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UFL 2013 - A look at the contenders for promotion and relegation

February 4, 2013 5:43pm

Once again in Philippine football it’s true to say, almost obvious to say, that this will be the most competitive edition of the competition. The UFL has improved by leaps and bounds, and while it continues to attract the best football talent to the league, it’s also attracting more professional foreign coaches too.

At the start of the season it looks like there are three major blocks in the league - Global, Kaya, Loyola, and the Stallions contending the title in tier one, Pachanga, Pasargad, and the Green Archers vying for fifth, also known as tier two, and then finally Nomads, Army and the Air Force will be looking over their shoulders at the relegation spots in tier three.

With that said, each team has the potential to cause an upset or have a strong run of results, so before the season kicks off at the Rizal Memorial Stadium on February 5 here’s a look at each team and their chances.

No bets just yet.

Will Chieffy Caligdong inspire the Archers to new heights? Mark Cristino

Green Archers United
2012 League Position: 8th
2013 League Prediction: 7th

With the signing of Chieffy Caligdong the Green Archers have a new direction to face. Typically at the bottom end of the table, sponsorship has allowed them to look into some big signings. With Caligdong and Tating Pasillan up front, they have quick, pacy, proven goalscorers.

They also had the best of Pasargad for most of their PFF Club Championship semifinals match, including a clear penalty on Chieffy which wasn’t given. However with a tendency to draw too many games and need extra time to get through in Cup competitions they would do well to finish high in the mid-table. Any improvement on last season’s finish of eighth will be good progress and that’s what the Green Archers are looking for: to build a platform for future success higher up the table. If results go their way they could finish at the top of the middle group, but it’s a tight block with Pachanga and Pasargad also in contention.

Key Man: Chieffy Caligdong

Chieffy isn’t so much the Green Archers’ key man for his skill, though the thirty year old still has the ability to win games, it’s his influence as the marquee signing of a new Archers’ era which will have the biggest impact. If he performs well, others may be persuaded to join. But if it's a stagnant season for Chieffy, the Archers may have to rebuild from scratch.

2012 League Position: Champions
2013 League Prediction: Champions

Global are a dominant force in Philippine football. With the most number of Azkals and some of the best foreign talent in the league, they have a depth to the squad that no-one else can match. Over the course of the league this depth is important as suspensions and injuries play a huge role. The league is a marathon, compared to the sprint of a Cup, and for that you need endurance, and a back-up plan.

Forging that back-up plan will be former Ayr United manager Brian Reid. Having overseen two promotions and two relegations in the Scottish Leagues, Reid is used to dealing with teams in high pressure situations. Given Global’s tendency to start slow however, he’ll need to motivate them quickly to start picking up points against ever-strengthening opposition.

After a couple of new signings, including promising youngster Jeremy Theuer from Nomads, Global may also announce the signing of Ben Starosta. A player who spent most of his time in the lower leagues of English football, Starosta is a solid right back whom this writer used to buy on Football Manager.

With a new head coach who must adapt to the change in culture, defending the title could be Global’s biggest challenge to date. Yet they have the resources and players to achieve that success and whether or not they are back to back Champions is in their hands, for now.

Key Man: Izzo El Habbib

Izzo is a quality striker who has been on the top scorers list every season. He may not be the most technically gifted player in the team, but if he doesn’t score goals Global won’t win the league.

OJ Porteria (L) has adapted well to his new position at right wing. Mark Cristino

2012 League Position: 2nd
2013 League Prediction: 2nd  

Kaya have also undergone a lot of restructuring, after losing some key players. With Armand Del Rosario’s transfer to Loyola and Jason Sabio flying back the USA, Dario Dakic and others will have to step up in a large way to fill the defensive holes.

But it’s goals Kaya will need if they are to challenge for the title again this season. Last year they scored 30 in 18 games, a poor record compared to the rest of the title challengers, however they’ve already shown signs of doing that with a 3-1 win over Loyola in the Nationals. OJ Porteria in particular, looks like a class act on the right wing in a new 4-3-3 formation for a team which also signed Enzo Pinga from Stallion. The pair could link up well given their style of play and if Kaya get scoring, they can challenge for the title.

Key man: Anton Del Rosario

With many key members still injured or transferred, Del Rosario is one of the few remnants of the Kaya old guard. He will be an important member of the defense but could also be employed as a holding midfielder to replace the gap left by Lexton Moy.

2012 League Position: 7th
2013 League Prediction: 8th

Nomads are under some financial difficulty and they also have a lot of adapting to do, with a new Scottish coach, John Jofre, a former Scottish Premier League scout. A successful season for them would be to stay clear of the relegation slots, which now sees the team finishing ninth face off against the Second Division runners-up in a promotion/relegation playoff.

Potentially signing former Global man Bads El Habbib and former Kaya man Adrien Semblat will add more quality and depth to their midfield, but as third-lowest scorers last time around, keeping the defense tight will be the priority again this year. With a strong youth system, possibly the best of any club in the league, building for the future will be the priority at Nomads.

Key Man: John Jofre

Adapting to the Philippines can be a difficult task and Jofre will need to build a new system of play against much wealthier and deeper teams. Nomads have the facilities to do that and if results go their way, they could push for a comfortable mid-table position.

Phil Younghusband (R) needs to become a leader for Loyola Meralco to live up to all their potential. Mark Cristino

Loyola Meralco Sparks
2012 League Position: 3rd
2013 League Prediction: 4th

Another team in transition, the Sparks have possibly the most high profile individuals in the UFL, but have yet to live up to their potential. With Matthew Hartmann’s year-long suspension over, he’s like a new signing to join Simon Greatwich in midfield.

New coach Vince Santos, stepping up from assistant to replace "Master Kim," has already tasted defeat at the hands of Kaya, after experimenting with positions, and if they continue to do so the team won’t be able to gel.

Yet Loyola still have the most formidable attack in the league. It would be no surprise to see them as the highest scorers and with the biggest goal difference at the end. Whether they can score when it matters, in the six-pointers against the other three title contenders, will remain to be seen.

However they will be trying to do so without Anto Gonzales holding the midfield, and they may well lack the leadership and battling qualities of a traditional holding midfielder. If Loyola can get going they will be difficult to beat and have a shot at the title, but that will be a touch ask of a new Coach who needs to find a way to gel the big name stars.

Key Man: Phil Younghusband

The Azkals and Sparks top scorer will likely be the 2013 UFL top scorer too. However as the key man, his importance to the team is bigger than goals. Key players, such as him, must step up into leadership roles to benefit the team as a whole, and encourage players, rather than berating them after a missed pass. If Loyola can do that, and build a team, they have a shot at the title. If they can’t, some of those big names may look elsewhere during the transfer window.

2012 League Position: Second Division Champions
2013 League Prediction: 5th

Having dominated the Second Division in emphatic fashion, Pachanga have signed some quality players and look a force to be reckoned with. OJ Clarino replaces outgoing top-scorer Freddy Gonzales to join Jason Cunliffe in attack, while Anto Gonzales sort of makes the return to Diliman, given that Pachanga bought Diliman. Keeping that trio fit and healthy will be a priority.

Pachanga are more than ready for the step up from the Second Division and they have the chance to shine. With five confirmed signings, they haven’t changed too much, but have added enough quality to better challenge the Archers, who knocked them out of both the UFL Cup and Nationals in extra-time. Pachanga also shocked Loyola in the UFL Cup group stage with a 2-1 win.

In the league, games will end after the ninety minutes and the clubs will share the points, but Pachanga have new tools to compete better. Fifth will be a successful season, but going the entire course without having to look over their shoulders at the relegation slots will be the priority.

Key Man: Anto Gonzales

The terrier of a midfielder will be important for Pachanga not just on the pitch but off it too. Coach of the successful UP Diliman UAAP team, he is an intelligent player and can help harmonize the group. Pachanga’s play may all start with him, before finding Cunliffe and Clarino further forward, and so if he has a good season, and is able to get the players together, Pachanga will too.

Philippine Air Force
2012 League Position: 5th
2013 League Prediction: 9th

The armed forces teams are going to struggle in the coming years. With a different recruitment policy, the typical trend of football is, the more developed a league, the less successful the Armed Forces teams. When the league was un-televised and the majority of the players in this season’s league wouldn’t have even contemplated joining, the Air Force reigned supreme. They are the still most successful team historically in the UFL with two league titles and two Cup titles.

However with Yanti Barsales retiring and Chieffy Caligdong leaving for the Archers, only Tats Mercado in goal and Ian Araneta remain as key figures. Indeed their official roster shows no additions and their biggest consolation is the Army finished 12 points below them last year. Without the Navy, which recorded only one win, the Air Force and the Army will have to fight for every point.

Key Man: Tats Mercado

The former National goalkeeper is going to busy and if he is in good form, the Air Force can stay clear of automatic relegation.

Consthan Harris and the rest of Pasargad got to the FInals of the PFF Club Championship. Is a League title next? Mark Cristino

Pasargad FC
2012 League Position: 6th
2013 League Prediction: 6th

Pasargad had a good second half of the season and their successes included beating Loyola, Stallion, and Global over the year. Impressive for a team that flies under the radar most of the time, Pasargad have the potential to finish just behind the top four if results go their way.

With 14 of their 25 man squad being new additions, they have overhauled their team, keeping the Philippine core and adding in some quality players. Their run to the Final of the National Club Championships may have been the easier route, compared to Ceres, but they have been impressive with results and can cause an upset on any day.

A comfortable mid-table position will be a successful season, though the team harbors intentions of finishing higher. All the teams around them have improved however, and so it will be a difficult goal, but their physical style of play has proven difficult for the other teams to cope with.

Key Man: Reza Ataei

In one of the most bizarre football events, Ataei was sent off for removing his shirt during the penalty shootout in the Club Championship semifinals against the Green Archers. Without him in the Final, Pasargad looked much more frail at the back and it’s fair to say it would have been a different game with him on the pitch.

If he stays fit, and more importantly doesn’t get suspended, during the league, Pasargad can fall back on a good goalkeeper to man the defense. If he’s out, Pasargad will struggle.

Philippine Army
2012 League Position: 9th
2013 League Prediction: 10th

The Army are the preseason favorites for relegation. Only ahead of the Navy last year, they were pipped into eighth by the Green Archers, who hammered them in the penultimate week of the season.

With potentially four new signings, there may be some new blood in the team but given their recruitment policies, too, a very successful season for the Army would be to finish ninth and beat the Second Division promotion hopefuls to remain in the league.

Should the Army get relegated, the Air Force will be the sole remaining Armed Forces team. Putting rivalries aside and forming a united Armed Forces team would be the best thing in the long run, and indeed it is successful in Singapore, whose united Armed Forces won the Singapore Cup by beating Tampine Rovers, the side that knocked Loyola out in the semifinals. However politics, as usual, will be the problem in forging a united team, meaning it will likely only be a question of how long the Air Force can survive in the top flight before all the Armed Forces teams are relegated.

Key Man: Ed Sacapano

‘Edsa’ played some great games for the Azkals in the run up to the Suzuki Cup. He’ll need to produce that kind of form to give his side any chance of avoiding relegation.

Rufo Sanchez (red) will need to score for Stallion to surprise. Mark Cristino

Stallion FC
2012 League Position: 4th
2013 League Prediction: 3rd   

Knocked out in the first round of the Club Championship, albeit against eventual winner Ceres in Bacolod, the Stallions have something to prove in the league. They will be gunning for the title in their first league season with Spanish duo Joaco and Rufo.

All four top teams can potentially win the league, and the Stallions are certainly in with a shout. With only 21 players in the line-up, following a mass exodus of many fringe players, the Stallions’ biggest concern may be depth though. No new additions to the squad also means everyone knows what to expect from the winning UFL Cup side. But as they’ve shown, on their day they can beat anyone.

The Stallions have shown a propensity to draw games, needing penalties or extra-time against General Trias and the Green Archers, before beating Global in the Final of the UFL Cup. In a league these results get punished, especially their opening loss to Army in the group stage. If the team stays fit and avoids suspensions though, they have the potential to be champions.

Key Man: Rufo Sanchez

Part of the reason the Stallions have drawn many games is a lack of goals. Defensively they’ve been very well-organized, but over the course of the league they would be punished for draws and not scoring enough goals. Indeed Kaya lost the title on goal difference, and so they will need a good season from Rufo partnering Balut up front, to win the title. - AMD, GMA News
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