The little team that could: How Arellano ruled NCAA Football

JUBILEE. Arellano's head coach, Saluria, celebrates with his boys. Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

JUBILEE. Arellano's head coach, Saluria, celebrates with his boys.

Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – Arellano University's football coach, Ravelo Saluria, is just minutes removed from his team's 2-0 championship game victory against San Beda last Tuesday, January 19, in Rizal Memorial. His jubilant players have just poured a giant jug of ice and water over his head – not a bad idea since the match kicked off a quarter of an hour before noon on a warm day. The veteran mentor from Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo reminisces about how tough things were for his team.

Ang San Beda may mga magagaling na coaches, kami naman may mga mahal na cones,” he recounts with a smile.

(San Beda has the good coaches, we have the expensive cones.)

Saluria reveals that the team often trains in the parking lot/quadrangle of the Arellano campus, oftentimes when cars were still parked in it. Players had to slalom around idle Toyotas and Mazdas to hone their skills.

Such are the issues that this plucky team had to weather enroute to the NCAA Season 91 title, their first in history. The title meant San Beda's dominance of the league's seniors football competition ended at 5 straight championships.

They may not have the glitz and the glamor, the easy access to pitches, the cachet and the recruiting power. But what Arellano does have is the trophy. How they achieved it is one of the early feel-good stories of Pinoy football in 2016.

Everything about this team seems to be throwback, starting with their veteran coach, who, unlike the staff of San Beda, has no coaching license, not even a basic “C” badge. Saluria only has his years of experience playing for Army and leading Philippine Christian University to 3 straight titles at the turn of the millennium. (He is also a former FIFA referee.) The assistant is Ravelo's brother Judy, who former Philippine national team coach Juan Cutillas says was one of the best defenders the country ever produced.

The goalkeeper is Jericho Desalisa, the tallest on the team at 6 foot-plus. He's a bit of an old-schooler himself, preferring to stay home near his line instead of venture out like many modern keepers. He even drop-kicks his clearances.

Their back 4 formation also looks like it's been yanked out of a trunk in the attic. Most teams use a flat back 4 with the two centerbacks side-by-side. But Saluria deploys rookie Patrick Bernarte as the sweeper, anywhere from 5 to 10 meters behind the stopper (the more advanced centerback), Jerome Banasihan.

Saluria says the scheme is ideal for undersized teams, with Bernarte serving as a “space marker,” as he calls it when the stopper ahead is unable to squelch the attack. The scheme leaves two huge triangles of space on either side of the defense for the opponents to exploit, but somehow the Chiefs succeed with this scheme.

Bernarte is slight of build and of stature, nothing like the behemoth centerbacks of other teams. But Saluria saw something in him to convert him from the wing, where he played on Arellano's high school team, to the heart of the defense. The youngster won the league's Best Defender award, so obviously it was one change that bore fruit.

It's in attack that Arellano are both pragmatic and exciting to watch. Robert Corsame, who mans the top of their 442 formation alongside Charles Gamutan, says that they like to practice long ball tactics because its what suits them.

They used that strategy to great effect in the lead up to the final match. Corsame set up Jumbel Guinabang for a score last week against Benilde with a magnificent long diagonal.

Arellano swept the first round, and then during the Christmas break, in between the two rounds, used their secret weapon to stay in shape.

Although Arellano previously trained on their parking lot, last year the school let them use an open field in Lagro, Fairview, owned by the university, to train. Over the Christmas holidays, after the first round and before the second, the Chiefs practiced at the venue that may have been lacking grass in spots but was at least big enough for a serious football team.

LEADER. Robert Corsame of Tondo is one of Arellano's best players. Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

LEADER. Robert Corsame of Tondo is one of Arellano's best players.

Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

In the 4-team second phase, they downed Lyceum 3-0 then came from behind to defeat Benilde 3-2 in overtime. A win versus San Beda in the last second round match would give them the top spot in the second round and the title outright, without the need for a title match.

But a bone-weary Chiefs side were listless last Saturday, January 16, and paid for it. Tactically they played a very flat and compact two banks of 4 in defense and midfield, leaving a space for two or 3 buses to pass between the midfield and the strike force of Gamutan and Corsame. The strikers were thus mostly starved of the ball, with the midfield unable to cope with the withering San Beda pressure.

Arellano were able to take the game to extra time at 0-0. The Lions went ahead before a penalty leveled matters. That set up San Beda's astonishing winning extra-time free kick from Aljo Zabala that sealed the victory and set up Tuesday's titular clash.

See the goal here:

Tuesday was a different story. The match was pretty level for much of the first half, with Arellano showing much better spacing than in the previous game. Then suddenly, it all changed.

Gamutan received a long, looping ball on the left flank and stood on his gas pedal, streaking past the Lions defense and poking past goalie Michael Yuvienco for 1-0.

San Beda chased the game in the second half, leaving them exposed to counterattacks that their excellent keeper, Michael Yuvienco, all repulsed.

But minutes before time Gamutan off-loaded to Guinabang in a dangerous area. The Alaminos, Laguna product skated around a hesitant Lions defense and beat Yuvienco for the dagger blow. 2-0. Game over. Dynasty over. Guinabang was given the Best Midfielder and MVP trophies. 

Three lessons can be learned from this championship.

The first is that coaching experience trumps academic learning. Saluria's only license is the one the LTO issues him that allows him to drive. Beda's youthful head coach, Nhiboy Pedimonte, is a B license who won the title for San Beda last year but couldn't coax another victory from his side this year. Granted, they did suffer injuries to defenders Matt Asong and Neil Dorimon during the season, affect their title defense. Beda was also without strikers Connor Tacagni and Miguel Caindec for the final game. Tacagni was out on yellows and Caindec was hurt. But by the same token Arellano also had their share of injuries.

“Football is common sense,” said Saluria afterwards. “At wala namang new or old. I just made my system adapt to the players.”

The second lesson is that in today's game, speed and quickness can oftentimes trump size. Arellano had no tall defender to corral Ralph Abriol, the towering Beda striker. But they did have speedy players like Corsame, Guinabang, and Gamutan to run rings around the Lions defense.

The third is that oftentimes players with a chip on their shoulder can play out of their skin.

Tao sa tao, dehado kami,” admits Saluria. (Man for man, we are not favored.) He even used the word “cast-off” to describe his players, who come from all over the country.

Gamutan is from Butuan in Mindanao, where former UAAP MVP Step Permanes is from. UP kicked the tires on Gamutan but things didn't pan out, so he landed in Arellano. Corsame is from Tondo, a product of the Futkal program of Peter Amores. Desalisa is an orphan from the Nayon ng Kabataan program in Mandaluyong, who learned football from coach Jesse Landangan. There are kids from Baguio and Laguna as well.

So it was a ragtag bunch that reached the pinnacle of NCAA football. And the core of this team has another challenge in a few weeks: they will represent Cavite in the Smart – PFF National U22 tournament Elite 8 in Bacolod in two weeks. Negros Occidental Coach John Carmona even showed up on Saturday to scout them.

This Arellano team will be together for a while. The core of this team will be intact for next season and beyond. Hopefully with more success this AU team will get the respect they deserve. And maybe, just maybe, they will clear out the cars on the parking space for training sessions next year. – Rappler.com

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.