PH U15 girls football team inches closer to international gold


MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines has finished bridesmaid to Thailand once again, settling for a second place spot in the 2017 ASEAN Football Federation U15 girls championship. Coach Marielle Benitez's girls rolled into the final undefeated before stumbling to the Thais 6-2 in the championship game on Saturday, May 20 in Vientiane, Laos.

The Pinays downed Indonesia 2-0, then defeated Cambodia and Singapore 3-0 in their round-robin group to book a semis spot. A gutsy come-from-behind 3-2 semifinal victory against Myanmar got them into the final.

Talking points abound in this accomplishment, the third time that the Philippines has reached the final match of an international girls tournament and lost to Thailand in recent memory.

Preparation. Thailand's team prepared for this tournament for a full 6 months, according to PH midfielder KC Zalamea. That pales in comparison to the 5 weeks the Philippine team had to get ready. 

Zalamea says she follows some of the Thai players on social media and she notices that some study in the same school too, which only helps cohesion even further. 

But the Filipinas certainly made the most of that month of training. They held a camp in Los Baños, Laguna where they sharpened themselves against boys teams. They lost to Perpetual Help 2-1 and fell to another boy's side coached by Aeyh Fabroada, 5-2. 

In the beginning of their camp they met a U13 side of boys from the Makati Football School and were dismantled 8-1. When they tussled with them again before jetting off for Laos the final score was 3-3, an almost night-and-day improvement. 

Benitez also got her team to play boys teams from the Football Funatics program. They drew one match 0-0 but can't recall the score of the other one. 

The team also played two collegiate women's teams, beating Ateneo 6-3 and FEU 1-0.

Youth players need 30-40 11-a-side matches a year to get the experience to become elite players. These friendlies are a huge boost.

Coaching. This was Benitez's first go at a head coaching job in international competition and she says she learned a lot about "preparing a team tactically, mentally, emotionally, and physically." 

The girls had numerous team building activities that the coach felt were key in instilling togetherness in the squad. 

One of them involved asked the girls, who were split into groups, to cross an 8 meter area while standing on just two pieces of bond paper. Teamwork was crucial in making it work. 

Another had the teams split up into groups and given eggs. They needed to create cushioning for the egg that could protect the egg from an 8 foot drop. One team pulled it off, with their egg surviving the plunge. These "kumbaya" moments helped create an unshakeable bond within the team. 

Benitez and the other coaches also noted that many of the provincial girls, so shy in the beginning of the camp, opened up and came out of their shells near the end of the campaign. Benitez singles out Cebuana goalie Riza Mae Ugbaniel as one example of this phenomenon, along with Lorjane Aludos, a center back from Baguio. 

Their newfound confidence translated to better character on the park. "Even when we got scored on and Myanmar took the lead, you could see that none of them bowed their heads," said the coach. 

“We were more attacking this time, and the chemistry was stronger this year,” says Collatos. 

Benitez can take plenty of credit. 

“She is really good with words. She really knows how to boost our spirits.” says Zalamea of the coach's motivational skills. 

The American connection. There were 6 Filipina-American girls in the squad. Four of them, Gabi Collatos, Shelon Cruces, Arianna Le Page, and Katelyn Alexander, were veterans of last year's U14 national team. 

But newcomers Myria Garcia and Viviana Cera shone as well. Vera deserves special mention. Last year the Nevadan tried out and was cut. This year she came back stronger and faster and easily made the team. 

Cera proceeded to score the first goal against Indonesia and get the Man Of The Match award in the win. She also scored against Thailand. Talk about grit and determination. 

Garcia notched 3 goals, none better than the audacious long-range game-winner in the semifinal against Myanmar. See it here.

Provincial representation. While most of the Philippine-born players came from Manila, the coaching staff scoured the countryside for talent. There are girls from Baguio, Cebu, and Davao on this team. Althea Rebosura, who comes from Roy Moore's Payatas FC, is also a notable selection. She has made it all the way from a challenging childhood to play for her country. 

Different members of the coaching staff made an effort to attend tryouts and Festivals of Football (FOFs) in Dipolog, Bicol, Laguna, San Carlos, and the aforementioned areas. 

What's next. The Philippines continues to make strides in girls and women's football. PFF General Secretary Ed Gastanes revealed on Monday's press conference that a PFF U16 girls tournament is likely before the end of this year, involving either schools, clubs, or both. The matches will be 11-a-side and 80 minutes long. 

The PFF Women's League, on hiatus since the beginning of the UAAP season, will restart on May 27

Who knows what the ceiling is for Pinay football. The AFC U16 championships for girls take place next year, a qualifier for the U17 Women's World Cup in 2019. Hopefully this batch can stay together for that.

Like that egg that survived the 8-foot fall in training camp, Philippine women's football seems quite unbreakable at this moment. – 

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.