UAAP 78 football preview: It's anyone's title
MANILA, Philippines – This Sunday will see the start of another season of the country's top university football league. Unlike the last two seasons, it will be played in one calendar year instead of December-to-March.
There is also one big change: for the first time UAAP will have most of its matches in the smallish field in McKinley Hill. Formerly known as Emperador Stadium, the McKinley Hill pitch measures about 97 meters by 60 meters, far smaller than FIFA's preferred size of 105 m by 68 m. This will hinder teams who like to play expansive football from the flanks. One coach thinks FEU will need to adjust the most.
Matches will be played on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, with the Thursday games aired on ABS-CBN Sports+Action. Hopefully the network can also beam the games on their new HD outlet, ABS-CBN Sports+Action HD, which is on channel 166 for Sky Cable subscribers. In previous years UAAP football was available in full 1080p glory in the now-defunct Balls Channel HD.
Whether on SD or HD, the games will no doubt be even closer and more exciting than ever. Let's look at each team, starting with the defending champs, FEU.
Note, final lineups have yet to have been made available to us, so some roster information could be erroneous.
Kim Chul-Su's Far Eastern University Tamaraws are gunning for the first UAAP 3-peat in football since Ateneo did the trick from 2004 to 2006. It was never going to be easy and it got harder last week with the news that midfield engine Arnel Amita will be sidelined, possibly for the entire season, with damage to the ACL and lateral meniscus of his right knee.
Amita's dribbling wizardry and finishing prowess were always a key component of the Tam's success. With him absent in the midfield the onus will be on Azkal Paolo Bugas to create. Bugas is the only current UAAP with full senior caps for the national team.
The Tamaraws receive a boost with the return of Chy Villaseñor from academic exile. The M'lang, Cotabato product is back and will help solidify the defensive third from the holding midfield slot.
Up top the Tams will rely on last year's leading scorer, Eric Giganto, to continue to pepper opposing goal frames with Jhan Jhan Melliza lost to graduation. This is also Giganto's last year. There is also a rookie striker for coach Kim, Dave Deloso from Maco, Compostela Valley, where Amita is from. Deloso proved his worth with a goal in the Ang Liga league final last season.
So there will be challenges for Far Eastern, but other teams would be foolish to take them lightly.
No team could beat Hans Smit's De La Salle University Green Archers last year over 90 minutes. But they still came up short in their bid to end a 17-year title drought when FEU edged them 3-2 in extra time in the final.
Defender Matt Nierras and Nathan Alquiros have used up their eligibility years and have departed, but Smit still has the guns for a title run. Gelo Diamante is a natural-born striker, and on the defensive end goalie Paeng De Guzman inspires comparisons to Patrick Deyto.
Smit has two new toys in Davaoeños Jed Diamante and Javi Romero-Salas, who should create havoc in the wings.
The Indonesian-born Smit is getting closer to acquiring Filipino citizenship. He just might be able to celebrate a new passport with a title this year.
The University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons enter the season with a heavy heart. Last Tuesday midfielder Rogie Maglinas was welcomed into the loving embrace of the Creator after a brief but devastating battle with TB meningitis that his immune system, weakened by chemotherapy, was unable to repulse.
The side will thus have plenty of motivation going into this season, as they hope to honor their fallen team mate with a title.
Coach Anto Gonzales will need to deal with the post-Jinggoy Valmayor era in the form of new striker Rvin Resuma. (Yes, that's how he spells his name.) Resuma has the size to outmuscle defenders.
There are other promising rookies as well, like Bukidnon native Kyle Magdato, who could replace Maglinas on the left side, and Cagayanon JB Borlongan, a speedy attacking threat who played for Gonzales in the U15 national team.
The Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles have retooled in the off-season and could once again contend for the title. Captain Mikko Mabanag is apparently playing his final year of UAAP football and he will have two new mates by his side.
Freshman Jarvey Gayoso is Ateneo's new footballing sensation. A Kiefer Ravena with cleats. Everyone is talking about his game-changing mad skills. He has even scored for the U19 national team against Laos last October. The son of former hoops star Jayvee Gayoso has a big future.
But there's another prized rookie in royal blue this year, Filipino-Japanese Masyu Yoshioka who, says Mabanag, has tremendous upper-body strength and is a terrific passer and finisher.
Combined with last year's rookie of the year Julian Roxas and veteran Emilio Acosta, Ateneo could have one of the most lethal attacking lines in collegiate football.
Another vital cog is Jay Ra Rocha, a towering centerback who looks like he just walked off the Ateneo basketball team.
The National University Bulldogs received a colossal boost in the lead-up to this season: Paolo Salenga is back.
The U23 Azkal, a transferee from Arellano, thought his eligibility years were done after Season 77. A quick check revealed he was wrong, and so he wears the navy and gold for one last campaign. After a stirring 2015, the winger/striker will be brimming with confidence for this season.
Coach Lelem Laranas has a new Baguio product in Marvin Viray, who scored against UP in the Unigames, and another Palaweño prospect in defender Simplicio Mantal. Mantal joins a defense that is already loaded with a tough veteran in Arnel Casil and a technically outstanding right back in Darwin Regala.
Watch out also for the very clever Lawrence Colina, a midfielder from Cebu who is always looking to dish from the center of the park.
When he isn't coaching, Laranas is fond of climbing mountains. The final 4 summit just might be even more within reach than ever before.
The University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers have always looked like a team that could contend for the title. But academic problems have bedeviled them in recent times. Those times could be over.
In Season 78 the Tigers welcome back centerback/holding mid Ronald Batisla-ong back to the fold. The Barotacnon is one of those rarities in the Philippines, a vocal, noisy central defender. Goalie Zaldy Abraham is also good to go.
UST have a terrific pair of midfielders in Marvin “Hapon” Bricenio, who was raised in Japan, and another Barotacnon in Karl Bronda. Even in a heavy loss to Ceres in last year's UFL Cup, Bronda impressed with a string of perfectly-weighted passes.
Allado's issue will be in attack. Gino Clarino it appears will not play this season, and Steven Anotado blew out his knee and is out for a while.
But if the Thomasians can get end product from the returning Patrick O'Neil and Jogi Celiz, they could threaten the top teams.
The University of the East Red Warriors have yet to recover from the loss of Fitch Arboleda two years ago. They haven't had a reliable scorer since and have struggled.
Jeffrey Lacsamana will skipper the squad that also features the afroed Stephane Dagaraga in defense.
The Warriors will draw strength from a finals appearance against UP in the Ang Liga Cup final. (They lost 1-0). Lendon Clores, the keeper, was excellent in that tournament, where he denied San Beda in the semis in a shootout. He will need to be strong this year.
It will be a second year back for the Adamson University Falcons and judging from their debut season, they could be very competitive this year.
Last season they started well, giving some teams problems, had a bad middle of the season, then finished strong with draws against UE and UP.
Coach Nolan Manito says Khristian Paul Melliza, their striker last year, will skip the season with academic issues. That is a big blow, but the Jumo twins, both named Bless Brian, will need to step up. Bless Brian Jumo II is the captain.
Niknok Orcine, a spindly but gifted attacker, is one to watch out for, as is Jackson Ramos.
The goalie is Carl Jupiter Daynos from Gingoog City. While undersized and still in need of game experience, Daynos has terrific reflexes.
The action kicks off on Sunday with FEU taking on UP at 1:30 pm in McKinley Hill, then Ateneo and De La Salle tangle at 7 pm. See the whole men's and women's schedule here.
(LOOK: UAAP Season 78 football schedule)
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.
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