UFL Cup Final: Kaya accomplishes an upset for the ages

MANILA, Philippines - Nick O'Donnell, Kaya's goalie, reaffirms his status as a top young goalkeeping talent. The jury had been out on the young Filipino-Canadian for a while. Many observers noted his occasional flubs and questionable positioning. At times his movement is ungainly and almost unathletic. The former Ateneo shot-stopper has one Azkals cap from last year but has not been seen with the national team since.

But on Friday he erased all doubts with a heady performance in the crucible of cup final pressure. O'Donnell may have allowed two goals but he parried and blocked numerous shots in the first 120 minutes and punched clear several other loose balls in his area of responsibility. But his best work was to come in the shootout, when he sprung to his right to deny Paul Mulders' spot kick then went to his left to negate Martin Steuble's effort. 

But in reality, for O'Donnell, it was all just a little bit of history repeating. 

Flashback to February 2013. It's the UAAP Football Final Four. O'Donnell won a penalty shootout against DLSU in the semifinal, then was the winning goalkeeper in the two penalty shootouts against UP in the final. (The championship series was best-of-three back then.)

“This is sort of how I became a goalkeeper,” admits O'Donnell, the Torontonian son of a railway worker and part-time cake decorator. 

“When I was a kid they put me in goal and I saved a lot of shots in penalty shootouts. That's how I became a keeper.”

O'Donnell told me after the game that he has never lost a shootout at any level. In last Tuesday's semifinal he blocked Ian Araneta's kick in the shootout win against Stallion. It was the only unsuccessful attempt from either club. 

Some credit must go to his position coach in Kaya, Melo Sabacan, who 24 years ago was in the same goal frame on that very same ground when the Philippines beat Malaysia 1-0 in the SEA Games.

“Mas mabilis na ang approach niya sa bola,” (his approach on the ball is faster now) said Sabacan, who says his conditioning work with his charge has been key. The former Navy custodian says O'Donnell is a willing and attentive student with a great attitude.

Filipino-Canadian Nick O'Donnell reaffirmed his status as the best young goalkeeper in the country. Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

Filipino-Canadian Nick O'Donnell reaffirmed his status as the best young goalkeeper in the country.

Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

With O'Donnell in form, there is now a surfeit of promising UFL-based keepers that the NT can rely on for the 2016 Suzuki Cup, when Neil Etheridge and Roland Muller are unlikely to be available. Patrick Deyto can now count Global teammate Jun Badelic, O'Donnell, GAU's Paolo Pascual, Loyola's Tommy Trigo, and Ceres' Louie Casas, who has been solid all season long, among his competition. DLSU's Paeng De Guzman could also be in the mix.

It was an interesting night tactically. Xs and Os are not my strength as a football writer but it was interesting to be around more tactically-minded folks last night. Both Cedelf Tupas and Myk Agbayani, former Forza and Pasargad coach, noticed that Kaya opted to clog the middle of the park and squeeze Ceres into the flanks. The gambit worked, with Kaya being the brighter side early on. Maybe Ceres missed the presence of the suspended Manny Ott.

But in the second half both Agbayani and ex-Nomads mentor Alasdair Thomson saw that Ceres' crazy-good winger, Orman Okunaiya, had suddenly been deployed in a more central area, from where he unspooled several threatening potshots at O'Donnell. The Ulsterman also assisted on Lee Jeong Woo's goal. 

Both teams made unorthodox subs. After Ceres pulled one goal back with Lee's strike, the team withdrew Jovin Bedic, who was having a solid outing, assisting on Diego Barrera's goal, and brought on Janrick Soriano in his place. (Soriano was then yanked for Aly Borromeo in the extension.) Tishan Hanley, the scorer of Kaya's first goal, was then himself given a bib after Juani Guirado's equaliser. Hanley was spelled for the hobbled Louis Clark. 

It was almost as if Kaya was panicking and shitting themselves, when in fact, they were LITERALLY doing so. Well, at least one of their players was. Clark had to dash off to the dressing room at the half of the extra time to use the toilet. He was having the runs instead of making them on the field, blaming “a dodgy chicken” that he had eaten previously. 

“You can put that in your article,” said Louis with a smile. Clark eventually recovered enough from his stomach issues to slot home the title-winning penalty in the fifth inning.

Intestinal fortitude > intestinal flu. 

Peculiar that Hanley was pulled for Clark when he was doing great and the possibility of penalties loomed. Perhaps the foreigner cap limit played a role in the decision of the Kaya coach.

Tishan Hanley (holding trophy) was substituted in favor of Louis Clark (far left) despite scoring the opening goal. The League's cap on foreigners may have been a deciding reason. Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

Tishan Hanley (holding trophy) was substituted in favor of Louis Clark (far left) despite scoring the opening goal. The League's cap on foreigners may have been a deciding reason.

Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

Or rather, coaches. With Fabien Lewis gone, Kaya relied on the triumvirate of Paul and Justin Tolentino, from the managerial staff, and playing-coach Chris Greatwich, who was given his marching orders for a second yellow with just over twenty minutes to go in regulation. It was admittedly “coaching by committee,” hardly a good situation.

Kaya has been a revolving door for head coaches. In 2010 the duo of Mikee Carrion and Rudy Del Rosario were at the helm. In 2011 Juan Cutillas took over only to leave the next year. Kale Alvarez lasted a few months before he departed, to be replaced by Maor Rozen. The Uruguayan stood down in 2013 and Aussie David Perkovic came aboard for a relatively long term, about a season and a half. After Perko bid adieu, Adam Reekie became the coach only to leave citing irreconcilable differences this year. Ex-Kaya player Fabien Lewis finished the league then left.

Kaya has won a trophy, but to win more, they should settle on a long-term solution. I would love to see them get a respected Filipino mentor, like Norman Fegidero, Edwin Cabalida, or even someone younger. 

Ceres, on the other hand, put in Val Kama at right back for Victorino Son. Odd, since Kama is not a sideback but is more of a centerback. 

Them Ilonggo footballers be like Nostradamus. Before the game I was chatting with Stallions Ruben Doctora and Ian Araneta. They told me two things that were, in hindsight, eerily prescient.

“Si Jovin (Bedic) ang bumubuhay sa Kaya. Siya ang nag-assist noong tinalo niya kami sa semifinal,” said Balot, who like Bedic comes from Barotac Nuevo. (Bedic gives them life. He assisted when they beat us in the semifinal.) 

Araneta and Doctora also noted that Juani Guiardo was adept at scoring headers and that he done so against Stallion before.

Bedic went on to start the game and furnish the cross for Hanley's second goal, a magnificent volley. Late in the second half Ceres forced overtime when Guirado nodded home off a free kick. 

Jovin Bedic is a serious talent who is stepping into his prime. Might another Azkals call-up be in his future?

The atmosphere last night convinces me that the UFL must change their league format. The scene last night in Rizal Memorial was fantastic. Three fourths of the lower grandstand section was full and much of the upper sections were also occupied. The Kaya Ultras and yellow-clad Ceres supporters filled the rafters with a noisy match-long game of call-and-response. The game was entertaining and unpredictable with four eye-catching goals. It was great theater, and a worthy champ lifted the trophy. 

Now compare that with the tepid manner by which Ceres clinched their league title: by amassing enough points with a few games to go in a late-season laugher against Socceroo. No drama at all.

Pinoy sports fans like their seasons to build to a climax, and football should be no different. The UFL league is a pure double round-robin affair, like in many other countries, but it doesn't have to be like that here. 

My suggestion, for a ten-team league, is as follows. It is a hybrid of the UAAP Final Four and the NFL playoffs. 

Top 6 make playoffs, with top two teams getting a bye in the first round. Third seed plays sixth seed in a one-game knockout, as do the fourth and fifth teams. Then in the semifinals, top seed plays lowest remaining seed, and the number two plays the other team. The top two enjoy that Filipino specialty, the twice-to-beat advantage. This makes the value of their top two finish even greater. Then the final is a two-game, aggregate-goals affair. 

I've been told that a format like this “is not football,” because no one else does it. Well, who cares if no one else does it? If a format is fair and creates an exciting finish to a season, then it should be used. 

The Ultras Kaya and Aly Borromeo are the unsung heroes of this championship. Xerxes Garcia is one of the founders of the Kaya Ultras, also known as the Sons of Mighty Kaya. SOMK forms the nucleus of the Ultras Filipinas group you see in Azkals games. 

Xerxes, a mild-mannered banker by day, is a rabid supporters organizer for Kaya by night. Before the game he was nervous and edgy, admitting that he had some superstitions he was following for the game.

Afterwards Garcia joined his team on the pitch and said he wept all throughout the game and into the aftermath. He helped found SOMK in October of 2011. Their rhythmic chanting has become a fixture in Kaya games ever since. He said that some adult beverages would be flowing for him and his mates soon. 

“Everyone from SOMK deserves the victory, from our founding brothers, senior members, newbies and propaganda team,” he added.

Aly Borromeo is the only remaining member of Kaya's 2009 UFL champion team. Apart from a brief loan to Global, he has been with Kaya for ages. He doesn't start often but did come in at the extension, often rampaging up the field. 

“All our adversity throughout the season really built our character,” said the ex-Azkal, who says he embraces his back-stage role with the team. 

Meanwhile a few feet away a shirtless Clark joined some other Kaya Ultras in singing “I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles,” the fight song of West Ham United, the Premiership team both he and Garcia support. 

I'm forever blowing bubbles, Pretty bubbles in the air,

They fly so high, Nearly reach the sky,

And like my dreams, They fade and die,

Fortunes always hiding, I looked everywhere,

I'm forever blowing bubbles, Pretty bubbles in the air.  

On Friday Kaya didn't blow any bubbles, they just burst them, deflating Ceres' drive for a double and knocking Global out of contention for an AFC Cup slot. (The AFC Cup playoff slot goes to the Cup winner, but had Ceres won the cup alongside the league, then the league runner-up, Global, would have taken the spot.)

Now Kaya has a chance at continental glory, because, just like shirt sponsor LBC, the team delivered when it mattered most. – Rappler.com 

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.