TAGUIG -- The final whistle blew on a friendly between the Philippine Army FC and a group of teenagers and early twenty-something-year-olds. The grizzled men of the Philippine Army were glad to know the game was over after being comprehensively beaten down by a bunch of kids, 6-0, in an event that was in celebration of their own founding anniversary.
The victorious upstarts are the youth that Philippine Azkals team management are betting could be stars of the future. The Azkals Development Team (ADT), as national team manager Dan Palami calls them, is a collection of prospects in the footballing scene they hope could usher in a brighter future for the sport in the country.
Despite the heavy-handed victory, the members of the ADT aren't stars yet. Simply put, it was a game the team should have won, but they still have a long way to go.
The idea of the ADT came about during the 2019 SEA Games, where the men's football tournament is an under-23 competition.
National team management saw the need to develop young players after they failed to progress past the Group Stage, despite senior team captain Stephan Schrock and senior team veteran Amani Aguinaldo supplementing the lineup as the designated overaged players.
The Philippines' locally based footballers were mostly involved in the country's collegiate leagues, whereas their opponents boasted of players who had ample experience playing in their own domestic professional league.
The gulf in development between the young locally-based Filipinos and their SEA Games rivals was evident, and there was a need to bridge that gap.
"We were looking at the other teams and we can see that most of their players are actually involved in the professional leagues, but at that age most of our players are still in college," Palami said. "That's why we wanted to explore the possibility of having a younger group of players, already being exposed to the professional club environment."
The coaching staff working with the ADT is the same group that handles the men's senior national team. Coach Scott Cooper, who has been part of the national team setup since 2018, heads the program and is happy with the program's concept. Cooper added that while there are some good youth academies in the Philippines, there aren't enough of them.
"I think this is the best idea we've had since I've been here, because there aren't any really professional club academies here," Cooper said. "There are not that many academies and so we needed to find a way that we could identify players and try to develop them."
Growth over trophies
The ADT is set to compete in the upcoming season of the PFL, but management admitted they aren't out to hoist the trophy. Instead they are happy to develop and showcase the talent they collected regardless of the result.
That doesn't mean the ADT will be okay with any losses they will have, but they know the real victory comes with the success of every individual on their team.
"We're joining the PFL, but we are not there to really win trophies," Palami said. "We want to develop the players. Hopefully when they're exposed to a more professional environment other than their schools they can move on to professional clubs."
Unlike most professional club setups, the ADT program encourages their players to move on to bigger teams. Ideally, Cooper wants to groom the players for a career playing for professional clubs not just in the Philippines, but around the continent.
"(These are) players we feel that have got great potential, that can develop themselves, maybe push on to other teams here, like a Ceres or Kaya, or into the Thai League or J. (Japan) League, and develop themselves in terms of a career," Cooper said.
According to Palami the average age of the ADT players will be around 19 to 20 years old, with the youngest prospect having just turned 17 and the oldest being 25. There will be a few overaged players in the group, former Azkals who are recovering from injury, or who management feels "could still be there but would need better training" at this point of their respective careers.
The ADT's PFL roster will be formed from the core of the 2019 SEA Games squad and other additions after tryouts. Notable local-based names from the initial squad list include former college standouts Ateneo striker Jarvey Gayoso, UE midfielder Mar Diano, and La Salle's Matt Custodio.
Here is the initial ADT squad list provided to ESPN5.
The endgame for the program is not to have players jump directly from their own program straight to the national team, but to have more Filipinos playing in competitive professional leagues around the region. While there is a possibility that some players will figure in the senior national team setup in the near future, management wants to see them flourish in domestic leagues as well.
"Once we feel that they're developed, that they're ready to take the next step, that's it," Cooper said. "That's the difference between us and a league team, a league team is going to try to keep their best players, we're going to encourage them to move on to something bigger and better."