WITH the long wait finally over, the Philippine women’s football team can now shift its focus on the field.
Now included in the initial list of Filipino delegation to the Southeast Asian Games in Myanmar, the Malditas step up their buildup as they take part in the Asean Football Federation Women’s Championship that kicks off on Monday in Yangon, Myanmar.
“We’re looking forward to that,” Malditas coach Ernie Nierras said on Tuesday in the Philippine Sportswriters Association Forum at Shakey’s Malate. “We’re using the AFF as trials for the young players and warm-ups for the SEA Games.”
Without some key players who either have injuries or have school commitments in the US, the Malditas will be parading a young roster with an average age of 17 in the region’s most prestigious tournament.
And the Filipina booters, who are now in their highest Fifa ranking ever at 75th, will be facing stiff competition in Group B, which features the host team, Laos, Indonesia, and Japan’s Under-23 squad.
The Australian U-19 team and the Jordan national team are the other non-Southeast Asian “guest” teams in the tournament. They are bracketed with Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia in Group A.
The Malditas face Indonesia first on September 10, Japan two days later, and Myanmar two days after. The Filipinas take on Laos in the last day of the group stage on September 18.
“Kung hindi sinama yung Japan, I would’ve gone for the championship,” Nierras said when asked of his prospects. “But since may Japan, we have to be realistic. As long as we progress to the next stage after the group stage, I think it’s a very realistic goal already.”
To toughen them up, the Malditas will be training against a men’s side, particularly reigning United Football League champion Stallion, of which Nierras also coaches, in the lead-up to the regional competition.
With skipper Marielle Benitez out with a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in her left knee, Nierras expects Marisa Park to step up, along with Joana Houplin, and Natasha Alquiros, as well as seniors Sam Nierras and Patrice Impelido.
Nierras, the coach's daughter, will captain the squad in the absence of Benitez, who skippered the Malditas in the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup Qualifiers last May, when they barely missed a ticket to the main tournament next year.
"The team is very young as compared to the girls who competed in the AFC, but I know that my fellow seniors are there to step up and guide the young girls," Benitez told Spin.ph in a separate inteview on Tuesday. "I'm confident they'll be able to lead and keep the team motivated as they face a tough challenge of being in the same bracket as Japan."
First-choice goalkeeper Maria de la Cruz, Sarah Cooke, Monika Lee, Jesse Shugg, Rachel Nichols, Morgan Brown, Catherine Barnekow are the unavailable players currently in the US.