A little over a month after its Cup competition ended with Philippine Air Force Phoenix drubbing Loyola Meralco Sparks, 2-0, in the finals, the UFL launched its League competition yesterday at the Rizal pitch, with the Cup finalists encountering contrasting results.
Air Force looked sluggish and out of synch in a stunning 1-nil loss to Kaya FC, while Loyola Meralco fended off the late challenge of Green Archers United FC to hack out a 3-2 win.
In the first match, Eric Dagroh scored the game's lone goal in the fourth minute, gathering a shot that caromed off the goal post to strike it home past Air Force keeper Tats Mercado. It would prove to be enough for Kaya to hold off the defending league champions, who were thwarted by the Kaya defense the rest of the way. The final score did not reflect how Kaya actually dominated possession and nearly scored a few other times if it weren't for some brilliant saves by the ageless Mercado.
Air Force had two late chances to salvage a draw, but Yanti Barsales' header in the 85th minute was just a little wide to the left while Ian Araneta's close range attempt off a cross from Barsales in the 86th was blocked by Kaya keeper Saba Sadeghi Garmaroudi.
It was a huge win for Kaya, which blew a 3-0 lead against Loyola Meralco in their semifinal matchup in the Cup competition last month. The LBC-backed side beefed up its rotation with the acquisition of under-23 mainstay Joshua Beloya, and the youngster from Negros showed fine form when he was sent in midway through the second half. Beloya, who scored two late goals to lift the under-23 Azkals to a 3-2 win over Laos in the 26th Southeast Asian Games last November, had two decent chances to score in the 66th and 67th minutes, forcing a punch out by Mercado on the first and hitting just wide of the right post on the second.
If the first game yielded only one goal, the second game showcased more offense as the powerhouse Sparks raced to a 3-nil lead before surviving Green Archers' spirited stand. Phil Younghusband, the Cup's leading scorer, picked up where he left off by opening up scoring in the 35th minute with a left-footed volley off a curling cross from Byeong Yeol Jeong. Younghusband doubled his output 10 minutes later by converting a penalty kick brought about by a foul by GAU keeper Martin Villaflor on his brother James in the penalty box.
In the 54th, Jake Morallo dazzled the crowd with some fancy footwork before finding Jeong for a well-placed strike that found the back of the net for the Sparks' third goal. With a seemingly insurmountable lead, Loyola appeared to relax and coast a bit. They nearly paid the price for their carelessness.
Green Archers should have gotten on board in the 65th minute after Tako Yoshioka was sent off for incurring his second yellow card and GAU was rewarded a penalty kick. But in a stroke of bad luck, Dong Villareal missed the penalty kick. It was actually the second attempt for the Archers, after Arnie Pasinabo blew the first attempt. A re-kick was ordered due to encroachment, but Villareal still couldn't deliver.
Two minutes later, Pasinabo finally broke through with a strike from left flank that put the Archers on the board. They kept pressing their attack, and were rewarded in the 77th minute when Villareal headed in a cross from Shag Shapay Johnson that was too deep for Loyola keeper Ref Cuaresma to save.
The Archers kept pressing, seeking the equalizer that would have capped a big comeback, but Cuaresma was up to the task, coming up with a huge save in the 84th that preserved the Sparks' shaky win.
Following their bitter lost to Air Force in the Cup finals, the Sparks beefed up their roster in hopes of dethroning Air Force, who are also the League champions. Aside from Jeong and Yoshioka, they signed up Simon Greatwich and got Anto Gonzales on loan from Diliman FC.
Loyola Meralco and Kaya thus grabbed the early lead in the 10-team Division 1 with three points. They were joined atop the leaderboard earlier today by Stallion FC, which pummeled Philippine Navy Red Juice, 6-0.