The series with the Mariners isn’t make or break but the Astros are strongly advised to get at least a split. That it should be Framber Valdez starting the opener Monday night doesn’t breed tremendous confidence, coming off his meltdown outing against the Angels. Another start, another opportunity.

The Mariners are at the Nationals this weekend, starting it a mere four and a half games ahead of the Astros. In four of the five other divisions the Astros' 22-28 record would have them at least 10 games off the lead.

One step forward, two steps back

Speaking of washed-up first basemen, Joey Votto should be a future Hall of Famer. The 40-year-old Canadian is trying to make it back to the big leagues via the minor leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays. Votto was an absolutely tremendous player with the Cincinnati Reds. As the Beastie Boys said, “Ch-check it out.” Over Jeff Bagwell’s first ten seasons with the Astros he hit .305 with a .417 on-base percentage and .552 slugging percentage, yielding a phenomenal .970 OPS. Over Votto’s first ten full seasons with the Reds: .313/.429/.540 for an exactly phenomenal .970 OPS. Where am I going with this? Read on!

Votto had phenomenal strike zone and bat control. He turned 30 during the 2013 season. That year Votto had 581 at bats. He popped out to an infielder once the entire season. Alex Bregman turned 30 the third day of this season. Bregman popped out to the shortstop four times in the Angels series. So much for Bregman’s “knob past the ball” epiphany that saw him hit three home runs over two games last week. Going into the weekend Bregman has one hit in his last 23 at bats. His season stats continue to be pitiful: a .209 batting average and .607 OPS. Bregman has only struck out once in the 23 at bats of his latest deep freeze. It’s that so much of his contract is feeble. There is a lot of season left for Bregman to build up to decent numbers, but one-third of the regular season will be complete after the Astros play the Mariners Monday night.

While Bregman’s season to date has basically been one long slump, Jose Altuve is in a funk of his own. Since blasting a homer Monday, Altuve is hitless in 12 at bats. Mini-slumps happen to everybody but Altuve’s woes trace back farther. Over his last 15 games, Altuve is batting .175. He last had more than one hit in a game May 5. He’s also drawn just two walks over those 15 games. It’s tough to ever sit Altuve, but he’s probably playing a little too much. Altuve turned 34 earlier this month. He has started 48 of the Astros 50 games at second base. Mauricio Dubon should be getting a start per week at second (and probably another at third given Bregman’s level of play). Over a full season not playing the field once per week still means 135 starts. Altuve should mix in some more at designated hitter (he has just one DH game so far this season). Wear and tear is a real thing, players don’t grow less susceptible to it as they get to their mid-30s.

King Tuck

On the flip side, Kyle Tucker! So far this season, he’s making himself as much money as Bregman is costing himself. Only Shohei Ohtani (1.069) starts the weekend action with an OPS higher than Tucker’s 1.060. The law of averages dictates that Tucker won’t finish as high as 1.060, but if he does, it would be the greatest full-length season offensive performance in Astros’ history. Jeff Bagwell posted an absurd 1.201 OPS in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign. Yordan Alvarez came in at 1.067 in his 87 games played rookie season of 2019. Lance Berkman’s 2001 was a monster. Enron Field was more hitter-friendly then than Minute Maid Park is now, but Berkman’s numbers were “Oh My Gosh!” spectacular. .331 batting average, 55 doubles (second in franchise history to Craig Biggio's 56 in 1999), 34 homers, .430 on-base percentage, .620 slugging percentage, and 1.051 OPS. And that was just Berkman’s second full season in the majors. Lance finished fifth in National League Most Valuable Player Award voting. Giant-headed Barry Bonds won MVP with his 73 home runs among other sicko stats.

* 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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