BY BONG PEDRALVEZ
THE stars of American soccer, led by glittering British football icon David Beckham, descended in the country yesterday with the arrival of the LA Galaxy.
Fresh from a thrilling 1-0 win over the Indonesian national team in Jakarta Wednesday night to kick off their three-leg Asia-Pacific tour, the Galaxy are scheduled to play the Philippine Azkals in a historic friendly tomorrow at the heritage-rich Rizal Memorial Football Stadium.
Irish ace Robbie Keane scored the winning goal in the 14th minute for the visitors in front of 30,000 soccer-crazy Indonesian football fans, the LA Galaxy website reported yesterday, against virtually the same side that finished second in last year’s Suzuki Cup.
Except for team captain Aly Borromeo, who is sidelined with a knee injury, the Azkals will play with the same players who lost to the Indons in the semifinals of Southeast Asia’s premier tourney last year.
Among them are Fil-Brit Rob Gier and Fil-Icelander Ray Jonsson who arrived Wednesday night to bolster the nationals’ brittle defensive backline. Both were agog at the prospects of going up the newly-crowned Major League Soccer champions.
"It’s just an unbelievable opportunity," Gier said. "If you told me a few months ago we would be playing against David Beckham here in Manila, I would’ve laughed at you.
"It’s an amazing thing for football in the Philippines. I can’t wait to get out there and play," the 32-year-old veteran added.
While the Filipinos will be the decided underdogs, Jonsson said the Azkals would be looking for a win "because there is always a chance if we play good defense."
German coach Michael Weiss already had his first eleven in mind for tomorrow’s match.
"Jonsson, Gier and Anton del Rosario will definitely start in the back row while I’m looking for someone to replace Borromeo on defense," Weiss said in the team’s recent practice at the Rizal Stadium pitch. Expected to replace Borromeo is Fil-Am Jason Sabio.
During a press briefing yesterday, Weiss said the team strategy will be the same against Kuwait "since we cannot be naïve against a top team like the LA Galaxy."
Beckham said while the Galaxy would like to play a "diplomatic game, we also would like to win."
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena shared the same sentiments, saying: "We will play hard, play fair and play to win."
At midfield, Weiss said he will field the steady quartet of Chieffy Caligdong, Jason de Jong, comebacking Chris Greatwich, who has been in Manila since Monday, and James Younghusband.
Opting for a "4-4-2" formation against the Galaxy, the German mentor plans to have strikers Ian Araneta and Phil Younghusband up front to spearhead the attack.
Weiss exhorted Filipino fans to go all-out in supporting tomorrow’s goodwill match, the last major outing for the Azkals this year.
"I hope we will send a clear signal, and a goodbye for the fans," Weiss said. "I hope they will come in masses. I hope the stadium will be sold out."
Due to the sluggish sales because local fans balked at the steep prices of tickets, the United Football League and Smart stepped in and offered 35-percent discounts on tickets.
The Galaxy will hold a football clinic for the poor children of Payatas this afternoon at the Rizal Stadium.
Meanwhile, the Philippines found itself in Group D, as in Group of Death, after the draw for the AFC Challenge Cup tournament was completed at the Asian Football Confederation headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia yesterday.
The Azkals were drawn with North Korea, Tajikistan and India, which all topped the biennial tournament in 2010, 2008 and 2006, respectively.
The champion in the tourney will advance to the Asian Cup.
Nepal will host the event kicking off on March 8 in Kathmandu.