Loyola Meralco opened its campaign in style, stunning defending champion Ceres-La Salle, 3-2, last Saturday night while Kaya and JP Voltes came away with convincing victories at the start of the 2016 UFL League Competition at Rizal Memorial Stadium.
Loyola captain James Younghusband, Curt Dizon and Alvaro Castiella found the back of the net for the Sparks who built enough cushion to survive a late Ceres fightback that saw Stephan Schrock give the Bacolod side a lifeline with an 84th minute goal.
“We knew that if we worked hard, if we made them work hard and with a little bit of luck we’ll have a chance,” said Loyola coach Simon McMenemy who is looking to give the Sparks their first league title.
“This is just a strong team performance today. We won this game by working together. We were battling for each other, covering for each other, having each other’s back and thats what this club is all about.”
Kaya ran roughshod on Laos, 10-2, with OJ Porteria, Robert Lopez Mendy and Louis Clark scoring two goals each, while JP Voltes leaned on a hat trick from J Baguioro to repulse Pasargad, 6-0.
Joven Bedic, Kenshiro Daniels, Janrick Soriano and Julian Matthews were also on the scoresheet for Kaya. Laos averted a shutout thanks to Hamed Hajimehdi’s first-half free kick that was followed by Patrick Frankson’s second half strike.
Baguioro got his hat trick in just 37 minutes as Voltes heralded its top-flight entry with a strong performance that saw Lendon Marcojos, Takashi Odawara and Alen Angeles also find the back of the net for the Japanese-flavored side.
But it was the Sparks’ victory that grabbed the limelight as it ended Loyola’s four-match losing skid against Ceres, which ruled the league in runaway fashion last season.
Ceres was coming off a midweek AFC Cup match in Malaysia, where it battled Selangor to a scoreless to become the first Filipino side to reach the knockout stage of the second-tier continental tournament. But the Bacolod side did not have almost half of its regular starting eleven with Sang Min Kim, Juani Guirado, Adrian Gallardo and Bienvenido Maranon sidelined by injuries.
The Sparks took the game to the reigning champs, pressing them high and winning the ball in dangerous areas early on, despite the continued absence of Phil Younghusband and the suspension to Jason de Jong.
Younghusband opened the scoring in the 13th minute with a low shot to the bottom corner, finishing off a quick counterattack started by Kouichi Belgira who found Castiella in space only for the Spanish striker to feed the Sparks skipper.
Lee Jeong Woo equalized for Ceres five minutes before the break, making a late run into the area to pick up Orman Okuinaya’s pass before cooly planting the ball to the bottom corner.
Dizon capitalized on a defensive mixup in first half stoppage time, slotting the ball home after pouncing on Jeff Christiaens’ weak back pass.
After Schrock hit the bar and Manny Ott fired a close-range shot just wide, Castiella looked to have wrapped up the points for the Sparks with an instinctive strike inside the area after Simon Greatwich’s ball created havoc inside the Ceres box.
But the defending champions made a game out of it with Schrock’s free kick rattling the underside of the bar before crossing the line to make it 2-3, setting the stage for a nervy finish.
“I feel a little bit for Ceres because they played a lot of games recently and they have a lot of players out because of injuries, but this win is a testament to the players’ handwork,” said McMenemy.