PH Women's Nat'l Football team faces AFF challenge
At the practice of the women's national team, a once-familiar sight is in view: players on the sidelines, with their feet and legs slathered in mud, from the cleats all the way to the hips.
In this day and age of plastic grass, you hardly see players getting down and dirty. But that's exactly what coach Buda Bautista's girls are doing on a Friday evening at the University of Makati as they tackle the NCAA champions, San Beda in a practice scrimmage. By the way, that's the San Beda men's team. The Mendiola squad doesn't have a ladies team.
The national team is up against tough lady opposition in the upcoming ASEAN Football Federation women's championship in Vietnam in May.
Just like the men in the 2014 Suzuki Cup, the Philippines will face a difficult match against the home team in Ho Chi Minh city as well as games against Myanmar and Malaysia.
The Philippines' senior women's team has not played since the 2013 SEA Games when they lost to Vietnam and Myanmar.
Bautista knows that the opposition will be stiff. She said as much as at the press conference last Thursday, saying her team will “try to control the scoreline” if they can't get into the semifinals.
If the Philippines does reach the final four, things will only get more difficult, as Australia's U20 side is in the other group. Australia was recently admitted into the ASEAN Football Federation but as agreed they will only be sending youth teams first to senior competitions.
Does this women's team matter in the greater scheme of things? In my opinion, yes.
I worked in the advertising industry for fifteen years, and winning creative awards was always a big aim of many agencies. One strategy to win silverware is to enter work in categories that are not usually getting a lot of attention, for example radio commercials in an automotive category, or “below-the-line” non-traditional ads for banks. That way there could theoretically be a better chance at a trophy.
The same thinking can be applied to Pinoy football. Men's senior football gets the lion's share of the buzz in the Philippines. But there are age-group tournaments too, plus futsal and beach soccer. And of course there is the women's game. And it was in a women's age-group category where the Philippines came up big last year.
The Philippines' girls U14 side, coached by Let Dimzon, defied expectations by garnering the silver in last year's U14 ASEAN competition, defeating Myanmar in the semis and just falling to Thailand 2-1 in the final. Davaoeña Joyce Semacio was named tournament MVP. If the girls are developed correctly, it could be the start of a golden generation for Pinay football.
A good showing by the current senior team just might help pave the way for Dimzon's girls as they get older. (Dimzon will be Bautista's assistant for the campaign in May along with former WNT standout Patrice Impelido.) They certainly have plenty of experienced players ready to do battle.
Captain Inna Palacios, DLSU's goalie, will marshal the defense that could be led by Marie-Navea Huff of UP. Filipina-American central mid Raylene Larot also returns. Natasha Alquiros is in the mix as is striker Marianne Narciso. Another weapon is Jessie Shugg, a 23-year old Filipina-Canadian from Burlington, Ontario, who has been with the national team since 2013.
Shugg has played with the University of Miami in US NCAA's division 1, which is a breeding ground for the USA's vaunted WNT, which has won the FIFA World Cup twice.
Shugg will play in the withdrawn striker position and when asked about her game, she says with a smile, “I'm fast.”
The only player who will be flying in for the competition late is striker Joana Houplin, a member of the women's team of the Seattle Sounders. Houplin is a lethal scorer with plenty of national team experience. Work commitments prevent her from coming earlier.
The majority of the team is homegrown, with a big chunk of them coming from UAAP schools. Alquiros, who herself is from DLSU, thinks that is a very good development.
“You have girls from so many different schools, not just one. I hope we stay together for a long time,” says the veteran.
Undoubtedly one of the strengths of the team is their closeness. There were muted guffaws from the players when Bautista referenced the team's “100% chemistry” off the field during last Thursday's press conference. It appears the girls, who have been quartered together during the training camp phase, may be having a bit too much fun at times.
“It's so nice to see this team click,” adds Palacios.
“I'm really more comfortable with this team,” adds the keeper who has both senior and U19 national team appearances.
“But they need to bring that (togetherness) onto the pitch,” says Bautista. “The girls need to communicate more during games.”
Tactically, Bautista is keeping it simple.
“We want to integrate the concept of the diamond, to support the wings and the top of the formation,” said the coach. “We want to play a strategy based on our opponents. Either we play direct or we play to one side. We also need to preserve our energy in the games.”
The ladies play Malaysia on May 2, Myanmar two days later, then finish off with the hosts Vietnam on the sixth. The top two proceed to the semifinals.
Flashback to the scrimmage against San Beda. The boys have been told not to tackle less aggressively just because they are playing against women. But the Bedans are using their superior speed and quickness to build a 3-0 lead late.
Then the women get a late breakaway chance, with Marianne Narciso surging forward and slotting past the San Beda goalie. And two dozen mud-caked girls erupt in celebration on the Umak track.
The girls pull one back from the boys. It's a good omen for a team on the rise.
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.