Getting their kicks

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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Yuli Gurriel had a monster night at the plate Friday. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.

Although they lost the series 2-1, the Astros ended their road trip with a nice win over the Yankees to head home on a positive note. On Friday, they welcomed in the Toronto Blue Jays and former teammate George Springer, currently on the IL, to start a three-game series and long homestand. They had an excellent night at the plate, along with a strong start from Jose Urquidy, cruising past the Blue Jays to take the opener.

Final Score: Astros 10, Blue Jays 4

Astros' Record: 17-15, third in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Jose Urquidy (3-2)

Losing Pitcher: Ross Stripling (0-2)

Jays strike first, then Houston responds and never looks back

It first appeared that Urquidy may be in for a long night, giving up two solo home runs early in Friday's game, one to Bo Bichette in the top of the first with one out to put Toronto up 1-0, then another to Danny Jansen in the top of the third. However, Urquidy would lock-in, and his offense would back him up strongly.

Houston ended up sending nine batters to the plate in the bottom of the second, getting two runs on a homer by Carlos Correa, then later loading the bases to set up an RBI walk by Alex Bregman. In the bottom of the fifth, with a one-run lead at 3-2, Yuli Gurriel expanded the lead to three runs on a two-run shot.

Gurriel went on to have a fantastic night, going 4-for-4 at the plate with 4 RBI. His third of those came in the bottom of the seventh, extending the lead again with an RBI single to make it 6-2. Kyle Tucker made it a five-run game that same inning with an RBI double, then more insurance came in the bottom of the eighth. They reached double-digits that inning, with Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, and Yuli Gurriel, his fourth of the night, all getting an RBI to make it 10-2.

Urquidy finishes seven, then Emanuel finishes it off

Those gave Urquidy plenty of support, though he would bounce back after the two early homers and have a nice night on the mound. He allowed just two other hits, working around both, en route to a seven-inning two-run performance to earn him the win. His final line: 7.0 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 2 HR, 84 P.

He likely could have gone longer, but Dusty Baker turned the ball over to Kent Emanuel to wrap things up with the significant lead. He did so, despite allowing a two-run home run to former-Astro Teoscor Hernandez in the top of the ninth to make the score 10-4. The win kept the Astros above .500 and two games back of the A's, who sit atop the AL West standings.

Up Next: The middle game of this series will be a 6:10 PM start Saturday night. The pitching matchup will be Steven Matz (4-2, 4.78 ERA) for Toronto and the electric Cristian Javier (3-0, 1.75 ERA) for Houston.

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