The Suzuki Cup draw, plus other good and bad PH football news

Bad News: We draw Thailand in the Suzuki Cup group stage. Not only are the War Elephants the defending champs, but they are also the only remaining team in our region still in the running for the 2018 World Cup. The Philippines will host Singapore on November 19, then Indonesia 3 days later, then Thailand on November 25. All matches will be in the Philippine Sports Stadium in Bulacan. The draw was held last August 2. 

The Thais won versus Malaysia in the finals in 2014 and lost to Singapore in 2012. The Philippines is ranked 14 places below Thailand, and many consider them the class of ASEAN. With Thailand looming in the final match of the group stage, there will be enormous pressure to get between 4 and 6 points in the opening two games. 

The other group, Group B, may have host Myanmar and Vietnam, but Malaysia, beset by poor results on the field and strife off it, are also there. The winner of the qualifying tournament, likely either Cambodia or Laos, with Timor Leste a dark horse, will complete the cast. Myanmar and Vietnam look to be the favorites. 

Good News: We draw Thailand in the Suzuki Cup group stage. There's another line of thinking here that certainly sees the glass half-full. As long as we hurdle the group stage, and we are favored being the hosts, we cannot possibly meet Thailand in the semis. But of course that assumes we can hurdle Singapore and Indonesia and get to the final four to begin with.

The Lions may be far down from their peak in 2012 when they won the Suzuki Cup, but we take them lightly at our own peril. Indonesia is a great unknown, having only recently departed from the wilderness of a FIFA suspension. Right now the Garudas are ranked 191st while Singapore is at 151. 

Bad News: The draw hurt us also in another way. Our Group A gets games on a SaturdayTuesday, and Friday. Group B gets games on a SundayWednesday, and Saturday. Had we been drawn in the other group we would have been assured of two matches on weekends. Instead we have just one. 

This wouldn't have been an issue for Myanmar. The Thuwunna stadium appears to be quite close to the Yangon city center, (according to Google Maps), but it's a headache for us. The Philippine Sports Stadium is a pain to get to, even if you have a car. Two weekend matches would have helped us fill that cavernous bowl. Instead our second and last matches, on weeknights, will likely be staged in front of innumerable empty chairs. This is a tough break. We hope the organizers will do their best to pack the stands. 

Good News: The UFL's loss is the Azkals' gain. Three of the UFL's twelve teams decided to tap out, for various reasons, after one round robin of action in the 2016 League. Agila, Nomads, and Pasargad will be missed, and we hope to see them back on the park next year. 

Because of the lighter schedule, the 2016 League season now concludes on October 16, more than a full month before the Suzuki Cup kicks off. Before the three teams bid adieu, the competition was supposed to hear its last 90th minute whistle on October 30

This development gives us lots of time to prepare for the tournament and in theory gives us a better shot at avoiding injury. The Philippines is not very deep in centerback, for example, and if Amani Aguinaldo or Simone Rota get hurt, we would have a heck of a time finding experienced replacements. 

Bad News: Philippine club football's future is uncertain. The reduction in UFL teams from 20 to 12 within a year is an alarming statistic. To make matters worse, the TV deal with TV5 is reportedly ending after this season. 

There was talk of the national league beginning next year with at least 6 teams, to take over the UFL as the country's top league. But with the “ber” months fast approaching and no word yet from the Philippine Football Federation, official or otherwise, that is all very much up in the air. 

No one really knows what will happen next year. Will the UFL carry on? Will anyone televise it? Will a national league happen maybe later in the year? Or will a new entity take over? 

In 2017 the Azkals will have several home-and-away group stage qualifiers for the AFC Asian Cup in 2019. We will need our local club competition to be healthy and viable so as to serve as the backbone of the team. Hopefully a strong showing in November's Suzuki Cup will drum up some more sponsorship interest in football, which the national side as well as the clubs badly need.

Good News: Stephan Schrock's loan extension should keep him in the team for November. The Ceres midfielder, on loan from Greuther Furth, could have been summoned back to Germany this month. Instead the loan has been extended, and he remains in Bacolod until January. 

The 29-year old has never played in the ASEAN championship. The AFF Suzuki Cup takes place outside of official FIFA international window dates, so his teams in Germany were never obliged to release him. He just might be that one little piece of quality that we need to reach the finals. 

The other piece of good news is that goalie Roland Müller could very well be available for selection too. Müller was brought over by Ceres from Switzerland as an addition to the July UFL transfer window, a window that turned out to be closed shut. Apparently only two windows are allowed per season, and that would have been our third. 

The word out of Ceres is that he is staying for the remainder of the season. We can presume that he will stick around until Suzuki because there's no point in him returning to Europe until their January transfer window. 

Müller will likely become the most highly-paid training squad player in the history of Philippine club football. With him on the sidelines and unavailable for action, Ceres will stay with Louie Casas as their goalie as they try to upend Global in the title chase. 

Roland was in the stands at last Sunday's Ceres match, a shocking 2-1 loss to Green Archers, taking in the action wearing a collared Ceres traveling shirt like the other inactive busmen. He seemed in very good spirits and could be seen posing for a picture beside a jeepney after the game.

Dooley thus faces a goalie selection conundrum in November: does he go with Global's Patrick Deyto, with a whole season of play under his belt, or trust the gloves to Müller, who is capable, experienced, proven, but hasn't played in a competitive game in months? It's a tough call. 

Bad news: the Azkal's Spain tour may not be pushing through. It was announced by Azkals boss Dan Palami a few weeks ago that the national team will be going to Spain for a training camp in October where they would play Costa Rica and Canada. A source close to the side revealed to me that this might not happen. 

Fortunately the team does have friendlies lined up. On September 1 they are scheduled to play North Korea in Beijing, after which they jet to Kyrgyzstan for another friendly on September 7. The Philippines will then host the Central Asians for a return leg onNovember 9. It is important to note, however, that the rematch with North Korea is not yet listed in the FIFA website, so it might be just a scrimmage and not an “A” international.

One hopes that there will be other friendly matches in the lead-up, like the one against Perth Glory in Vigan, where the Philippines lost to the Australian club 2-0. They played valiantly and created chances, only allowing a second goal in late second half stoppage time, a fair performance with scores of starters missing. 

Good News: Some of our top players could be playing in Thailand sooner or later. The Thai Premier League is mulling an ASEAN player requirement for its league, widely considered to be the strongest in the sub-confederation. That means one of the 5 foreign players on the roster will have to be from an ASEAN country. Details here.

No doubt some of the top overseas-born Filipinos could be in the crosshairs of the kingdom's clubs. Manny Ott, Patrick Reichelt, Misagh Bahadoran, Rota, as well as Müller and Schrock could be on the radar. 

Playing at such a high level would no doubt sharpen these Azkals and help them when they play for their country. This past season Thailand had a representative in the top-tier competition for Asian clubs, the AFC Champions league. Unfortunately Buriram United finished last in their group. 

Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

Good News: The lights are coming back soon to the Rizal Memorial. UFL matches lately have needed to finish by 6 pm because of work on the light towers behind the bleachers. That has created some very trying conditions for afternoon matches, sometimes necessitating more cooling breaks than usual. Some games have kicked off at 7:30 am and others at 1:45 pm

Those days could be over soon, as fans and players will be able to enjoy football under a cool evening breeze. The picture above from the weekend shows that the bulbs are back on top of the towers, which have also been granted a fresh coat of white paint. 

November is coming, and it's literally and figuratively time for Philippine football to be back in the spotlight. – 

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.