Photo from PFL

The seven participating clubs in the kickoff to the country’s domestic football season are looking forward to a competitive title challenge when the Copa Paulino Alcantara begins Monday, March 14 at the PFF National Training Centre in Carmona, Cavite.

Kaya-Iloilo is aiming to retain the title it won in November against the rest of the field that includes the Azkals Development Team, Stallion-Laguna, Dynamic Herb Cebu, Mendiola FC 1991 and returning clubs United City and Maharlika-Manila.

Despite a busy offseason that saw the signings of former ADT players Jarvey Gayoso, Sandro Reyes, Oskari Kekkonen and Mar Diano, coach Yu Hoshide admitted that Kaya remains a work in progress despite its tag as one, if not, the title favorites.

“We added some ADT players, but six players left the team so it’s clearly a new team,” Hoshide said in a virtual press conference held Saturday afternoon. “We’re facing really good competition so we cannot relax.”

Perhaps its biggest challenger is United City, which at the last minute skipped the Copa after dealing with legal issues concerning its arrangement with former license holder Ceres-Negros.

Recent days saw United City announcing the additions of Amirbek Juraboev, JJ Robertson and ex-ADT member Ivan Ouano while retaining Mike Ott, Mark Hartmann and Anthony Pinthus, among the players in last year’s AFC Champions League.

But United City also lost naturalized striker Bienvenido Marañon who is now with Malaysian Super League powerhouse Johor Da’rul Tazim while Stephan Schrock’s status remains unknown at the moment.

“We lost a lot of our star players. In connection to that, we hired young players to fill in the shoes,” said coach Frank Muescan. “But all things are possible, we’re taking a positive attitude. It’s a great challenge for us and we’re looking forward to winning games.”

Out to steal the thunder from the two clubs who’ll represent the Philippines in AFC club competitions is Stallion-Laguna, which added younger players with some coming from the United States to team up with holdovers Finn McDaniel and Gabe Silva.

The Horsemen were eliminated in the semis by ADT before settling for third after defeating Cebu courtesy of a shootout.

“We ended on a high last year compared to how we started in 2020, so hopefully 2022 would be the year we break into the AFC slots,” coach Ernie Nierras said.

ADT will be parading players who’ll likely suit up for the national U-23 team in the Vietnam Southeast Asian Games, and newly-appointed coach Norman Fegidero said the Copa stint is not just a mere buildup for the biennial meet.

“We joined the cup to compete, not only for exposure. I want my team to win games,” he said.

Cebu has yet to release its full lineup but skipper Baris Tasci said the club retained about 80 percent of the players who suited up last year, but lost key player Ricky Sendra to United City.

Mendiola is eager to rebound from a disappointing Copa run that saw the Los Valientes lose both group stage matches by a combined score of 15-0.

Long-time mainstay Hamed Hajimahdi said Mendiola has beefed up its lineup by tapping some of the players from the 2019 squad that reached the Copa semis.

Maharlika, which made its debut in the shortened 2020 Philippines Football League season, returns after skipping last year with the brothers OJ, Gino and Miggy Clarino as major additions.

The seven teams will play a single-round elimination with the top four advancing to the knockout semifinals. The Copa final is on May 22 with the spot in the AFC Cup at stake.

Source: Manila Bulletin (