HARRIS COUNTY - HSA INSIDER

A weekly look at all things Houston sports from the Harris County - Houston Sports Authority: Soccer is growing

A weekly look at all things Houston sports from the Harris County - Houston Sports Authority: Soccer is growing
The U.S., Canada and Mexico are teaming up for the 2026 World Cup. Courtesy photo

The Harris County – Houston Sports Authority Insider will take you inside Houston Sports each Friday because #WeAreHoustonSports!

While most of you spent the week debating quarterbacks, American League MVP or the latest college football poll, a dozen or so square blocks of downtown Houston was focused on just one thing -- soccer.

Specifically taking the game to the next level. Well, make that levels.

Over at BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston Dynamo president Chris Canetti was bouncing from interview to interview in preparation for Tuesday night’s sold-out Western Conference Championship match at home against the Seattle Sounders.

This is his team’s seventh trip to the conference finals in 12 seasons and the first in three years and, no, he hasn’t tired of chatting about the Dynamo’s resurgence. Or about the chance to win a third MLS Cup title.

Meanwhile, a quarter of a mile to the west, representatives from 32 cities and officials from the United Bid Committee were meeting to discuss concepts and roles for an unprecedented three-country bid for the 2026 World Cup.

United Bid communications director Brian Reich said they came into the four days of meetings hoping to come up with one solid concept for the bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico. Instead, they’ve come up with multiple concepts every day and serious momentum for a bid that is due next spring.

“We’ve actually created a problem for ourselves,’’ he said. “We have great concepts, any of which could be transformative in the context of an event like this and we have to figure out how to put it together in a short period of time.’’

Yes, soccer is exploding in H-town. Again.

A decade ago, Canetti remembers a packed crowd rocking

Robertson Stadium to watch the Dynamo knock off the then-Kansas City Wizards.

“There’s no doubt no doubt that evening was a springboard to who we are as a brand,’’ said Canetti of the win that eventually led to a second consecutive MLS title. “It defined us.

“This is a chance for us to do that again.”

The Western Conference matchup sold out of reserved seats last Friday and sold out of standing room only tickets earlier this week.

“It’s going to be a great evening here for soccer and sports fans in the city,’’ Canetti said, “just like it was across the way at Minute Maid during the Astros playoff run.’’

“I think the Astros created a lot of positive energy around the city and around sports so there’s no question that some momentum built up around their magical World Series run, but I would also say we’ve created our own energy with our own success, bringing back the excitement that existed with the Dynamo for so many of our early years.’’

The Dynamo won back-to-back titles in their first two years (2006, 2007) and were in the finals again in 2011 and 2012, but lost to the Los Angeles Galaxy both times. Then, after three hard years, they’re back in the conference finals.

“The place will be rocking,’’ Canetti said. “It will be another moment in our brief history that helps us grow and helps us build.’’

Canetti has seen a steady growth in soccer fans over the years, noting the current base is a much wider group of fans, including Houstonians who don’t know soccer, but love the Dynamo. He sees even more room to expand the base, including drawing in international fans of other teams who move to Houston.

“Over time, we want them to love the Dynamo too,’’ he said.

And, now that the team has been here more than a decade, parents are beginning to pass their passion onto their children.

“I always like to explain it I grew up in Connecticut and I’m a New York Yankees fan,’’ he said. “My grandfather was a Yankees fan, my father was a Yankees fan and they taught me to be a Yankees fan unknowingly. They bought me Yankees caps and we watched Yankees game together on TV and went to Yankees games. So I was molded to be a Yankees fan.’’

It has happened with the Astros and Rockets, he said, so why not the Dynamo?

“Soccer is the fastest growing game in this country, Major League Soccer is the fastest growing league with enormous upside,’’ Canetti said. “When you look at the demographic in this country, it lines up perfect for soccer. When you look at amount of participants on youth and adult level, it’s enormous.’’

That same growth is one of the major reasons the United bid -- #2026United – appears so strong. Reich said FIFA wants to grow the soccer fan base by a billion people over the next decade and a lot of that growth will come from North America.

“The whole soccer global community benefits, in our view, from a United bid,’’ he said. “There’s great growth and engagement in all three countries.’’

The U.S. is now three decades removed from hosting an impressive 1994 World Cup, which still holds the World Cup record for most tickets sold. Mexico has a 75-year legacy of passionate soccer fans and Canada is an emerging soccer nation. If successful, the United bid calls for the U.S. to host 60 of the 80 games, with Canada and Mexico hosting 10 each.

Only 12-16 of the cities meeting here will host games, but all 32 could be involved. Those not hosting games could be home to  training facilities and base camps, for example.

“We want to highlight what makes each of these potential host cities such a powerful, exciting contributor to the United bid as a whole,’’ Reich said.

Organizers chose Houston, one of the 32 cities, to host the meetings after Hurricane Harvey. Reich said it has been the perfect site. Not only is it centrally located for the other cities, but it accommodated all their needs with downtown meeting facilities and hotels and restaurants within walking distance.

“It’s a city a lot of people haven’t seen,’’ he said. “They’re looking out and seeing Minute Maid (Park),  seeing BBVA just off the balcony of the hotel kind of thing and they think of the city as a sports entity. It offered a lot of inspiration for folks.’’

As have those meetings. Reich said all the cities have taken ideas to the next level with their innovative thoughts, sharing them with each other in meetings and networking. The organizers have to spend the next month refining them for the rough draft of the United bid, then, after a few more tweaks, they will submit the final draft in March.

“It’s a truly united bid,’’ Reich said, “which is the power of soccer. It transcends politics and cultural differences . . .It’s not just about 30 days in June and July of 2026. It’s about the next eight years if we get the chance to host and about the legacy we leave behind.’’

And the sport itself.

“If we’re going to build a sport, if you look at the diversity that exists across these three countries,’’ Reich said, “soccer is one of those things that can legitimately unite people.’’

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Coogs beat the Sooners, 87-85. Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images.

Jamal Shead hit a short follow shot with 0.4 seconds left and No. 1 Houston beat Oklahoma 87-85 on Saturday night, giving coach Kelvin Sampson a victory over one of his former schools.

Shead missed a driving layup attempt, but corralled the rebound and put the Cougars back ahead after they blew a 15-point lead. Emanuel Sharp tipped away a desperation pass by Oklahoma’s Milos Uzan as time expired.

“The main thing (on the last shot) was to get it to the rim,” Sampson said. “We weren’t going to shoot anything outside of 5 feet. There were three ways to win that game — a whistle, make the shot or (grab) an offensive rebound and put it in — and we got the third one.”

Sampson credited the result to Houston’s “winning DNA. We had a lot of things go against us tonight. … We were just plugging the holes in the boat up.”

L.J. Cryer led Houston (26-3, 13-3 Big 12) with 23 points, making 5 of 9 3-pointers. J’Wan Roberts added 20 points on 10-of-12 shooting, and Shead scored 14 points. Houston shot 56.7% from the field and Oklahoma was at 52.7%.

Rivaldo Soares had 16 points for Oklahoma (19-10, 7-9). Le’Tre Darthard had 15 points, finishing 5 of 7 from 3-point range.

Sampson coached Oklahoma from 1994 to 2006 and ranks second in program history with 279 wins and first in winning percentage (.719). Before Saturday, he’d never coached against the Sooners, but Houston’s entry into the Big 12 for this basketball season provided that opportunity.

Sampson received a warm welcome as he entered the Lloyd Noble Arena court, with many fans applauding, cheering and standing. Just before player introductions, Sampson and his three assistants with Oklahoma ties — former players Hollis Price, Quannas White and Kellen Sampson, his son — were individually recognized with announcements and pictured on the video board.

“The memories that I will take from here are just amazing,” Kelvin Sampson said. “Oklahoma will always be home in a lot of ways.”

Houston made its first week this season at No. 1 a successful one, with two wins. The Cougars are a game ahead of No. 8 Iowa State in the conference standings with two games left in the regular season and remain in the conversation for the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Houston has won eight of the last nine games it has played as the No. 1-ranked team and is 35-5 overall while atop the AP poll.

Oklahoma dropped its second game of the week against a top-10 opponent, having lost 58-45 at Iowa State on Wednesday night.

The Sooners pushed Houston to the limit. Houston led 67-52 with 12:01 left, but the Sooners methodically closed that gap and Javian McCollum’s layup with 11.8 seconds left tied it at 85. It came after a hustle play by Uzan, who tracked down a rebound off a missed free throw and threw it off the leg of Sharp, allowing it to carom out of bounds.

Oklahoma coach Porter Moser said the vibe in the Sooners’ locker room was “tough. It wasn’t like they were happy to be close. They’re hurting. That’s a good sign. … That’s the elite of the elite and we’ve got to find a way to win that. That’s my job.

“I thought they were resilient battling back. Houston made tough shots, open shots, good shots. They do a lot of good things … but I thought we did too. We played the best team in the country, but we fell short. The margin of error when you play a team that good is small.”

Godwin went 6 of 6 from the field and led Oklahoma with 17 points, missing only the one free throw in six attempts as well. He also had seven rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Houston: Sampson surely appreciated the warm welcome from fans on his return to Oklahoma, but he’s undoubtedly glad to have the emotional game against the Sooners over with. Now he can push the Cougars to focus on finishing the regular season strong and prepare them for the postseason.

Oklahoma: A win over the nation’s No. 1 team might have pushed the Sooners up a line or two in NCAA tournament seeding, but the loss shouldn’t damage their postseason hopes too much. Oklahoma probably needs at least one win next week — at home against Cincinnati or at Texas — to stay comfortably off the NCAA bubble heading into the Big 12 Tournament.

UP NEXT:

Houston: At Central Florida on Wednesday night.

Oklahoma: Host Cincinnati on Tuesday night.

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