It's a brand new year for the Philippine Azkals. New challenges and new hopes. Perhaps some new faces in the National Team too.
But instead the selectors have stuck with tried-and-true players for the first friendly of the year, at Myanmar on Wednesday.
Apart from regulars like the Younghusband brothers and Chieffy Caligdong, European-based players Neil Etheridge and and Rob Gier have made the trip. The game falls on a FIFA International date, so clubs must release their players.
The inclusion of Ian Araneta raises some eyebrows, since it was previously reported that he retired from International duty. But during the Azkals Christmas party the Air Force forward told me he wasn't throwing in the towel just yet.
Coach Michael Weiss could introduce Araneta at some point in the game, if not even start him. Denis Wolf is hurt and will be in the studio with me for the pre-game show. Ditto on both counts for Misagh Bahadoran. Angel Guirado is not in the list.
Araneta must be burning to earn that tenth international goal. He has not scored for the Azkals in an International since 2011, when his early strike against Bangladesh helped vault the Philippines into the AFC Challenge Cup final stage.
With Angel, Wolf, and Misagh absent, it is surprising that Tating Pasilan, who was one of the UFL's leading strikers in both the league and cup last year, Filipino or foreigner, was left out. He along with several other Green Archers team mates such as Ronnie Aguisanda and Dads Pasinabo attended tryouts but were also not picked.
Fortunately the in-form Patrick Reichelt is a shoo-in for the starting eleven.
While on attack the Azkals are missing key players, there is a surfeit of midfielders. Manny Ott is returning to the squad for this game, and both Marwin and Marvin Angeles are available. Chris Greatwich, ignored during the Suzuki Cup, is on hand as is Matthew Uy.
Ohjay Porteria deserves a start as well. His assist on Chris Greatwich's goal for Kaya against Ceres in the SMART-PFF Nationals was indicative of his quality. Porteria is a shifty, unpredictable player with superb command of the ball at his feet. He is the future at attacking mid, and it will be great to see him back with the Azkals after a bout with Dengue fever sidelined him late last year.
The Back Four is a concern. The lineup is light on true defenders.
Rob Gier is there but not Juani Guirado, who is presumably busy with his job in Pepsi back in Spain. Gier's centerback partner will likely by Jason De Jong, who has experience with the position but could be a wee bit undersized.
Jeff Christiaens has shone at left back in recent games, so he can be penciled in at that spot. But what about right back?
Carlie De Murga is not on the list, and neither is Ray Jonsson. A glance at the lineup reveals that Weiss could go with the experience of Roel Gener, or even drop Reichelt back at that slot. Another option: stick James Younghusband there and let him overlap.
For me there is one glaring omission in this team, and it is Jason Cordova from Ceres.
If you make a list of tall, healthy, young, Internationally-experienced defenders who live in the Philippines, you pretty much have him and him alone on it.
Cordova played for the Azkals in their Challenge Cup campaigns in 2008 and 2009. (He also won the UAAP crown in 2010 with FEU, where he played up top.)
Recently he captained Ceres to their improbable title in the SMART PFF Nationals, playing at right back and leading a defense that allowed all of one goal in four matches against the finest teams in the land: Stallion, Global, Kaya, and PSG.
The tall Santa Barbaranhun has been known to be a card magnet and hothead, but recent performances has shown that he has matured. Perhaps fatherhood and Ceres handing him an armband have helped.
“He's a great guy to have on the team” said Ceres forward Peter Long of Cordova's leadership.
One thing is certain: the Philippines needs quality defenders now, especially centerbacks. Almost every team in the UFL top tier, save for the Armed Forces teams, relies on foreigners to do that job. Lets take a quick inventory.
Aly Borromeo's knee injury refuses to heal quickly. Jason Sabio is studying Business and Intellectual Property law in Alabama. Juani Guirado is 33 and lives in Spain. Gier is 32 and lives in England. Air Force's Joebel Bermejo is aging and getting back into fitness after a prolonged injury. David Basa got into a motorcycle accident last year and for the PFF Nationals, was in street clothes for Global. Eduardo Gempisaw of Army has been out of the Azkals loop for a long time. Stallion Jake Hugo is promising but a tad too small.
For sure we could mine the riches of Europe and North America for Pinoy talent, but we need to do it soon.
It would have made sense to give Cordova some action now, but that can only happen after Myanmar.
Instead Gener and Boogie Margarse are selected. Both of these Army regulars are smart, experienced guys but judging from recent matches, are unlikely to play and will probably just challenge the starters in the scrimmages. They are also in their late thirties and cannot possibly represent the future of the Azkals. Perhaps it would have been advisable to bring on some younger players who could benefit more from training with the starters.
The White Angels should be a tough team to beat at home, even without midfield sparkplug Kyi Lin, who is not on their team list, presumably injured.
But returning to their squad is the breathtakingly gifted Kyaw Ko Ko. If you will recall he terrorized defenders during the U23 SEA Games competition in Indonesia two years ago. When Myanmar's U23 team defeated the Philippines U23 5-0, he found the net with two great strikes, abusing the Philippine defense in the 55th minute with a terrific second goal that can be viewed at 2:58 of this clip.
He is only 20 years old and is rumored to be a trial target of German club Nuremberg.
Myanmar hasn't played since the 2-0 loss to the Azkals in the final group stage of the Suzuki Cup doomed their campaign. That result came after a 4-0 defeat to hosts Thailand and an opening 1-1 draw to Vietnam.
Myanmar and the Philippines have a long recent history of very tough, even, low-scoring matches. Perhaps we could see another one in Yangon on Wednesday.
Azkals fans will hope that a depleted strike force and a makeshift defense carries the day and that the familiar faces are also smiling ones after 90 minutes.
POSSIBLE STARTING XI
Caligdong Ott MwAngeles JYounghusband
Christiaens Gier De Jong Reichelt
Tune into Studio 23 for live coverage of Myanmar-Philippines, which starts at 6pm on Wednesday, February 6.
Follow Bob on Twitter @bhobg333.