Ateneo defeats UE, 2-0, remains atop UAAP Football standings
by rick olivares
The Ateneo Men’s Football Team needed a win after an unlikely scoreless draw with UST. Facing them were the UE Red Warriors who they drew with t start Season 75.
Following La Salle’s huge 2-1 in over FEU a week earlier, and a pair of 1-0 wins by UP over UST and FEU over NU during Sunday’s matches, Ateneo needed the three full points to stay atop of the rankings.
And they responded with their second multi-goal game in three matches, a 2-0 win over UE that was both convincing and at once a little disappointing. From kickoff they were clearly the much better side. UE never had a shot at the goal as Ateneo’s defense stopped them cold. On offense, they threatened on so many occasions including one where all Val Calvo needed to do was slot it home as the keeper was clearly beaten. But instead, he volleyed wide.
However in the space of a couple of minutes, Ateneo got its goals, first from a shot from Philip Gozali from outside the box that dipped under a diving UE keeper Lendon Clores in the 43rd minute. Barely a minute later, midfielder Mikko Mabanag latched onto a forward ball and dribbled past one defender before sending Clores the wrong way for a 2-0 lead.
There were more opportunities in the second half but the poor finishing kept the tally at the same count.
Ateneo has stayed on top of the standings since the second match of the season – an incredible turn around from their second to the last place finish last season (3-0-7). Even that finish didn’t tell exactly what how they fared. They were tough to beat and when they did lose it was in the final 10 minutes of play.
So how did this turnaround happen?
Here it is in my opinion having watched them closely since forever.
The ascendancy of JP Merida as head coach
Merida, who played on Ateneo’s three-peat team from 2004-06, has taken a team that was demoralized not just from losing but also its struggles with their coaching staff, and turned them around. His leadership and coaching style gave them a confidence.
They’ve got a solid back four with John Christopher Aw Young, Gico Noel, Wilson Marcelino, and Migs Tuazon. They do not make too many mistakes and cover opponents well. The longer they play together they better they get. Plus, they’ve got two solid goalkeepers in Yu Murayama and Nick O’Donnell. Murayama, maybe because he is a super senior (he stopped school for a couple of years before coming back), is in great form. Not only is he superbly conditioned but mentally, he’s there as well. O’Donnell, got some terrific experience a couple of years ago while playing behind Ref Cuaresma and Gabby Vorbeck with Loyola. Both have alternated at goal with every game but with the tournament in its homestretch, maybe Murayama should get more playing time.
And oh, they’ve only conceded on goal in nine matches. Second-running FEU has scored 32 goals but has surrendered six.
Good recruits and the return of some terrific players
There’s Nick O’Donnell, Carlo Liay, and Eric Figueroa. For the longest time, we couldn’t get any. When we did, we lost them to academics. But they were few as the program wasn’t doing so well since 2008.
Others have finally found their place. Enzo Bonoan and Jacobo Lorenzo, great high school players had underachieved in the seniors ranks. Both have come back this season with greater resolve and more confidence. And it shows.
And there's a lot of homegrown pride in this squad from Murayama to Lorenzo to Mabanag all the way to Figueroa.
The play of Mikko Mabanag
Last Sunday, UE’s JP Villamor knocked Mabanag out of bounds. A year ago, he would have charged at the Red Warrior and thrown some punches if not invectives. Mabanag (who I have been also counseling with advice since his senior year in high school), has finally listened and allowed his game to do the talking. Since he was named Best Midfielder in last year’s Clear Dream Match, he has played incredibly well darting here and there for passes and goals. Former national coach Zoran Dordevic scouted Mabanag for several games and couldn’t wait to put him in uniform. His play has been every bit as important for Ateneo.
Will Ateneo win this year’s UAAP Men’s Football title? It still is a wide-open race if you ask me. If they make the finals, that will increase their confidence.