Around three weeks ago, the Philippine National Women’s Football Team competed in the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Women’s Football Championship staged in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. After three demanding matches, the Filipinas finished third in the group after notching a win and two defeats. Unfortunately, it was not enough to progress into the semifinals.
Three of the instrumental players in the squad are Joana Houplin, Jesse Shugg, and Inna Palacios. Based in the U.S. state of Washington, Houplin plays for the Issaquah Gunners in the Women’s Premier Soccer League. In the AFF Women’s Football Championship, the attack-minded athlete capable of playing midfielder and forward tallied three goals in the same number of games. Her overall record is even more impressive as she has scored 12 times in 11 matches while representing the Philippines. Houplin’s partner-in-crime, Jesse Anne Shugg, is a Canadian-born Filipina who just finished her tertiary studies and is also currently helping out as an assistant coach for the Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida. She was responsible for three of the goals scored by the Philippine contingent in the competition, including one she scored on her birthday. Last but not the least is Inna Kristianne Palacios. The 21-year-old goalkeeper, who just played in her third year for De La Salle University, is a regular at international competitions. She has been to many tournaments in both the youth and senior levels and went to Vietnam as the team’s captain.
Not getting to play in the international football scene for almost two years, the three of them were as excited as everyone else, if not more, in the build-up of the tournament. Palacios joined the team from the start while Shugg arrived a few weeks later and was able to stay in the Philippines for a good week or so. Houplin joined the training camp just before the team embarked on a journey to Vietnam. “I was excited to meet the new coaching staff. I knew it would be a different experience prior to the other tournament I’ve done,” she said. For the first time, the women’s national football team was headed by a female in veteran coach Letecia “Buda” Bautista. Aiding her were former national team standouts Patrice Impelido and Marinelli “Let” Dimzon, both respected figures in Philippine women’s football. “She pushed us every day to work hard mentally and physically, which are both vital aspects in soccer,” Shugg added.
Aside from the new coaching staff, most of the girls they played with were young girls who play domestically. Jo admitted that the team was inexperienced going into the tournament, but showed huge potential with most of them having excelled in the domestic tournaments at quite a young age. Palacios was familiar with most of the players in the pool as most of them came from UAAP, the league where she also participates in. As for Shugg, she felt a bit overwhelmed with the new faces, but blending in was not much of a problem. “We warmed up to each other within a day or two, and it became intense and fun training with them on and off the field,” she elaborated.
After leaving Manila for Ho Chi Minh, the first challenge they had to overcome was against the Malaysians. Not losing to them before, the Filipinas relished the opportunity to make the most out of their opening game. Taking the points, however, is always easier said than done primarily because the Philippines haven’t faced Malaysia recently. Yet in recalling the last times they squared off, the team entered into the match confident. “We knew we had a good chance to win this game. It was a good game to start the tournament with knowing that Myanmar and Vietnam were stronger,” Houplin noted.
The Philippines were dominant in the first half and had an unanswered 24th minute Jesse Shugg strike to take into the break. “It felt pretty good. I mean who doesn’t like to score goals, right? Plus it was my birthday so I was expecting to get a birthday goal for myself and the team,” Shugg said as she chuckles. With the match still far from settled, the Philippines needed at least one more to finish off the game. The unforgiving heat started to take a toll on everyone, but the dogged determination the Filipinas had was evident. “I think being in the lead is pretty important. Obviously it builds up your team’s confidence and spirit on the field which is uplifting and tends to make your team play better, but it’s too close for comfort. It’s more the second goal that I think is important because it puts you in a greater lead and dampers on the other team’s confidence and kind of vibe of their performance,” the birthday girl furthered. Another teammate, Pearl Aguilar, also celebrated her birthday together with Jesse and the rest of the team.
After the interval, Houplin scored twice in the second half to make it a comfortable win in the end. “We were doing a better job of getting pressure on the first and second balls. Jesse played me a great through ball that beat the back line. All I had to do was time my run and slot it in the corner,” she narrated on her first two. For her second, all Jo had to do was to get in front of her marker the moment Shugg’s cross reached the target. They finished their first outing with a 3-0 victory. “I love playing with Jo because if I’m not scoring I sure know that she is! So when I’m able to create chances, I feel good knowing Jo is in there to finish them,” Jesse noted.
Undeniably, the whole team rejoiced in the dressing room. It meant taking one step towards clinching their goal–making it to the semifinals. All there needs to be done is to win one more and the game against one of the region’s most formidable teams: Myanmar. “It was a short-lived celebration after the game knowing we had two much tougher games ahead. Winning the first game gave us a little more confidence going into the next game,” Houplin told.
Indeed, the confidence they got from winning against Malaysia helped them in their battle with the Burmese. “We spoke in our pregame meeting and we knew it was not going to be easy, as we had a completely different team from two years ago, but we thought it’d be realistic to walk away with a win, which we almost did having held them up until half time at 1-0,” Shugg pointed out. A Houplin penalty strike at the 21st minute placed the Filipinas ahead of Myanmar. “I was confident in taking the PK and had no doubts I would score. I had practiced them prior in trainings, and was confident in my ability to put it away,” the goal-scorer declared. Afterwards, they did their best to stay in front by halftime. “It was just an amazing moment for me simply because we scored first and held them for the entire first half, but we were tired. Myanmar always had the ball and they would just keep on attacking. It was hard keeping up and it was just first half,” Inna recalled. Admitting it felt great to have won the half against a formidable opponent, the young goalkeeper grew wary by the time play was about to resume. “I was looking at everyone and we looked tired. I got worried because it’s hard to last a half with just your opponent attacking, and for us defending all the time,” she observed.
The game finished with Myanmar scoring four second-half goals while also blanking the Filipinas. The defense did their best to protect their lead, but their opponents were just way superior to them in the closing half. It was natural for the players to feel dejected after losing a lead to their opponents but there was not much time left for them to stay sentimental. “We couldn’t dwell on the loss or else it might just eat us alive. I just had to reflect on the game and my thoughts of the ‘what ifs’ just happened but then again, we need to be mentally tough to set our insecurities, mistakes, losses out of our system for us to move forward with the team,” Palacios uttered.
In order to qualify, the girls playing for the Philippine flag needed to win by a minimum of seven goals against the group favorites and hosts Vietnam. Palacios narrated that the team went on to prepare for their next game as soon as a few hours after the Myanmar loss. “The team’s aura was always light and happy, and for me, that is very important. It means that despite the loss, we never forget how to still have fun playing. It’s like everyone just had a positive attitude,” she underlined. The team felt confident in facing the Vietnamese but have acknowledged that defeat will not be a shocking result if recent encounters were to be revisited. “We went into this tournament very last minute so the main focus on our team [after preparing for only a short period of time] was to not lose badly,” Jesse stated, arguing a longer preparation may have made the girls more equipped in battling Vietnam.
The home side made the most out of their chances by scoring four goals to lead the scoreless Filipinas at halftime. “It’s never a good feeling to lose and I hate losing, but you have to give credit to Vietnam, they are a strong team who scouted our weaknesses and exploited them,” Houplin remarked. “I had two good chances on goal and did not put them away. I knew it was going to be a tough game but knew I could get in behind their defense and create a few chances. I definitely should have put them away,” she went on to say frustratingly after going through the video file of the match. The Philippines appeared to have lost the match even before halftime but their resilient showing in the second half reduced the inflicted damage. Effectively keeping a clean sheet, the Filipinas ended their 2015 campaign with a 4-0 loss to Vietnam. “It’s hard playing a game knowing that it could be the last. I think that’s what held us from playing our game,” Palacios reckoned.
After the tournament, the trio assessed their performance quite fairly in the competition. Ranked the competition’s fifth best team, the Filipinas went as close as 45 minutes away from making the leap towards the semifinals—the goal set by Bautista prior to the squad’s departure for Vietnam. With the average age of the team slightly decreased, Palacios described the recent squad to be more enthusiastic as most of them experienced senior international football for the first time. “They always made sure that they were happy doing things. It’s not like they’re not serious and all, they’re serious when they have to, but most of the time they would just laugh and crack jokes to lighten the mood and to entertain the rest of the team. Basically, they always want to have fun,” she elaborated.
The Philippines have been consistently finding themselves narrowly separated from the rest of the elite pack in Asia. It seems as if the state of women’s football in the country has reached a plateau waiting for a critical juncture to happen in order for them to get to the next level. Palacios believes continuity in the current program will foster a positive change in the team’s fortunes. Houplin, meanwhile, thinks that the unwavering support of the Federation should not only be with the current team. Rather, she also wishes for more girls to be exposed in football activities. “Women’s football in the Philippines needs to be better and we need to grow more local talent, and that needs to be done at a much younger age than what has been in the past.” The Seattle-based Filipina also stressed the importance of foreign-based players like her in the squad. “We do need more “Phil-foreigners” in the roster to strengthen the team. The experience that U.S. and Canadian based players have competing in youth, club, college, and semi-pro levels is something that cannot be replicated in the Philippines right now, hopefully in the future it will grow to the standard but we are far from that,” she conceded.
It may be a long time before the Philippines make it in the world stage in women’s football, but paving the way towards doing so as early as now is a good place to start. Surely, it will have an impact not only on the current players, but to a nation whose people are always striving to prove to make a difference in the world. These girls showed that the Philippines have what it takes to compete against current regional giants. Maybe given enough time and resources, they will be able to inspire not only fellow Filipinos as the world may also be able to witness what they are able to do on and off the pitch.