Soccer notebook

Team USA, others try to lock down World Cup spots tonight in busy week of soccer

Team USA, others try to lock down World Cup spots tonight in busy week of soccer
Christian Pulisic and Team USA have a big game with Trinidad and Tobago tonight. Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Cup qualifying

Leagues around the World took a backseat this weekend as World Cup qualifiers resumed, with 17 of the 32 teams now booked for next summer’s competition.

World Cup Qualifying - CONCACAF

The United States defeated Panama 4-0 in what was a big win because of where both teams were in the table. With the win, the USA move into the top three with a chance to clinch direct qualification on Tuesday night. Costa Rica booked its ticket with a last minute corner to tie 1-1 at home against central american rivals Honduras. Mexico, who was already qualified, defeated already-eliminated Trinidad & Tobago 3-1.

As things stand only one direct ticket is available. An win would put the U.S. in while a draw or loss would complicate things, though anything other than a W would be an upset at this point. The fourth place would clinch a play-in game. Panama and Honduras are currently tied at 10 points which makes the last day of qualifying in CONCACAF must-watch.

World Cup Qualifying - CONMEBOL

Things are definitely interesting in South American qualifying as the gap between second and seventh place is only four points. Only four teams qualify directly with a fifth going to a playoff against New Zealand. Brazil and Uruguay are in meaning only three spots are up for grabs between the likes of Chile, Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Paraguay.

The biggest story is Argentina, considered one of the top national teams in soccer and fielding one of the world’s best two players in Lionel Messi, can’t seem to win at home. Peru went to Buenos Aires and came out with an important 0-0 draw for their World Cup hopes. Copa America champions Chile got a 3-0 win to put themselves back in the qualification zone and Colombia took a hit by losing 2-1 in Paraguay.

World Cup Qualifying - UEFA

Germany will officially return to defend their World Cup title in 2018, not that it’s any surprise. England, Spain, Poland and Serbia also clinched spots over the weekend but the biggest surprise is Iceland. The 2016 UEFA Euro darlings will make their first World Cup appearance next year after a 3-0 win over Turkey.

As things wrap up Tuesday, more teams will clinch direct spots as group winners with the second-place teams going to playoffs for the rest. The biggest drama is in Group A where the Netherlands, the third-place team at the 2014 World Cup, is all but eliminated because of the goal differential it needs to make up to break a potential tie with Sweden.

World Cup Qualifying - CAF, AFC and OFC

In Africa, Egypt is the big story after clinching their first World Cup appearance since 1990. Nigeria is the only other team clinching in the CAF region over the weekend. Australia defeated Syria in the Asia region playoff, awaiting the fourth-place CONCACAF team to play for a World Cup spot. The OFC region, Oceania, had already been decided in September and didn’t have any games in October. New Zealand awaits the South American fifth-place for a shot at the World Cup.

Major League Soccer

Despite the international break, some teams did take part in MLS action over the weekend. The most important result was a 3-0 New York Red Bulls win over Vancouver Whitecaps FC, clinching the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. All six playoff teams in the East are now decided, with only playoff seeding to be decided.

In the Western Conference, only Vancouver has clinched a spot with five places up. Only Kansas City has the opportunity to clinch this coming week if they win or tie at Houston Dynamo on Wednesday.

Soccer Weekend in Houston

Three friendlies took place between Thursday and Sunday at BBVA Compass Stadium. Houston Dynamo lost 3-5 against Mexico City team Cruz Azul in the ninth annual Dynamo Charities Cup, with this year’s proceeds going toward the Hurricane Harvey relief fund.

Liga MX teams faced off on Saturday afternoon with Monarcas Morelia defeating Tigres UANL 2-0. French goalscorer and Tigres forward André-Pierre Gignac was the main attraction and played every minute of the friendly. The 12,000 plus in attendance were mainly Tigres fans.

On Sunday afternoon, a heavy Salvadoran crowd saw their country defeat the Canadian national team 1-0. The match was a homecoming for Houston area product Arturo Alvarez, who returned and captained his national team after an almost two-year hiatus. MLS standouts Cyle Larin and Tosaint Ricketts featured for Canada.

MVP of the Week - Christian Pulisic

The 19-year-old soccer superstar takes the cake for MVP of the Week after scoring the first goal against Panama and assisting on the second to secure the three points in World Cup qualifying. The 4-0 scoreline will lead some to believe that it was a dominant team effort but the rout doesn’t start without the brilliant plays of the Borussia Dortmund starlet. Now holding an automatic spot to the World Cup, all the U.S. have to do is tie on Tuesday in Trinidad & Tobago.

Off the field, Pulisic decided to sign his game-worn jersey and give it to seven-year-old Alex Ibarra. The young fan was in possession of a Dortmund jersey signed by Pulisic and decided to donate it to a raffle benefiting Puerto Rico relief following Hurricane Maria. When Pulisic heard of the gesture, he decided to reward the kid for his generosity.

Upcoming games (All Times CT):

Tuesday, Oct. 10:

1:45 p.m. - Netherlands vs. Sweden (ESPN Deportes)

6:30 p.m. - Ecuador vs. Argentina (beIN Sports Espanol)

6:30 p.m. - Brazil vs. Chile

6:30 p.m. - Peru vs. Colombia

7:00 p.m. - Trinidad & Tobago vs. USA (beIN Sports)

7:00 p.m. - Panama vs. Costa Rica

7:00 p.m. - Honduras vs. Mexico (Telemundo)

Wednesday, Oct. 11:

7:00 p.m. - Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting Kansas City (KUBE 57)

Saturday, Oct. 14:

6:30 a.m. - Liverpool vs. Manchester United (NBC Sports)

9:00 a.m. - Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea (NBC Sports)

9:00 a.m. - Manchester City vs. Stoke City (NBC Sports)

9:15 a.m. - Getafe vs. Real Madrid (beIN Sports)

1:45 p.m. - Atletico Madrid vs. FC Barcelona (beIN Sports)

Sunday, Oct. 15:

6:30 p.m. - Sporting Kansas City vs. Houston Dynamo (KUBE 57)

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(Photo by Jack Gorman/Getty Images)

One presumes the Chicken Littles have stopped clucking about the Astros’ season being a goner, or if not gone, on life support. It wasn’t when they were 7-19. It wasn’t when they were 12-24. It certainly isn’t now that they’ve won six straight games and eight of their last nine. Another three or four weeks of inept play could have doomed them, but the worm has turned. A 20-25 record is no cause for celebration, but it has the Astros within four games of first place. Yes, getting to play the A’s four times this week helped. And?

I detailed the schedule issue on our Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast this week. The Astros were flat lousy for the season’s first six weeks. But… Starting the week the Astros had played a whopping 32 of their 40 games against teams with a winning record as of Monday. The Seattle Mariners had played 23 such games, the Texas Rangers only 16. The Philadelphia Phillies have been sensational so far and are fully legit. But… The Phillies entered the weekend having played three games vs. teams now sporting a winning record. Three! Out of 45 games. Going into this weekend's series only the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Angels had played more games against winning teams than had the Astros. It’s not mere coincidence that the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Angels are the three last place teams in the American League. The Astros were not up to the challenge of their first quarter schedule, but by no means did it render them dead, particularly in the thus far Mild, Mild, American League West.

A good Brewers team visits Minute Maid Park for three games this weekend. The Astros beat their best starter Friday night. Next the Astros get the pathetic Angels here for three before a three-game series at Oakland. Meanwhile the West leading Mariners start a ten-game road trip this weekend: three at the excellent Orioles, four at the excellent Yankees, three at the respectable Nationals. The Astros stand a good chance of overtaking the M’s by the end of this month if they can win the four-game series they open Memorial Day in Seattle.

Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers snapped a five game losing streak Wednesday to eke back over .500 at 23-22. The reigning World Series champs hope to get somewhat well vs. the Angels in Arlington this weekend but dropped the series opener to drop back to .500. For their sake they better because the Rangers then hit the road for Philadelphia and Minnesota.

Naturally, many Astros fans are upset with Ronel Blanco serving a 10 game suspension for illegally using whatever substance on his glove and non-pitching hand. The suspension is basically automatic. The suspension is also not a big problem. Blanco has been fantastic since getting a starting rotation spot only because of Justin Verlander’s delayed start to his season. It’s said that all life owes us is opportunity. Man, did Blanco seize his. With just seven big league starts to his name before entering this season as a 30-year old, Blanco has made eight this season with a sparkling 2.09 earned run average. So, what’s that about the suspension is not a big problem?

Blanco will miss one start and have another pushed back a day or two. That’s just not a big deal. In fact it may be helpful in the bigger picture. With last year being the first time in his professional career that Blanco topped 100 innings pitched (125 1/3), the Astros need to be wary of Blanco’s workload which is on pace to blow past last year’s career-high innings total. J.P. France probably pitched over his head for a while last year, but went well past his prior career-high innings total and faded badly. Cristian Javier was tremendous in 2022 while pitching more than in any previous year, but he pitched even more in 2023 and faded badly.

Alex Bregman lives! After being nearly inconceivably inept through the first quarter of the season, the Alex awakening in the Oakland series was not shocking but most welcomed. Over his first 37 games Bregman had a paltry seven extra base hits. Even with a feeble .201 batting average and .534 OPS, that Bregman had scored just eight runs over those 37 games was hard to believe. Then Monday and Tuesday saw five extra base hits and four runs scored.

In a trade not commanding any headlines, Dana Brown Wednesday sent outfielder Corey Julks to the White Sox for 20-year-old low minor league pitcher Luis Rodriguez. There is now no reason to call it a great Astros trade but Brown made a smart deal. Julks had no future here, hence he would have been released if no deal was struck. Taking a flyer on a young arm can’t hurt. Frankly, the White Sox are dumb to trade a young arm of any promise whatsoever for a 28-year-old outfielder with limited value. Julks was a nice story for parts of last season. The Clear Brook High School grad and UH product had a couple windows of production, highlighted by a sizzling nine game 17 for 34 stretch straddling June and July. Alas, not two weeks later Julks began what would become an 0 for 36 nightmare. He was sent to the minors for good in late-August.

*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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