TWO teams with different backgrounds collide as the United Football League Cup comes to a close on Thursday night at the Emperador Stadium in Mckinley Hill.
Loyola Meralco, the perennial contender that had always fallen short in previous tournaments, collides with up-and-coming Pachanga-Diliman, the former Division 2 champion that has immediately made its presence felt in its maiden top-flight campaign earlier this year.
Kickoff is at 7:45 p.m. with both squads gunning for their first silverware in what is considered the country’s premier football league.
The fancied Sparks are in familiar territory, having been in the exact situation two years ago, when they were heavily favored over Philippine Air Force, only for the Airmen to pull off a shock 2-0 win.
But Sparks coach Vince Santos insists his squad, still bannered by celebrated brothers Phil and James Younghusband, has vastly improved from the 2011 version.
“I think it’s a totally different team,” Santos said after his team blanked Green Archers United, 2-0, in the semifinals. “Maybe our maturity wasn’t there yet. But now we’ve jelled and the team is playing as a unit.”
Credit the offensively-potent team’s success to their enhanced defense — anchored by the formidable backline of Sam Bonney, Joaco Cañas, Roxy Dorlas, and Won Hyung Lee, and goalkeeper Baba Sampana — which has remarkably yet to concede a goal in seven games.
The Sparks’ maturity has also been evident with marked man Phil Younghusband refusing to get affected by the physicality he receives from opponents.
“If it were any other guy not composed or naïve, maybe we’ll lose our games with people going at him,” Santos said of his star striker, who has a league-leading 20 goals. “But the professional that he is, he is already able to overcome tactics like that.”
“And I think that’s the difference of our team now compared to 2011 maybe.”
But Santos is not about to take lightly Pachanga, the admitted underdog that survived scrappy Air Force, 3-2, in extra time of their Final Four encounter.
“We’ll give them a good fight,” Pachanga coach Noel Marcaida said. “If they badly want this title, we also want this title.”
Marcaida said they will have to keep an eye of their defensive assignments, especially during free-kick situations, where Loyola has thrived with their two goals against the Archers.
“We really have to work hard on our markings. We always concede goals from free kicks,” said Marcaida, who has also benefited quality free kicks conversions from Reza Amirkhizan in the previous rounds.
Both teams will be missing two key suspended players in Matthew Hartmann of Loyola and Pachanga’s Nate Burkey. Hartmann picked up his second yellow card of the competition against the Archers, while Burkey picked up two YCs against the Airmen.
Losing semifinalists Air Force and the Archers face off in the battle for third at 5 o’clock.