KENYA BROWN - Wednesday, June 24, 2015
The Philippines is not known as a hotbed for soccer, but a few Americans are calling the Southeast Asian country home as they play in its top league.
When talking about sports in the Philippines, one will find that basketball and boxing top all others. The Philippine Basketball Association is followed by many, while boxing champion Manny Pacquiao is revered by millions on the island nation. However, in the shadows of those two sports, soccer is starting to makes it presence known.
The national team has become more competitive thanks in part to the Philippine Football Federation's efforts to bring in foreign-born Filipino players to team up with the country's best homegrown players. The team has also hired former U.S. national team captain Thomas Dooley as head coach as they seek to be one of the top teams in Asia.
The Philippines has also taken steps to improve its domestic game as they established the United Football League in 2009.
While the 10-team first division still has a long way to go until it reaches its long-term goal of establishing a premier league, it has still attracted soccer players from around the world who are just looking for the chance to play and hopefully make a name for themselves.
The players come from countries such as England, France, South Korea, Japan, Brazil and Cameroon. There are also a host of Americans who have made the journey over to the Philippines with hopes of building their careers.
Why have these players decided to take the gamble on playing in the UFL? Three players give their insight on what it's like to play in the country.
From Germany to the Philippines
Jorge Butron is a new comer to the soccer scene in Asia. Prior to making the move to the UFL, where he is signed with Kaya FC, the 25-year-old midfielder had spent some time in Germany with the likes of Vfl Onasbruck and Altona 93.
Making the jump from playing in Europe to a fledgling league such as the UFL may seem odd, but Butron told Yanks Abroad that he had learned a lot during his time in Germany and it was just time for him to move on.
"I felt I was able to obtain and soak in all the information there was to learn, especially from my coaches who were all ex-Bundesliga players at some point. Then I thought it was time to move on," he said. "The move to Kaya FC was an opportunity for me to be able to go to Asia where I at some point wanted to go, where one of my college friends got me in contact with Paul, who then was able to make everything happen."
Although the UFL took a break for the Southeast Asian Games, which recently concluded in Singapore, Kaya FC finds itself in the thick of the campaign for the league title as they currently sit in fourth place, five points behind league leaders Ceres FC. The team also are in the round of 16 of the UFL Cup and chances look promising that they can make to the final.
Butron has been one of the players contributing to the push as he has played in few games for Kaya so far. There is good mix of homegrown players in addition to the foreign contingent and they do have the quality to push to the end for silverware.
When talking about what he contributes to the team, Butron highlighted his experience as being the top factor.
"I feel like I bring a little diversity and experience to the team, which helps our defensive line," said Butron. "I feel I'm doing well and I just have to keep pushing myself to be in peak form."
The Philippines is a far different environment from what Butron experienced during his time in Germany. However, he has adjusted quite well to life there after a difficult period.
"I like to spend a majority of the time in the gym and always trying to be ahead of the game. Also, I have been going around Manila a lot to explore and experience my surroundings since it's my first time in Asia. It wasn't easy at first because of the 16-hour time difference and the humid tropical weather.
Butron still has a long career ahead of him and he has set a lot of lofty goals as he helps with Kaya's efforts on the field. While he is happy playing in the Philippines, Butron believes the sky's the limit.
"To win the league, of course and I feel like we have the right guys for the job. I like to take it one day at a time and the Philippines has been great to me so far," he said. "I definitely wouldn't mind staying here longer, but I would keep the doors open if I had the option to go back to Europe or the U.S. to play."
Diego Barrera has bounced around from one team to another in his career, but it seems like he has finally found a home in the Philippines as he is now signed with Kaya FC. After playing for a number of teams across the United States, the Colombian-born and California-raised midfielder finally got a chance to make the move abroad.
"I made it to the UFL through a coach I briefly played for based out of Orange County. He had developed a relationship with the head coach of Stallions FC with the goal to send good players. His name is Trey Scharlin. I got in contact with Trey after I saw he had sent his first player which was also a friend of mine named Jermey Hohn. His success opened the door for me and eventually others. At the time I was very open to any opportunities anywhere overseas, and was excited to explore this one," said Barrera.
While 28-year-old was excited about the prospect of playing soccer professionally, he was shocked at how popular one particular sport was throughout the country.
"I was very surprised to find out basketball was the most popular sport here. I had no idea," said Barrera. "It is still shocking to see how this country has adopted the basketball culture from the states. Everywhere you go you don't see kids kicking a ball, instead you see makeshift backboards, hoop rings and people randomly practicing their fade away shot."
The former New Mexico Lobos player got his start in the UFL with Stallions FC in 2013 and helped the team to win the title that season. His next move would be to Team Socceroo based in Metro Manila.
Since June 2014, Barrera has been signed to Kaya FC as they push to be the top team in the Philippines. While he works hard to earn a place in the starting eleven, he has earned the respect of his teammates as he has proven to be a great mentor to them.
"I am a team oriented player and always supporting my teammates by giving them advice on game situations and words of encouragement or motivation. They tend to listen to me because as a professional American athlete at age 28 they can see my game has a certain level of experience and I earned their respect by being humble and friendly to them," he said.
Barrera has not played in many games for Kaya this season as the team has played fairly well so far without him in the fold. However, the former Wilmington Hammerheads FC player has no complaints as he knows that his number could be called at any time to help the team on the field.
"This season we acquired new foreign talents and at the moment they are given the opportunity to show and prove themselves. A five foreigner rule on the field every game can also lead to rotation of playing time. The coach is the decision maker, whether you agree or not with his ways you just have to deal with the situation given and be a professional," said Barrera.
"It's not always easy specially when the team is winning, it can be hard to make an argument. It's normal in football," he continued. "Athletes have their down times. Keep training hard always and be optimistic is what I do every day. So when the opportunity comes like in the last game against Team Socceroo on March 16, I made my mark. Goal and an assist in a 5-0 win. Good moment and hoping to keep doing what love to do."
It has been about two years since Barrera made the move over to the Philippines and he appears to quite settled and enjoying his life thus far in Southeast Asia. In addition to playing soccer, he is happy to share his experiences with his wife as they have been able to explore the region.
"My wife and I love doing outdoor activities for we are an athletic and adventurous couple. In a day to day basis I enjoy checking out the many big high end malls Manila has to offer. While trying the delicious exotic Asian cuisine. On the weekends I play golf and watch movies at the cinemas here which are by the way really nice. There's a lot you can do here. Many nice places for entertainment if you live in a city and provinces if you want to see the beauty of nature."
Back to matters on the field, Barrera, like his teammate Jorge Butron has his sights set on accomplishing one goal with Kaya.
"My goal this year with Kaya FC first and foremost would be to win silverware without a doubt. The UFL league and the UFL Cup are the primary competitions which are played simultaneously this year. I won the league with Stallion FC in 2013 and I believe we have a team this year with that winning mentality," he said.
A youngster looking to the future
Midfielder Johnny McArtor's path to the UFL is unlike many of the other players in the league. After graduating from high school early, he immediately made the jump to Stallions FC where he played for two months before signing with Team Socceroo.
The 18-year-old is only at the beginning of his career, but he is a keen observer as to the differences between playing soccer at the youth level to the UFL.
"The transition from playing youth soccer, whether it is club or high school soccer, to men's soccer requires some adjustment, particularly in terms of speed of play. At first it took a while to get used to the speed of the game but after a while I began to find my feet and was able to impose myself more in games," he said.
Team Socceroo is not one of the stronger teams in the UFL and they find themselves struggling in the league this season as they are hovering just above the relegation zone with only four points. While the league title may be out of reach, they still have a shot at capturing the UFL Cup. But it will take a lot of determination and luck to reach the final as they have been given a tough draw in the second round.
While the team has struggled to earn wins this season, McArtor still sees a bright side to the team's chances of turning things around.
"In the first four games there were some disappointing results and performances, but there is definitely some potential and positives that I see," he said. "I feel like we are more threatening as a team when we hold the ball and don't try to force things, our best stretches during games come when we are confident enough to hold on to the ball and let things develop. I think once that is done more consistently, results will start to fall in our favor."
McArtor has played soccer in both the United States and the Philippines and sees stark differences in the level of play. While the UFL still has a long way to go to rival other leagues in Asia in addition to Major League Soccer, he believes the UFL is improving and will someday become a quality league.
"The level of football in the Philippines at the men's level is quite decent as in the UFL there are a good amount of foreign players in the league, and even some former Division 1 players. Compared to what I have experienced when playing in the U.S., the soccer in the U.S. is at a higher level in terms of both speed and skill but the Philippines doesn't lag too far behind," said McArtor.
Many of the players in the UFL have already been professionals for a number of years, but McArtor still has a long way to go before he makes the switch to becoming a fulltime professional. He has now returned to the United States where he is playing for Sockers FC in Chicago before he heads off to play collegiately at Valparaiso University.
The coaching staff of the Crusaders speak highly of what McArtor will bring to the team next season.
"We are really excited to add Johnny to our squad," said Valparaiso head coach Mike Avery on the team's website. "Johnny is a soccer player, first and foremost. He has clean feet, makes quick and creative decisions, and has the ability to operate in the middle third of the field where it is often busy and fast and he seems to somehow make the game slow down around him. Johnny has had some interesting life experiences by moving from Chicago to the Philippines for high school, and I think that this kind of experience has only enhanced his soccer."
Avery is not the only one who has high expectations for McArtor. The young man is determined to put his stamp on the team the moment he sets foot on the field for their first game of the season. If all goes well at college, he hopes it will lead to a promising professional career.
"I plan on working towards becoming a contributor to the program as soon as I get there and ultimately get to the NCAA tournament and do well. I aim to be a difference maker at the collegiate level and hopefully pursue a career after college is finished," said McArtor.