Ceres wins UFL League with more than just money

MANILA, Philippines - There can be no doubt that Ceres-La Salle are atop Philippine club football.

Last Saturday they manhandled Team Socceroo 6-0 to earn enough points to secure their first UFL top-flight UFL crown with a pair of games to spare. (The UFL League runs on a pure round-robin-league format with no playoffs, so once you get enough points to seal the league, you are crowned champion even if you have games left on your schedule.)

Team owner Leorey Yanson must now make room in the trophy cabinet, as his side has won the UFL second division and first division in successive years as well as claimed two Smart – PFF national club championships, plus last year's UFL Cup. Not bad for a 3-year-old club. 

The team now aims for Asian glory in the 2016 AFC Cup and will go for the UFL double in this year's Cup competition. The side has climbed dizzying heights. Not bad for a club that just a few months ago, was, by its high standards, in a rut.

Flashback to January. Ceres loses the semifinal of the third Smart PFF national championship 3-1 to Global. Their drive for a 3-peat in the nation's national tournament was over.

The very next month: another major setback. The busmen traveled to the Maldives for a one-game AFC Cup qualifier against Maziya, with the winner reaching the group stage. The Maldivian side scored the only goal of the match in the 82nd minute off a shot from an acute angle that many observers felt was a mis-hit cross more than anything else.

Ceres had hoped to win that match and join Global in the next round, which would be double round-robin, meaning a bunch of games, home and away. Instead they would fly back home empty-handed. The twin reversals to begin the year were below expectations for an outfit of Ceres' ambitions. Changes were coming.

Soon after the defeat at Maldives, Cha Soungyoong, the team's coach and longtime technical director, was gone, on his way back to Korea. Cha had taken over Ali Go last year and steered the Negrenses to the UFL Cup. But after the rough start to 2015, his time in Bacolod was over.

Stepping back into the hot seat was none other than Ali Go himself. His stint as club director was brief, and he was once again in charge of managing the team on the sidelines. Go was the boss when Ceres won their previous honors.

During the Smart PFF run, one player shared that he felt Cha overtrained the players, not a good mistake to make in a competition where teams played 5 games in just 9 days. It may be a reason why Ceres struggled in the group stage as well, losing 1-0 to Loyola and also narrowly defeating then-second division side Laos 1-0. There was also talk of communication problems with Cha, whose English was halting.

The paucity of scoring for such a team laden with weapons was an area of concern. And Go was quick to make amends, junking Cha's defensive approach and replacing it with more attacking tactics. Learn a bit about Go and it's easy to see why.

Ali Rojas Go was an Alabang kid who was a major prodigy as a kid. His specialty: scoring goals.

Go played collegiate football for the University of Saint La Salle in Bacolod. Even in that footballing hotbed, Go's prodigious talents meant the Manila boy was treated with deference. One of the players who crossed paths with him remembers those days fondly.

Bixie Reyes, then playing striker for Saint Benilde, played USLS circa 1995 or 1996. He recalls how Go sauntered into a game just ten minutes before kickoff, while most of his team mates were well into their pre-game warmups. Naturally, Go started despite the tardiness.

In the first half Go scored a pair of goals, one of them a sneaky move that caused two Benilde players to crash into one another, giving him time to spear the ball into the net. 

Early in the second half Go asked to be subbed, and he was duly taken out. He went home without finishing the game. Reyes recalls that the other USLS team mates didn't seem to mind at all. USLS won the match. 

Go went on to play both football and futsal for the Philippines.

The 13-1 drubbing the Philippines sustained against Indonesia in the 2002 Tiger Cup is just a footnote for most Pinoy football fans. But I suffered it live on either ESPN or Star. There was only one bright spot, our lone reply to the Merah Putih's baker's dozen; a lovely strike from just beyond the edge of the box, off the boot of Ali Go. 

“Ali was a football player and he understands us,” says Ceres captain Juani Guirado.

“He doesn't make things complicated and he always puts the best eleven. He thinks in the moment and he has us playing a good style with good possession.”

“His character is always nice. He looks like one of us (players) in a big group.” 

Go also emphasizes controlling possession of the ball, as opposed to Cha's focus on fitness, says goalie Louie Casas.

It's no surprise then that an attacking-minded coach would play an offensive style of football. Especially with the toys he had at his disposal. From the midfield Go had Azkals Martin Steuble and Manny Ott, whose penchant for scoring long-range goals with the Azkals was only matched with the same propensity for Ceres. Another Azkal, Patrick Reichelt, marauded from the the flank.

But the crown jewel of the Ceres attack is Adrian Gallardo, the best Spanish striker to hit our shores since Rufo Sanchez. The man just has so many ways to beat you. 

Ceres has scored 56 goals in 15 matches, tops in the league, for nearly 4 goals a game. Their goal total is 11 ahead of the next pursuer, Global.

World class fitness

To me, Ceres' favored kind of goal is the counterattack. One moment you are losing the ball. The next moment Ceres has it, the entire midfield and offense springs into action, and in a flash you are fishing the ball out of the net. We've seen it too many times to count.

Which brings up another advantage that Ceres has over other teams: world-class fitness.

Ceres, when they are in their home base in Bacolod, often practice twice a day on their own field. I asked around the other top teams in the UFL if they do the same. One team said they never did two-a-days, another said they recently started after a bad run, and another said they sometimes do it, but usually it's fitness training paired with football training.

When the team is in Manila they have their own barracks that is adjacent to a bus terminal complex. The complex has space that allows the team to do drills and conditioning exercises. No other team has it as good.

Casas also reveals one crucial element of Ceres conditioning training: that they do all their exercises with the ball at the players' feet. The days of mindless running are long gone. This is a philosophy shared by other programs, notably Australia's national team, according to Fil-Aussie ex-Azkal Leigh Gunn.

Judging by the social media of many of the Ceres players, they seem to do plenty of training on their own, especially winger Orman Okunaiya, the Nigerian-born Irishman whose pace and skill have bedeviled opposing defenders all season long.

No wonder Ceres is so good late in their games. Green Archers manager Monchu Garcia calls Ceres “a second half team” that kicks it into another gear after 45 minutes. When his side last met Ceres, they were mowed down 7-0, ending GAU's 4-game win streak. 

After Ceres defeated Socceroo, the players were treated to a Boracay vacation. Coming along for the trip was “The Lady,” the UFL League trophy. The players set the trophy on Boracay's powder-white sand and took turns taking pics. 

One thinks that with a team like Ceres, it won't be the last time The Lady visits that beach with Ceres. – Rappler.com 

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.