UFL Preview: Can Loyola follow up their 2013 Cup run?

Myke Miravite
The Loyola Meralco Sparks are the odds-on favorites to be the last team standing in the upcoming UFL season, as the Younghusband brothers return to front a revamped lineup

DEFENDING CHAMPS. The Loyola Meralco Sparks hoisted the UFL trophy over their heads last year, but can they make it to the promised land once again? Photo by Mark Cristino/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – When Phil and James Younghusband joined the Loyola Meralco Sparks in 2011, the Quezon City-based outfit suddenly became a superpower. All of a sudden, people were wearing orange jerseys around the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium and fans were expecting nothing less than a silverware for the Younghusbands and co. at the end of the season.

The team formerly known as the Loyola Agila football club would have to wait years before all their aspirations paid off in the form of the 2013 UFL Cup trophy, the squad’s first and only title in the country’s premiere football league. They had their own share of ups and downs, of gains and losses, but now that they finally know the feeling of standing on top of the podium, one question resonates in the league: can they pull off a repeat performance, this time in the longer and more grueling League competition?

The time has come

It seemed like just yesterday when the Younghusband brothers – along with quality players in Matt Hartmann, Chad Gould, Simon Greatwich, Joaco Canas, and Baba Sampana – hoisted the cup at Emperador Stadium. After steamrolling the competition from Day 1 through the semifinals, (they won all their 7 games prior to the finals, scoring more than 70 goals and conceding none) the Sparks hit a speed bump as Pachanga Diliman came out with all cylinders roaring and almost pulled off an upset.

The years of rebuilding for the Sparks fortunately bore fruit as Phil, James, and Gould each scored a goal to nip Pachanga, 3-2, to secure that prestigious but elusive cup for Loyola.

With UFL’s 2014 League competition just around the corner, Loyola is riding high on the momentum and the confidence that their 2013 Cup run has given them. Many believe that this season is Loyola’s to lose. Surely, Global, Kaya, Stallion, and to some extent, Pachanga are contenders for the crown but no other team in the UFL is as hungry and as gifted as the Sparks right now.

The talent is there, but can they match it with the right attitude?

Big gains, big losses

The past week has seen some teams make curious changes in their lineups, Loyola included.

Gould, who had been a force to reckon with in the 2013 Cup competition, was reportedly dropped by the Sparks for the upcoming season. Park Min Ho – best remembered for his 95th minute extra time goal to lift Loyola over Geylang United in the Singapore Cup two years ago – is also leaving the club. So are Jonahan Romero and Aaron de Rama. Mark Hartmann – whom some pundits consider to be among the best free kick specialists in the country – has since been wearing Global’s colors when he decided to switch teams earlier last year. Although Loyola is a deep squad, these losses will surely hurt the club in the long run. Or not.

With Phil on top, Loyola is inarguably (still) one of the most lethal and unforgiving attacking forces in the UFL. His brother, James, gives the squad the steady force wherever he is put on the pitch. Mark’s older sibling Matthew Hartmann – who can also play solidly on defense – is one heck of an all-in-one punch, and the Sparks’ Korean contingent in Byeong Yeol Jeong and Lee Joo Young are definitely no pushovers.

Loyola, however, had one chink in the armor – its defense.

For years, former Loyola coach Kim Chul-Su and his successor, Vincent Santos, searched for answers to cover up the team’s Achilles heel. While Loyola can produce tons of goals up front, they were also conceding goals on the other end.

The Sparks tried to solve this problem by shuffling their players around. They moved Gould from offense to the backline. That did not work. They experimented with James and Greatwich taking the roles at fullback. That did not work either. They signed hard-nosed defender Peter Fadrigalan to buff up the team’s backline. Still, it did not work.

During those years, they always made it to the podium but they never got to raise a trophy, no thanks to their rather flimsy backline. They finished 3rd in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 UFL league. They were runners-up in the 2011 UFL Cup but dropped to third in its 2012 edition. In the Singapore Cup, they ended up fourth in 2012 and got booted out in the quarterfinals a year later.

Loyola finally got tired of that and came up with an answer to their perennial backline problem. The addition of Spaniard Joaco Canas to the Sparks defense proved fruitful and meant that Gould can now return to his more comfortable position on top. Sam Bonney, Roxy Dorlas, Greatwich and Fadrigalan suddenly found their groove and Sampana proved to be a revelation between the sticks in the last Cup competition.

This rebuffed backline posted clean sheet after clean sheet in the UFL Cup. In all their 8 games, they only conceded two, both goals in the finals. Only Ariel Zerrudo of Pachanga was able to breach Loyola’s defense. With this bold move, the Sparks have been rewarded with nothing less than their first-ever major trophy.

The Big Orange Machine?

Come the 2014 UFL Season, all eyes will be on Loyola as they remain one of the favorites to win it all when the final league match has been played. Other teams will be marking their calendars red whenever they go up against the Big Orange Machine.

One thing they should be keeping on their minds though: the League, unlike the Cup, is a marathon not a sprint. -Rappler.com

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