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What Losing to Timor Leste Tells Us

Philippine national football team coach Michael Weiss, in a pre-recorded interview aired just before kickoff late this afternoon, was careful to point out that the current U-23 playing in the SEA Games in Jakarta is still a work in progress. On the basis of the almost meek surrender to Timor Leste in the team’s second match of the tournament, I do not think that there is much in the way of options for all of us except to take his word as fact.

We are all disappointed by the 1-2 defeat, of course; and particularly as we had started to look good as the game wore on. Things were starting to come together enough, as a matter of fact, for us to finally string some passes together and even score a beautifully crafted equalizer.

Our disappointment would, naturally, be but a consequence of general expectation that this would be a stroll in the park. Yes, we had all read that the Timorese had beaten Brunei. But even in the old days when we were denizens of the football backwaters, neither of these teams would have ruffled our feathers at any level of international football.

It is painful now that it is starting to sink in to accept that we have actually lost to Timor Leste. What was not obvious before but should be a lot clearer now is that it actually has a decent team. Many of us are still probably feeling disgusted by the gamesmanship – the frequent simulation and milking of fouls when these were awarded.

Stepping back from the game, though, one has to accept – even grudgingly – that Timor Leste’s players had the physical edge over ours that no other team in Southeast Asia enjoys. They could also pass the ball crisply on the ground and had the physical presence in central defence that we just did not really have.

Our team was by no means bad; but we played without belief and absolutely no swagger. The psychological edge because of our senior team’s recent successes would have been on our side before kickoff. Yet, when the first whistle blew, we allowed the Timorese to take the game to us.

Because football can be a game of irony, it was when we were finally starting to win some possession that Timor Leste broke quickly and scored the opening goal. This was in the 16th minute; and one suspects that a more natural central defender than Matthew Hartmann would have coped with the threat with a lot more certainty. In another irony, just a minute earlier the other Hartmann – Mark – could have opened scoring for the Philippines with a bit more purpose and composure.

The rest of the first half, however, belonged to us. Timor Leste sat back to protect its lead. In midfield, Manny Ott and Jason de Jong were between them starting to win us some territory. By and large, though, all the possession was not making much of an impression on the sturdy Timor Leste defence.

Our equalizer, when it came in the 36th minute, was a well-worked move that started with a deep cross from the right that Timor Leste could not clear. The ball was whipped back into the middle and young OJ Porteria was at the end of it for the equalizer. Full points for originality go to both Porteria and de Jong for the celebration.

In the end, though, it was Timor Leste which was celebrating after getting full points from its opening two matches. It even sits atop the group table, something nobody would have wagered on if reputation alone was the basis.

There was an element of luck to Timor Leste’s winning goal and not just a bit of disorder in the Philippine defence. We gave away the ball on the left flank; and the Timorese player outsprinted the square Philippine defence to then bury a low cannonball of a shot past Roland Müller.

The Philippines played with more verve and urgency as the match drew to a close; but with Timor Leste’s towering defenders solidly protecting its goal, it was always going to be a case of too little too late for our young team. Not coincidentally, it was the introduction of OJ Clariño that gave our attack much needed pace. That said, we did not have the aerial presence to make the inviting crosses – especially those in added time – count in our favour.

On the basis of our performances over the first two games, I do not really think that we will be capable of winning this tournament. Even the chances of getting to the semi-finals as the second best team of the group appear bleak now.

Looking forward, though – and not just to the rest of the tournament but as far forward as the next SEA Games – a few of the lads will actually still be eligible. Passing even during the Vietnam game has lacked any sort of real precision; but any coach will tell you that the only way to solve a problem like this is for the players to become more familiar with each other. Two years ought to be more than sufficient; and assuming that we are able to keep this set of players.

A couple of players gave glimpses of what lies in a potentially bright future. Teenager OJ Porteria, a protegé from the DC United academy, looked lively on the right wing. Local lad Jinggoy Valmayor – and I am sure I was seeing him in the national colours for the first time – showed elegance and poise upfront.

Jacques van Bossche also looked elegant in central defence; although whether he will develop the sort of swagger that Jerry Lucena and Aly Borromeo have for the senior team remains to be seem. Matthew Hartmann is probably taking a lot of deserved stick for his culpability in both Timor Leste goals. To be fair to the lad, there is no way in hell that he is a central defender.

Finally, and this is just my humble opinion, we started to look good in the dying stages because Carlos de Murga had taken on a more central midfield role. I think his lack of pace will always leave him at the mercy of fleetfooted international wingers if he is at rightback; but in midfield, this will matter less and he has the ability to bring players into the team’s short passing game.

De Jong and Ott are too similar to be really effective together; although who to leave out to accommodate a playmaking inside midfielder, that I will be careful to say. Ott shades the contest in terms of temperament, though.

Perhaps the most profound realization from today’s match ought to be that the success that our senior team has enjoyed for almost an entire year now will not necessarily flow down to the younger teams. That said, despite the obvious disappointment from today’s result, we also all know that not only are the new boys learning, some of them will be very special in the not too distant future.

And yes, even our currently successful senior side also had to pass through the darkness of the tunnel that is otherwise called the learning curve. Be patient, Philippines!

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