ON THE PITCH

Weekly soccer report: Kane finishes as 2017 top scorer, Premier League drama kicks off World Cup Year

Club America fans were in high spirits as they witnessed their team win 4-0 over Liga MX rival Toluca on Saturday, December 30, 2017 at BBVA Compass Stadium. Jorge Clara/Deporte Total USA

Soccer fans worldwide are rejoicing as 2018 - a World Cup year - is finally here with the most important tournament in the sport taking place in less then six months. As for the holiday season, the Premier League took much of the attention this week with action from Boxing Day opening the new year with high drama. This was the week in soccer:

Premier League

Boxing Day action got under way with a historic accomplishment as Harry Kane bagged a hat-trick against Southampton to bring his 2017 tally to 39 - breaking Alan Shearer’s 1995 record of 36 Premier League goals in a calendar year. The accomplishment also grabbed headlines because it made Kane Europe’s top scorer for the year, and the first player not named Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo to do so this decade.

On the manager’s end, Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger broke a record of his own as he surpassed the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson for most matches managed in the Premier League. Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal has been a topic of discussion for a few seasons as supporters have grown frustrated not seeing their team win the league since 2004 and failing to qualify for the Champions League this last season.

Liverpool stood out most this week with 5-nil thrashing of Swansea on Boxing Day, a 2-1 win over Leicester on Saturday and a 2-1 win on New Year’s Day thanks to a stoppage time winner by Ragnar Klavan. Chelsea easily won two straight while Manchester City had a 1-0 win over Newcastle and a ni-nil draw against Crystal Palace.

Manchester United were - of the top clubs - under the most scrutiny after being eliminated from the Football League Cup by Bristol City and the scrutiny heightened with two league draws to end the year. United bounced back on New Year's Day as Paul Pogba led the Reds to a 2-0 win at Everton.

Honorable mention goes to Burnley, who despite their last minute loss to Liverpool on New Year’s, held Manchester United and Huddersfield to draws and are quietly in seventh place behind the top teams in the Prem. Leicester City began the year with a 3-0 win over Hudderfield and are in eighth place, a great turnaround considering their start to the season.

Top 5: Manchester City (59), Manchester United (47), Chelsea (45), Liverpool (44), Arsenal (38)

La Liga

No action in Spain over the weekend as clubs took a holiday break. The league returns this weekend as clubs begin the second half of the season. Before then, 12 La Liga teams will take part in the Copa del Rey round of 16 first leg matches on Wednesday and Thursday.

The 5: Barcelona (45), Atlético Madrid (36), Valencia (34), Real Madrid (31), Sevilla (29)

Bundesliga

Still another week of winter break in the Bundesliga before clubs even return for domestic cup action.

Top 5: Bayern Munich (41), Schalke 04 (30), Dortmund (28), Bayer Leverkusen (28), RB Leipzig (28)

Ligue 1

No league play in France this weekend but many Ligue 1 clubs will take part in the domestic cup as the Coupe de France round of 64 takes place. Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco, Lyon and Nantes will all be on the road as they look to advance to the next round.

Top 5: Paris Saint-Germain (50), Monaco (41), Lyon (41), Marseille (38), Nantes (33)

Serie A

Four draws this weekend in Italy’s top flight and wins by the top two combine to make it look as if Italy is turning into a two-horse race. Given what has happened this season in Italy, it would be hard to discount Inter Milan and Roma but it does look like Napoli and Juventus have hit their stride after early bumps in the road. Inter Milan and Lazio battled to a scoreless draw in the only match between top teams this weekend. Inter were eliminated from the Coppa Italia midweek by rivals A.C. Milan, who did not translate their cup win over to league play. The once great Milan are winless in seven of their last nine league games and sit 11th in the standings.

The top 5: Napoli (48), Juventus (47), Inter Milan (41), Roma (39), Lazio (37)

Liga MX

Houston was host to a Liga MX preseason bout as Club America defeated Toluca 4-0 at BBVA Compass Stadium. Oribe Peralta - who will most likely be a part of Mexico’s World Cup squad this summer in Russia - scored twice as Silvio Romero and new signing Henry Martin scored the other two. Joe Corona, who won the CONCACAF Gold Cup with the U.S. men’s national team last summer, also got some playing time with his new club.

The second half of the Liga MX calendar kicks off this weekend with the Clausura 2018 season. Among the matches to watch will be a rematch of last month’s playoffs between Monterrey and Monarcas Morelia. Defending champions Tigres will go on the road, after a short preseason, to take on Puebla. Pachuca-Pumas UNAM, Toluca-Guadalajara and Queretaro-America will also be matches to keep an eye on. Portuguese manager Pedro Caixinha - who won the Clausura 2015 title with Santos Laguna - will debut as the new manager of Cruz Azul as he returns to Mexico following a stints in the Qatari and Scottish first divisions.

 

Dynamo duo in Charity Match 

Hondurans Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto, both forwards who recently finished their first year with the Houston Dynamo, were in their native country taking part in a charity match to raise funds for a friend with health issues. The all-star game of sorts was co-hosted by the Dynamo duo alongside former Premier League midfielder Wilson Palacios at Palacios' sports complex in the northern city of La Ceiba. Elis and Quioto led a young squad composed of teammates from the 2015 FIFA U20 World Cup Honduras team to a 4-2 win over Team Palacios. The cost of admission was 50 Lempiras (USD $2.11).

Elis was named the club's 2017 Player's Player of the Year after helping the Dynamo to their first MLS Cup Playoffs since 2013. Elis scored 10 goals in the regular season and an extra time winner in the knockout round of the playoffs against Sporting Kansas City. Quioto had seven goals off his own, including three in the first three games of the season. Both will be back with the team when the Dynamo begin preseason at the end of this month.

Upcoming Matches (All Times CT):

Tuesday, Jan. 2:

1:45 p.m. - [Premier League] Swansea vs. Tottenham (NBC Sports)

1:45 p.m. - [Coppa Italia] Napoli vs. Atalanta (GolTV)

Wednesday, Jan. 3:

1:45 p.m. - [Premier League] Arsenal vs. Chelsea (NBC Sports)

1:45 p.m. - [Coppa Italia] Juventus vs. Torino (GolTV)

Thurday, Jan. 4:

12 p.m. - [Copa del Rey] Celta Vigo vs. Barcelona (beIN Sports)

2 p.m. - [Copa del Rey] Numancia vs. Real Madrid (beIN Sports)

2 p.m. - [Premier League] Tottenham vs. West Ham (NBC Sports)

Friday, Jan. 5:

11 a.m. - [Serie A] Chievo vs. Udinese (beIN Sports)

1:45 p.m. - [Serie A] Fiorentina vs. Inter Milan (beIN Sports)

1:55 p.m. - [FA Cup] Liverpool vs. Everton (FS1)

1:55 p.m. - [FA Cup] Manchester United vs. Derby County (FS2)

7 p.m. - [Liga MX] Puebla vs. Tigres UANL (Univision Deportes)

9 p.m. - [Liga MX] Atlas vs. Leon (Univision Deportes)

Saturday, Jan. 6:

6:45 a.m. - [FA Cup] Fleetwood vs. Leicester City (FS1)

9 a.m. - [FA Cup] Manchester City vs. Burnley (FS1)

9 a.m. - [Serie A] AC Milan vs. Crotone (beIN Sports)

12:30 p.m. - [FA Cup] Norwich City vs. Chelsea (FS1)

1:45 p.m. - [Serie A] Cagliari vs. Juventus (beIN Sports)

5 p.m. - [Liga MX] Cruz Azul vs. Tijuana (Univision Deportes)

7 p.m. - [Liga MX] Pachuca vs. Pumas UNAM (Univision Deportes)

Sunday, Jan. 7:

8 a.m. - [FA Cup] Schrewsbury vs. West Ham (FS1)

10 a.m. - [FA Cup] Notthingham Forrest vs. Arsenal (FS1)

10 a.m. - [La Liga] Barcelona vs. Levante (beIN Sports)

12 p.m. - [Liga MX] Toluca vs. Guadalajara (Univision Deportes)

1:45 p.m. - [La Liga] Celta Vigo vs. Real Madrid (beIN Sports)

1:45 p.m. - [Coupe de France] Rennes vs. Paris Saint-Germain (beIN Sports Connect)

5 p.m. - [Liga MX] Queretaro vs. Club America (Univision Deportes)

 

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Yordan Alvarez provided the offense to back up more stellar pitching by the Astros as they took ALCS game 6 to advance to the 2021 World Series. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After splitting the first two games of this series in Houston then falling behind in the series 2-1 by dropping the first of three games in Boston, the Astros took over the ALCS in Games 4 and 5, sending them back to their home crowd with a chance to finish things off in Game 6 at Minute Maid Park. After another stellar performance by their pitching staff and more timely hitting, they would accomplish that mission, winning the series and moving on to the 2021 World Series.

Final Score: Astros 5, Red Sox 0

ALCS Series (Best of Seven): Houston wins 4-2

Winning Pitcher: Luis Garcia

Losing Pitcher: Nathan Eovaldi

Houston strikes first to start tightly-contested Game 6

After a scoreless top of the first inning by Boston's offense, the Astros capitalized on a chance to be first to score in the bottom of the frame. Alex Bregman started the two-out rally, reaching base on a single against Nathan Eovaldi for the first hit of the night. Yordan Alvarez followed, delivering his sixth RBI of the series with a double to put Houston on top 1-0.

That did not spark further immediate scoring, as the one-run score held while both starting pitchers provided solid outings for their team. For Eovaldi, he was able to limit Houston to just that single run through four frames. He returned in the bottom of the fifth, facing two batters, allowing a single, and getting a strikeout to end his night.

Garcia impresses in big start

For the home team, they were recipients of another expectation-exceeding performance from one of their young arms. Only anticipated to go a handful of innings, Luis Garcia worked efficiently and effectively against Boston, keeping them scoreless and hitless through five innings. He continued in the sixth, getting two more outs before allowing a two-out triple, ending his night as Phil Maton would enter to strand the tying run. Garcia's final line: 5.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K, 76 P.

With both teams dipping into their bullpens, the Astros took advantage of Boston's as Yordan Alvarez's dominance went on display once again. He led the inning off with a triple, then scored on a double-play ball to extend Houston's lead to 2-0. Kendall Graveman took over on the mound in the top of the seventh and worked himself into a big moment. He gave up a one-out walk, followed by a single, which put runners on the corners for Boston. He continued to struggle with the zone, falling behind the next batter 3-1, but was able to battle back to get the strikeout paired with a terrific throw by Martin Maldonado to cut down the runner from first trying to steal second, ending the inning and maintaining the two-run advantage.

Astros headed to the World Series

Ryne Stake was Houston's next reliever, and he put Houston three outs away by getting a 1-2-3 eighth. With Ryan Pressly warming, he watched and hoped that his offense could give him some more insurance to work with when he went to the mound in the top of the ninth. His wish would be granted, as after getting two on base, Kyle Tucker would put a major exclamation point on the night's offense, hitting a three-run opposite-field homer to the Crawford Boxes to push the lead to 5-0.

Pressly, now with the five-run lead, came on to try and start the celebration by getting the final three outs. Against the tougher part of Boston's order, he would get a 1-2-3 inning, giving the Astros the American League pennant, which along with those won in 2017 and 2019, puts them back in the World Series for the third time in five years.

Up Next: The Astros will have three days off before The Fall Classic kicks off. While Game 1 will be on Tuesday, October 26th, nothing else has yet been determined as Houston awaits to see which of the Dodgers and Braves will advance out of the NL, which will also dictate if the Astros will host or travel to World Series Game 1.

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