Three Thoughts Ahead of the 2018 PFL Season

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Time flies. Just like that, a month has passed since the conclusion of the inaugural Philippines Football League season. The holidays have come and gone, and today, Kaya FC–Makati returns to training in preparation for the 2018 campaign. But while the prospect of a new season has the club’s players and supporters buzzing in anticipation, there’s plenty to ponder from last year’s journey. 2017 may not have yielded the desired results of reaching the PFL Finals, and subsequent AFC Cup qualification, but there were certainly more than few interesting takeaways along the way. Here are three that this writer feels may have slipped under the radar.

1. On The Cusp

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On paper, Kaya Makati’s first PFL season was a disappointment. The club lost 3-1 on aggregate in the semifinals to Ceres Negros (eventual champions), before losing by the same scoreline to Meralco Manila in the Third Place Playoff. Finishing fourth in an eight-team league doesn’t exactly warrant overflowing optimism. But as is often the case, numbers don’t tell the full story.

A 3-1 scoreline seems like a rather comfortable margin of victory, but Ceres Negros, the reigning ASEAN Zonal Champions in the AFC Cup, certainly did not have an easy road to the PFL Finals. They won the first leg at the University of Makati by a stoppage time piece of magic from Stephan Schrock, just moments after Robert Lopez Mendy smacked a wonderful effort off the crossbar. And despite boasting the most star studded lineup in the country, the Bacolod powerhouse were inches away from potentially being knocked out in front of their home crowd in the second leg. Before Iain Ramsay’s expert lob settled the tie 17 minutes from the final whistle, Jovin Bedic and Jordan Mintah both came agonizingly close to putting Kaya Makati in front. A goal from either player would’ve put the score at 2-2 on aggregate, with Ceres behind on away goals. It would’ve been the upset of the season, with the ASEAN Zonal Champions denied a return to AFC football by a club with a fraction of their wage bill.

But to play a game of “what if’s” isn’t the purpose of this article. What the semifinals proved was that Kaya Makati has the quality to go toe-to-toe with the very best team in the country, and one widely considered a rising force in Asia. Kaya may (rightly or wrongly) not be riddled with Philippine National Team players, but the club, under the guidance of Chris Greatwich and Noel Marcaida, has a squad with the quality and confidence to trade blows with the nation’s finest. Coupled with that patented Kaya spirit, the team, with a few adjustments, has the capability to not only excel against the very best Filipino clubs, but on the continental stage as well. In order to fulfill that potential, however, Kaya FC–Makati will need to translate quality performances into results more often in the coming season. Contrary to last year’s final standings, the club may be closer to that goal than the numbers suggest.

2. A New Rivalry

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Even had Meralco Manila not recently folded, 2018 would have seen the start of a new rivalry in Philippine club football. After six all out wars last year, there’s no doubting Ceres Negros versus Kaya Makati has emerged as one of the most exciting match-ups in the country. On paper, the rivalry looks rather one-sided. Ceres Negros won five of the six encounters between the two in 2017, with the other (the first game of the season), a 1-1 draw. But again, numbers don’t tell the full story here. Anyone who goes back and watches the last five games between the two clubs will be treated to everything football fans around the world love to see: outrageous skill, overflowing passion, and bits of controversy sprinkled here and there. Bias aside, it’s a spectacle that every football fan in the country needs to witness. Heck, it should be prescribed watching for those getting their first taste of football. And as mentioned above, more often than not, these games have been decided by the smallest of margins, and in the most dramatic (or heartbreaking) of fashions. With the memories of 2017 fresh in the minds of everyone involved in these encounters, 2018’s clashes promise to be even more explosive. When the schedule of games is released, make sure to set aside the dates when Kaya Makati and Ceres Negros lock horns.

3. A Homegrown Hub

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Acquiring foreign-based Filipino talent continues to be a key component of success for the top clubs in the Philippines. Just take a quick glance at the squad of last year’s champions. With club football still in its infancy in the country, the acquisition of players who honed their skills in more developed footballing regions, such as Europe and America, has proven to be a potent strategy. In Miguel Tanton, Antonio Ugarte, Marwin Angeles and Kenshiro Daniels, Kaya Makati boasts of some fine examples of foreign-based Filipinos who have proven their worth for both club and country. Over the last couple of years, however, the nation’s homegrown talent have really begun to acclimate to the demands required to excel at the highest level. This has allowed Kaya Makati, without sacrificing results, to quietly become a hub for the nation’s finest homegrown talent.

Jovin Bedic (Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo), Ref Cuaresma (Dumaguete), and Jalsor and Janrick Soriano (Talisay, Negros Occidental) all featured heavily for Kaya last season, representing a growing number of homegrown leaders at the club. Each one has had plenty of experience competing at the highest level, and aside from doing the business on the field, is a role model for the next generation of upcoming locals. Jayson Panhay (San Carlos), who while didn’t get too many opportunities on the pitch last year, is also a homegrown veteran that holds a key role in the dressing room. The acquisition of center-back Camelo Tacusalme (Talisay, Negros Occidental) from JPV Marikina adds yet another solid player and leader to the group.

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Eric Giganto (Compostela Valley, Davao), with his five goals, and numerous dazzling displays off the bench, leads the new generation of hungry young players born and raised in the Philippines. His winner against Meralco Manila was perhaps the most memorable strike from last year. 2018 could very well see Eric take the next step and begin featuring in the starting lineup more regularly. Young goalkeeper Zach Banzon (Marikina) impressively started a fourth of the matches in 2017, and will once again be a key figure in the competition between the team’s shot stoppers . The return to First Team action for Shirmar Felongco (Calinog, Iloilo) means another outstanding homegrown winger/full back is now available for selection, while Chy Villaseñor’s (M’lang Cotabato) performances at the end of the season offered a glimpse of his ability to take on a similar role. The promotion of Michael Menzi (La Trinidad, Benguet) from the Kaya B Team, and the signings of Arnel Amita (Compostela Valley, Davao) and Audie Menzi (La Trinidad, Benguet), both of whom will be available after the UAAP season, display the club’s clear initiative to acquire and nurture homegrown standouts.

While the club has bid farewell to Adam Reed (Filipino-English), Marvin Angeles (Italian-born), Julian Matthews (Filipino-Australian), Patrik Franksson (Filipino-Swedish) and Alfred Osei (Ghana), the squad has been bolstered with some of the nation’s most exciting prospects. All in all, Kaya Makati now boasts 13 homegrown Filipinos on the roster, and that number could very well rise before the transfer window shuts at the end of January.

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