Philippines Football League previews: Ceres, Aguilas, Global, and Ilocos United
The Philippines Football League is almost upon us. The competition, a quadruple round-robin affair, begins on Saturday, May 6, and will finish with a playoff round in November. The action promises to be very intense, as the teams appear closely matched. Let's take a look at each of them closely. The teams are listed in alphabetical order.
Home field: Panaad Park and Stadium
The 2016 UFL League runners-up have a huge advantage over the other sides. They have been playing competitive matches in the AFC Cup for months while other teams have laid fallow. On Wednesday they defeated Tampines Rovers in their last group game to qualify for the ASEAN zonal semis. While they seek Asian glory, Ceres will continue to work towards success in the PFL.
The Busmen have, as always, beefed up in the offseason with huge signings that have more than offset the departure of striker Adrian Gallardo to Maldivian side New Radiant.
Stephan Schrock is back in Bacolod. After his loan deal expired he returned to Greuther Furth in Germany but has now returned to Ceres, presumably on a permanent deal. Schrock's work rate and ability to play multiple positions in the formation makes an already strong team even more daunting for opponents.
Simone Rota made the leap from Stallion to Ceres in the offseason. He is still working towards fitness but will likely be good to go soon after the season starts. The Fil-Italian veteran can play just about anywhere in the back line.
A surprise pick up for coach Hristo Vidakovic is Fil-Iranian-Swede Omid Nazari. The striker scored 8 times for Global in their glorious 2016 campaign and now he suits up for their archrivals in Bacolod after a very brief stint in Melaka United in Malaysia.
Nazari is a tall, rangy, and explosive goal machine who will terrorize defenses this year along with their new Spanish striker Fernando Rodriguez. Another Spaniard, Super Herrera, is on defense.
Ceres also now have Iain Ramsay, the Fil-Aussie who scored that magical goal against Tampines in the AFC Cup and will look to do the same in the PFL. Another new scoring threat is OJ Porteria who comes to the team from Kaya.
Other new players include mid Jorrel Aristorenas, defender Josh Grommen, defender Junior Muñoz, utility player Luke Woodland, and goalie Roland Muller. Muller gets his first taste of local league play after sitting out last year because of the cancellation of the transfer window in the UFL. These new cogs, along with mainstays Kevin Ingreso, Manny Ott, and a healthy Carlie De Murga, make the team a big favorite to win it all, even with Patrick Reichelt still recovering from injury.
Home field: Davao del Norte Sports Complex
The expansion side has been busily signing quality players to make this first season one to remember.
Dylan De Bruycker, a 19-year old Fil-Belgian, will be a key player for Davao. He can create with either foot and even at his young age displays a tremendous physique. De Bruycker looks to impress both for Davao and the U22 team in the SEA Games.
Coach Gary Phillips will rely on Trinidadian Darren Mitchell to deliver pace from the midfield while Serbian goalie Marko Trkulja and countryman Milos Krstic, a centerback, will try to shut down opposing attackers.
The most intriguing signing is defender Jason Cordova. The 31-year-old from Santa Barbara Iloilo has an interesting CV. He played for the Azkals in the 2008 Challenge Cup qualifiers in Iloilo. Won a UAAP title with FEU a couple of years later, playing striker. Played for Stallion then captained Ceres when they won a SMART PFF title soon after. Then became an assistant coach in Bacolod before exiting and ending up with Leylam FC in the Cebu league. Now he is back in the top tier.
When he is healthy and focused, Cordova is a beast in the back, and gives Davao the luxury of having an internationally-experienced and internationally-sized veteran central defender without using a foreigner slot. Another one who fits that description: Junell Bautista from Baguio. Bautista never played in the UAAP or NCAA but has been with the youth national teams for years and will likely be in the SEA Games as well.
Davao has plenty of other UFL vets, like Gerald Layumas and Nico Macapal, both on loan from Green Archers United along with goalie Kim Versales.
The team has also done very well to acquire young talent from Mindanao. FEU's Van Rey Diaz is on the roster as is Princeton Josue, who scored in their preseason camp in Singapore. (Yes, owner Jeff Cheng did bring them to the Lion City for the preseason, that's how serious he is.) Ditto for Misamis Oriental product Richard Talaroc, who has AFC Cup experience with Global.
The Aguilas have one hometown hero in Tagum native Alexis Cabistante. His technical ball skills are magnificent, according to Fil-Aussie teammate Patrick Elhindi, himself a very skilled player who previously played for the youth sides of Belenenses and Levante.
Other weapons include ex-Global player Andy Esswein, a Fil-German, and erstwhile Ceres striker Nate Burkey.
Elhindi also speaks warmly of Phillips, a very experienced coach who previously mentored in Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and Vietnam as well as his home country. The gaffer is a stickler for details who has helped Elhindi with the fine points of his game.
Cheng and his management staff are dead serious about being competitive in this league. Although they are a new side, a top 4 finish is a realistic goal.
Home field: Cebu City Sports Complex
Like Ceres, Global has a head start in the league, having played in the AFC Cup. On Wednesday they completed their group stage with a handsome 3-1 win over Cambodia's Boeungket Angkor to qualify for the ASEAN Zonal semis. Global are looking razor-sharp and appear to be dead set on lifting the first PFL championship trophy.
Misagh Bahadoran may still be working himself to full fitness but new Japanese signing Shu Sasaki is making waves with his pace and power. Ditto for Filipino-Japanese Hikaru Minegishi, their sensational left winger. Darryl Roberts of Trinidad is also a find for coach Toshiaki Imai as he has found the net for the team in the AFC Cup. Meanwhile Paul Mulders is enjoying a fine Indian Summer in his career in the blue and yellow. He scored against the Cambodians last Wednesday.
Other key players are Filipinos Matt Hartmann, Amani Aguinaldo, and Pat Deyto in goal. Jerry Barbaso, who has been the Global right back for almost 7 years, will return to add experience to the defense.
One new player for Imai is Fritz Brigoli. The 19-year old defender has Cebuano and Zamboangueño parents but grew up and learned football in Dubai. Matt Hartmann says he loves his speed, work ethic, and attitude. He also says Brigoli likes playing centerback, which makes him extremely valuable in this league. The club gave him the honor of representing the club in the league's pre-season preview video and on Wednesday he got a late run-out.
The side will eventually play home games in Cebu but as of the moment will enjoy matches in the Manila area while their stadium situation in the Queen City is sorted out.
Global won both the UFL Cup and the UFL League last year. There will be only one competition in the first year of the PFL but expect Global to challenge for that silverware, especially with reports of a new ownership structure and board that promises stability and growth going forward.
Home field: Quirino Stadium
This team was hurriedly cobbled together by owner Tony Lazaro, an English businessman living in Australia, and Aussie Jarred Kelly over the past 6 months. But that does not mean they will be a team that rolls over against the more established clubs.
Coach Ian Gillan, a vastly experienced Scot, signed Anton Del Rosario to his club. The ex-Azkal brings vocal leadership to the back line.
There are plenty of other players with UFL experience. The captain is former U22 NT midfielder/ defender John Kanayama, who also played for Global and Meralco. A fellow Fil-Aussie former youth NT player, Dominic Del Rosario, (no relation to Anton), is also in the roster. Del Rosario was with Kaya last season. Angelo Verheye Marasigan, a speedy Fil-Belgian who has suited up for Ceres and Pasargad in the UFL, has also been roped in.
The Fil-Nigerian Uzoka brothers, Kennedy and Chima, are in Ilocos. Kennedy was last in Green Archers, and is a lanky striker, while his younger brother Chima played for NU in the UAAP in Season 78. Chima is similarly tall and can be a creative force in the midfield. Graham Caygill, late of the Meralco Sparks, appears to be one of their main threats up top.
Perhaps the youngest player in the league will be Nico Nazal, a Fil-American holding midfielder from Atlanta Georgia who is just 16 years old and yet already shows promise. Another Fil-Am, Paolo Pavone, is also in IUFC. He is the brother of Gino, who played for the Philippines in the Long Teng Cup way back in 2010.
The goalkeepers are Ghanaian Baba Sampana, who previously worked for Meralco and Socceroo, and ex CSB netminder Cedric Hodreal.
All indications from the Ilocos camp point to a professionally-run outfit that may be lacking in stars but will give visitors to the Quirino Stadium a torrid ninety minutes of football.
Part two is coming soon, where we tackle JP Voltes Marikina, Meralco Manila, Kaya Makati, and Stallion Laguna. – Rappler.com
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.
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