Sparks show their class in Singapore

Mark Hartmann, shown here in a UFL match, scored the equalizer for Loyola. (Photo by Bob Guerrero)

Pinoy football took another giant step towards respectability when Loyola Meralco Sparks downed Geylang United in the Singapore Cup, 2-1 in extra time last May 18.  On a sultry Singapore evening in the Jalan Besar stadium, the visitors produced a stylish come-from-behind victory and punched their ticket to the two-legged quarterfinals.

My thoughts after a satisfying win.

The S League is not a whole standard above the UFL. There is at least an overlap in quality between their weak teams and our strong teams. Perhaps some of us feared that the Sparks would get hammered by a Singapore club. The fears were unfounded. While the Eagles did score a goal late in the first half and mustered a few telling chances, Loyola was clearly the better squad. I haven't seen the stats but I bet the Filipinos won both territorial and possession battles. The gap between us and our neighbors has narrowed in terms of the national teams and now the same can be said for the clubs.

Mark Hartmann gets my nod for Man Of The Match. Hartmann's 65th minute strike off a sublime cross from James Younghusband drew Meralco level.  Then in the extension he played a role in the winner as well, a long-range attempt from Park Min Ho that glanced off a Geylang defender and into the corner of the goal.  Hartmann also displayed good work rate, fighting and pressing when he didn't have the ball. This industriousness is at times lacking in his game, but not last Friday. Will the Azkals selectors give him another shot soon?

Meralco's homegrown players shone. Jake Morallo made his omission from the latest Azkals roster look even more glaring with a solid shift. He nearly connected on a header in the first half and narrowly missed scoring in the second when James Younghusband's cross to him was a touch heavy. His energy and quickness was a threat throughout the game, but cramps claimed him with under 20 minutes to go. Anto Gonzales was reportedly praised by ESPNStar's Dez Corkhill for his hard work. The UP Maroons coach showed the composure and judgment that prompted Meralco to grab him on loan from Diliman FC even though they are loaded at midfielder. Alexandro Elnar and Patrick Ozaeta played their part with a workmanlike effort on defense, while Ref Cuaresma was terrific. He simply oozed confidence every time he challenged for the ball and his late stop on Amy Recha's wicked volley saved the day. The Dumaguete native's size and spring make him a viable option to Ed Sacapano for that Azkals reserve keeper slot.

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Davide Cortina should have started. Like a kid eager to play with a new toy, coach Kim Chul Su inserted Simon Greatwich straight into the starting lineup. But the Hartwick College midfielder, who flew home from the States last week, couldn't create and was subbed for Cortina. The Italian journeyman showed effort and guile in sparking the attack. What might have happened had he been there for the full 90?

Amani Aguinaldo seemed overwhelmed by the occasion. The teenager trotted onto the field for  Morallo and struggled mightily. A Geylang player laid a neat little whirling-dervish move  that  flummoxed him. He was also less than urgent in tracking back for a ball on another occasion. His size and potential make UFL observers swoon, but perhaps this wasn't yet his breakout moment.

The player who should have come in for Morallo didn't travel with the team. Jayson Cutamora is a lot like Jake, only with perhaps a sliver more vision on long passes. With Greatwich in the mix and Matt Hartmann allegedly cleared to play, perhaps Kim felt it was safe to leave him at home. I'm sure he regretted it. Which brings me to the next point:

Matt Hartmann was mysteriously scrubbed from the list of eligible players. Why? As of the moment, I don't know the facts, but I can surmise that some powers-that-be nixed his participation at the last minute. Matt has been suspended from playing in the Philippines until late this year as punishment for his acrimonious departure from the SEA Games. It was believed he'd be exempt from the ban for this game. Perhaps not. I think he has suffered enough and should be cleared to play. How frustrating it must be to make the three-hour fight to Singapore only to be denied at the last hurdle.

Loyola needs to get fitter. Cramps were the order of the day for the Sparks. They bedeviled Morallo, Park, James Younghusband, as well as a few others. It should be a concern for the fitness and conditioning staff of the team. I joked on Twitter that for the quarters, the Sparks need to bring bananas. But for sure, Meralco will need more than just potassium to progress.

A good pitch can make a huge difference. The Loyola team we saw on Friday looked light-years better than the one we see in the UFL. The passing was crisp, the control excellent. They moved confidently and even displayed some Barcelona-esque tiki-taka in the end of extra time. Why did they look so good? The plastic turf at Jalan Besar can take much of the credit. It's a smooth, predictable carpet of green that's just conducive to attractive football. This in sharp contrast to the grievously overplayed Umak pitch, which is U.S. Open rough on the sides and a wasteland of weeds, sand, and hard bumpy spots in the middle. The McKinley Hill Football stadium with its artificial turf can't be finished fast enough.

It was great to see everyone rally behind the Sparks. All over social media, Pinoy football fans from all stripes united to support the Sparks. Everyone understood that this could be the watershed moment where the UFL gets taken seriously all around the region. Kaya defender Jason Sabio spoke for us all when he tweeted "Not too often will I acknowledge I'm rooting for @MeralcoSparks. But in this case, it's all for the love and growth of Pinoy football! #UFL. It was a victory for the league and the country, and support will surely spike for the two-legged quarterfinal in July.

NOTE: A source for the Loyola Meralco Sparks informed me that Davide Cortina was not sure he could play because of an issue with his International Transfer Certificate from his former German club. He was only cleared to play shortly before the match which is why he did not start. Jayson Cutamora had a passport problem and only joined the team on the day of the match. Since he was not at the player's check the day before, he was not permitted to play.