Last Saturday night there was a sparse crowd in Rizal Memorial for the match between Team Socceroo of the first division and JP Voltes of the second tier. But in reality, this was one of the biggest showdowns of the season.
It was Game One of a two-legged aggregate-goals series between the second-to-the-last side of the first division, TS, and the runner-up of division 2, JP Voltes. The winner in the series plays in the top flight next year, the loser in the second level of the UFL.
This is huge, because teams need sponsors, and sponsors would much rather prefer a side in the televised top tier than the lower flight. There was plenty at stake.
The last time the league did this was in 2013 when second division bridesmaid Union International Manila was spotted a two-goal lead by first division second-to-the-last placer Army before getting mowed down in two legs. I think the aggregate score was something like 8-5.
Last year with Nomads’ self-relegation, there was no such playoff as Manila Jeepney and Ceres made it to the top level with Pasargad getting the boot downward.
On Saturday I expected a tough game, and I wasn’t disappointed. Voltes won 3-1 to take a handy two goal cushion into Tuesday’s second leg. But Socceroo battled valiantly to keep the tie within reach.
JP opened the scoring with Tatsuya Nakamura’s header. Minutes later a strong close-range effort by Mikko Mabanag made it 2-0.
Then a bit of Socceroo star power got the team in teal right back into the tie.
Daniel Matsunaga, yes, that Daniel Matsunaga, has been on Socceroo’s roster all season long, but didn’t play all season because of schedule conflicts. The Reyes brothers who run, (and play for) Socceroo asked the Brazilian of Japanese descent back for this game.
Matsunaga is a legit footballer. He has played for Kaya and Stallion and has even scored in the UFL on TV. He just happens to be one of the Philippines’ heartthrobs. On Saturday he proved he was more than just a pretty face when he exploited some hesitant defending to power past JPV goalie Nelson Gasic for 2-1. The shrieks of some female fans could be heard reverberating from the RMS rafters.
But Dominic Del Rosario’s scrappy, almost comical goal before the half made it 3-1. Del Rosario, who played for Marlon Maro’s SEA Games team, is on loan to JPV from Kaya.
Socceroo buckled down in the second half to keep it scoreless and maintain a sliver of hope. Had JPV managed a fourth goal, I think you could almost hand them their first division berth alongside division two champs Laos. But as it stands, TS still can defend their place.
JP Voltes is the new name of a team that used to be called Manila All-Japan. Before the UFL’s foreigner limit, they were exactly that, a team of all Japanese players. Ever since the league stipulated at least six Pinoys on the park at any time, the club has apparently decided that “Manila Half-Japan” didn’t quite work, so they morphed into “JP Voltes:” a volt-in of Japanese and Filipino footballing talent.
They have a superb centerback in Takashi Odawara, a tall, supremely composed rock in the back. I also like John Celiz, their pint-sized Barotacnon winger, late of Army, who burned TS left back John Navarro with his tremendous pace. Captain Chihiro Oda is a craft forward who knows how to create space.
Gasic, from Baguio and Lyceum, is a very decent goalkeeper with a rare weapon: a quarterback-level long toss out of the box. It was only matched by TS centerback Arnel Casil’s prodigious, two-handed overhead sideline throw. Good pair of tossers these two.
(Did I write that? I did. I love having a wordpress blog where I don’t have an editor.)
As for Socceroo, they are hanging on to the top tier for dear life. They were promoted in 2013 thanks to a pair of gifted Korean attackers, Park Yi Young and Lee Jeong Woo. But since the Koreans left they have struggled to keep pace. But if they get an early goal on Tuesday to trim the aggregate score to 3-2, then we will have a real dogfight on our hands.
Will JPV storm into the top tier? Or will Socceroo find some form and stay afloat? Will we shout “Voltes Five!” if JPV tacks on another two goals in the second leg? Come to Rizal Memorial on Tuesday at 7:30 pm to see how this Darwinian battle unfolds.
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.