Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

2013 United Football League preview: the challenge of change

The challenge of change.
by rick olivares

With the Philippine football landscape constantly shifting, the UFL is not immune to these changes. And if there is a line that will describe this league season, we will have to borrow a line from that Bob Dylan classic that says,  “the times they are a changing”.

There’s the usual player movement, the coaching carousel, and the emergence of new faces. With all these changes, the question is, what team can get its act together the soonest and make an early run?

Change begins from the top
Four of the 10 Division One clubs made changes to the people manning the sidelines.

During the PFF Smart National Club Championship, one could see clubs like Global, Kaya, Nomads, and Loyola still adjusting to the coaching changes as well as the new faces. All four coaches will bring different philosophies to their teams.

Global (2012 season: Champion 13-3-2)
OUT Dan Palami (but he slides back into his familiar role as team manager and owner)
IN Brian Reid as head coach

The Scottish football great is arguably the biggest coaching name in Philippine football to date. Brought in to help the club especially for its AFC President’s Cup campaign later this year, Reid’s biggest task is to keep this juggernaut going. Easily, they are the cream of Philippine club football having garnered the lion’s share of silverware in the last three years. They surrendered their UFL Cup but annexed the league title by season’s end. Reid’s appointment also hopes to bring a close to the coaching rigodon of this club that has seen four changes from Frank Muescan to Graeme MacKinnon to Edwin Cabalida to Dan Palami in the last year and a half.

Global’s lineup from the past season all the way to the recently concluded UFL Cup was deep from the starting eleven all the way to the bench. But they discarded a lot of them including national player Demetrius Omphroy and super subs Kevin Capolei and Fidelis Nnabuife. Defender Juani Guirado is back in Spain and that has given other players more playing time if not chances to shine. It is interesting to what Brian Reid will do with this leaner but no less dangerous club. Look to Carli de Murga to become a scoring force for Reid.

Kaya (2012 season: 2nd 13-3-2)
OUT Kale Alvarez
IN Maur Rozen

Rozen’s appointment as head coach comes after talks with former Azkals head coach Simon McMenemy did not progress. Rozen, an Uruguayan replaces the youthful Kale Alvarez who did well on an interim basis for the club steering them to a second place finish in the league and a quarterfinals berth in the UFL Cup. There have been no big name signings for Kaya other than the inclusion of defensive back Janrick Soriano who will shore up the spotty defense at the back. Soriano has excellent pedigree as he won starting slots and titles with Global and Pachanga. Rozen lost a lot of big names from Jason Sabio to Prince Boley as well as he looks to make do with his holdovers.

The saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same” applies to this club. The lineup changed more by subtraction than by addition. Jason Sabio is gone as is Lexton Moy who was highly influential in the middle (as was Boley). Adrian Semblat is now with Nomads as well. Like Global, Rozen will promote other players like Junior Muñoz who hardly got any playing time last season under Alvarez.

Based on Kaya’s recent play and the demotion of Anton Ugarte and Toshi Hosoe to the bench, it has become pretty obvious that OJ Porteria will become their most influential player. But football isn’t about one man. Look for this club to build on its huge breakthrough win against Loyola in the PFF Smart National Club Championship. If they can replicate that game and apply it to every fixture, Kaya will be right up to the final bell slugging away.

Loyola (2012 season: 3rd 11-4-3)
OUT Kim Chul So
IN Vincent Santos

For all the firepower and big names on their lineup it is disappointing for their management and fans that this club has not won any major silverware in the last year and a half. They have done well but have always come up short.

The ascension of former national player Vince Santos as head coach looks to solve the communication problems the club had with former coach Kim Chul So.

The question many ask is his experience. Does he have enough of it to steer this team to a title? They lost Anto Gonzales back to Pachanga and he came up huge for the Sparks last season. In return, they picked up former national striker Freddy Gonzalez who has yet to blend well with this team and former Pachanga defender Jalsor Soriano. Longtime Kaya icon Armand Del Rosario is in the lineup and will provide this team with veteran smarts and leadership. Del Rosario was in superb shape during the cup while with Kaya. If he can maintain that form then he will be a huge addition to Loyola. Gonzalez bombed out with Pachanga during UFL Cup play. If he can come in superb shape and provide another scoring threat up front, Loyola will be difficult to beat. Defenders cannot simply knock down Phil Younghusband now because they will have to contend with multiple scoring threats.

The additions of these players give Loyola flexibility to put players around. It’s allowed them to place Phil Younghusband in the middle where he has thrived a as a distributor for forwards like Mark Hartmann and Chad Gould. The move has made Loyola more fluid in its attack. However as always, their Achilles’ Heel is their defense.

For Vince Santos is to mold this team into championship form, they have to ratchet up their defense and to come out strong every time.

Nomads (2012 season: 7th 4-7-7)
OUT Michael Denison
IN John Jofre

When talking about challenges, for Nomads it’s all about fielding a proper team of players. It’s mostly expat club who are all full time business professionals who are top officials of different multinationals. So that means practices let alone games make it impossible to field a complete roster.

But no excuses. After their inaugural stint in Division One football, they know what the league is all about. Jofre comes in with a football pedigree and makes him another huge Scottish signing in the UFL.

Nomads made a name for itself as a tough team – solid in the back and tough in the middle with Phil Connolly. If Connolly is healthy, the forwards will find themselves with some forward balls to latch on to. But the club cannot entirely depend on one man. Look to Selu Lozano to provide more toughness for this club that is sorely in need of it. However, the onus is on Jofre to get their slick passing midfield to dominate and provide deep threats.

Holding patterns: making do with what we have
Six of the 10 Division One clubs opted to not make changes at the top. And more than that, they have kept their lineups mostly intact with one or two choice additions. However, perhaps, that is an understatement.

Stallion (2012 season: 4th 8-5-5)
How does this club build on its UFL Cup title? Well, they added a little star power with the addition of Daniel Matsunaga (Pachanga), Fabio Ide (Sta. Lucia), and Andrew Wolff (Sta. Lucia). Don’t think that the three were merely added to give the girls something to cheer for as the three are good footballers. Wolff, the Philippine Volcano player, showed his skills during last year’s Clear Dream Match.

But what a build up for this team that has seen its metamorphosis from a strictly Iloilo-based club to a more cosmopolitan side with its Korean players (based in Iloilo City) and Spanish additions from International de Madrid. They have simply gotten better with every tournament and that culminated in a UFL Cup title.

What Nierras did was to add a few more weapons without sacrificing for quality. There’s the speedy Prince Boley from Kaya who will help up front while Jerome Etoundi, the former Global keeper, will backstop stud netminder Wilson Muñoz.

This team is already darn solid their foreign players complementing top local players in forward Ruben Doctora Jr., Bervic Italia, and Muñoz. The challenge for Nierras, it’s just making sure that everyone gets their playing time and chemistry down pat.

Air Force (2012 season: 5th 7-4-7)
That league record sure sounds symmetrical -- 747. This is a team in transition not to mention in a flux. After the high of winning the 2011-12 UFL Cup, they fell by the wayside in league play and the ensuing 2012 UFL Cup. This proud club also saw its longtime icon Chieffy Caligdong move to Green Archers United.

There have been rumors of internal strife and dissension but at the end of the day, Air Force is coming to play with key additions. They add former Stallion players Vince Braga, Antonio Albor, and Francis Gustilo who saw their playing time plummet with the arrival of the Koreans and Spaniards. They will want to prove themselves. 

The biggest and most obvious changes in Air Force will be at forward and at goal. With Yanti Bersales finally hanging up his boots, Vince Braga, who can play multiple positions will play alongside Araneta. The other is the departure of longtime netminder Tats Mercado who made a huge name for himself during his epic stand against Loyola in the 2011 UFL Cup where he stopped 26 shots. In his place is Kenneth Dolloso who has lived a semi-charmed kind of life. He won championships with Global and with the old Pachanga before tending Pasargad’s nets last season. He left PSG when he thought that there would be a reunion of his old Pachanga team in Sta. Lucia. When the “reunion” did not materialize, Dolloso, without a home, made his way to Air Force where the team has once more become proudly a homegrown and Illonggo club.

The challenge for second year head coach Sgt. Edzel Bracamonte is to instill that confidence and belief that they can still be an elite football club.

Pasargad (2012 season: Last season 6th 7-3-8)
The change in Pasargad is obvious as they are now known as “PSG”. One can make all the Paris St. Germain and Presidential Security Group jokes about the acronym but no one is laughing because of the prowess of this club. They came on strong in the league during the second round and their run to the finals of the PFF Smart National Club Championship is testament to their ability.

PSG is moving to a more homegrown and Filipino club but until that happens, given the loss of Shayan Jafari Dastjerdi, Masood Shahdideh, and Ken Dolloso, this club’s success will be dependent on the play of brilliant midfielder Hamed Hajimehdi and defenders Reza Amirkhizan and Jaham Taher. If these three can keep their heads in the ballgame (as does goal keeper Reza Ataei), they’ll be a top team. The same goes for Charles Ujam who plays well when the spirit moves him. He’s like the Mark Hartmann of PSG – tall, rangy, tracks back well, and can pass. But the key as always is consistency and spirit. Just like the rest of the team.

Emmanuel MBata is a good addition up front to replace Shayan but the loss of Masood will hurt too. MBata and Promise Jolomi are not – at least just yet – the scoring machines expected.

Emotion is never a problem for head coach Esmail Sedigh’s players. It’s just reining in their emotions and playing with focus that is key.

Green Archers United (2012 season: 8th 3-5-10)
No team undertook a more serious manpower build-up than GAU. Beginning cup play, this team added former Global stalwart Ayi Aryee, Nomads defender Dominic Mensah, Loyola defender Lawrence Obinna, FEU midfielder Sean Lee, and Chieffy Caligdong (who came on board beginning the PFF Smart National Club Championship).

The style of play went up with their addition and it resulted in a fourth place finish in the UFL Cup and a semifinals berth in the PFF Smart National Club Championship. In both those tournaments, GAU flamed out in the end casting a pall on their aspirations. But if anything, those setbacks will only whet their appetite for silverware and in league play, they will be a dark horse contender.

For head coach Rodolfo Alicante, the challenge is to find consistency in his players. Tating Pasilan is a dangerous scorer but is mostly inconsistent. Jon Melliza, when he returns to the fold in the March transfer window after playing for FEU in the UAAP, will help. Aryee was superb as was Lee. But with the arrival of Caligdong both players looked lost in the shuffle. And such, their central midfield play suffered. For Lee and Aryee to be effective, they need their touches. But when you have excellent wing players such as Arnie Pasinabo and Caligdong, the touches will be limited.

If they can find a merry solution to their midfield play then this team could win it all.

Army (2012 season: 9th 3-4-11)
With all the Philippine military teams struggling in club play, Army has mostly kept its head above water. More so than Navy that got sunk to Division Two.

Because of the structure of the military clubs, they are in no position to recruit except for military duty. And that hurts them. With an aging club, the challenge  for coach Sgt. Ricky Cain is how to get the most out of a club that lost sparkplug Champ Baron while picking up no one of exceptional talent who can help.

It falls then to its pool of national players in Boogie Margarse, Roel Gener, Ric Becite, and Eddie Sacapaño to hold the fort.

Without being cold about it, Army must raise its game or face the specter of relegation.

Pachanga (2012 season: Division Two champions)
You will have to do a double take on that – Division Two champions. Because this is not that Pachanga team. It’s Diliman using Pachanga’s name after they purchased the club from previous owner Freddy Gonzalez. The only Pachanga holdovers are defender Yves Ashime and midfielders Ousseneyou Diop and Boyet Cañedo who are all solid contributors on the Bob Salvacion coached team. This league play sees the return of midfielder Anto Gonzales after a yearlong loan to Loyola where he was an integral part of the Sparks’ success last season.

There’s talent here without a doubt. Their pick up of Fil-German Manu Saubach was huge for them during the UFL Cup. The industrious OJ Clarino will help while Jinggoy Valmayor is still in the UAAP. Clarino will help the strike force of Ariel Zerrudo Jr. and Andoni Santos. Cañedo is perhaps the best free kick specialist outside Loyola’s Mark Hartmann.

They have an elite lineup. If they can find their bearings early on they will challenge for the title.

A twist in promotion and relegation
By the league’s end, the team that finished last will be relegated to the UFL’s second division while the champion from that level will be promoted. However, it doesn’t end there, the ninth placer of Division One will take on the Division Two second placer in a two-game aggregate format. Should the Division One side win, it remains in the top-flight group. Should the Division Two side upset the top tier club, they get promoted at their victim’s expense.

With all the changes, clubs more than ever cannot afford to have an off day. The possibility of having two teams relegated means no one can sit pretty and coast because no one wants to be in the relegation zone. One key to any club’s chances it fielding a deep lineup. The UFL will not brook any stoppage in play this league tournament even for the national team. That means matches will go on sans their national players. Winning early is paramount because clubs without its core of Azkals can make a run when the national team will be playing.

So at the end of the day, a deep lineup can just change the equation of what promises to be an exciting league season.

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