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Thomas Dooley is on his last chance as Azkals coach in 2017

Unprecedented optimism for Philippine football marked the start of the year, but it all ended in tears and frustration as the Azkals were unceremoniously dumped out of the group stages of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup on home soil.

With the country hosting the tournament for the first time, and fielding its most talented attacking team in history, a fourth consecutive semifinal stint appearance was minimum requirement.

The painful setback of 2016 means that we must look ahead to a brighter 2017, with the following five wishes:

1. Qualify for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup

After the Suzuki Cup flop, qualifying for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup must be top of the list of priorities for the Azkals.

The issue of player availability will be partially resolved, as these qualifiers, starting in March, fall in the FIFA international window. So, the likes of European-based goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, and defender Daisuke Sato, will be available for selection, as will Henan Jianye striker Javier Patino, who was missed in the Suzuki Cup.

English-based goalkeeper Neil Etheridge should be available for the Asian Cup qualifier in March.

"We cannot afford two successive disqualifications. We have to increase the faction of football support in the Philippines, and one way to do that is to win these qualifying stages," PFF Secretary General Ed Gastanes told ESPN FC.

Participation in the Asian Cup will be a fitting culmination of the rise of Philippine football from the depths of a decade ago. But there is still a lot of work to be done to reach that goal.

2. Philippines Football League to succeed

Due to start in March, the inaugural Philippines Football League looks set to replace the UFL as the premier competition in the country.

According to PFF Secretary General Ed Gastanes, five clubs have signified their intent to join the PFL, with UFL sides Global, Stallion, Ceres Negros, Loyola Meralco Sparks and Kaya all making plans.

The PFF are still in discussion with other clubs, with the hope of having eight teams for the new league.

While UFL matches were held primarily in downtown Manila, the PFL will have games all over the country, including Cebu City, in the Visayas region, and Laguna in Southern Luzon.

For the first time, the league will include an ambitious home-and-away format, which may be a challenge for a country where inter-island transport can be costly, and where football has yet to gain a mass following.

Yet, going the provincial route just might be the key to promoting the sport, as football has always had a bigger support outside of Manila.

The next logical step for the sport's development is a true national league, comprising teams from all over the country. As Thailand and Indonesia showed in the 2016 Suzuki Cup, a strong domestic competition can be the backbone of a successful national team.

Philippines
A stronger national league could help the Azkals to improve in 2017.

3. UFL to continue

Without a true national competition, the winners of the UFL's league and cup have provided the country's representatives in AFC competitions for the past two seasons.

And, after being the Philippines' de facto premier league for the last five years, the UFL is set to be pushed to the background, which is a development that might suit them.

Even with the expiration of a substantial TV deal, the UFL could still carry on as a semi-professional football league for teams not able to play in the more financially demanding PFL.

Aspiring clubs, with limited spending power, can look to join the UFL, including budget-constrained Armed Forces teams who once dominated the domestic scene.

According to head of football operations Ritchie Gannaban, the UFL will continue its Youth League, which has attracted considerable participation from different age groups.

Even with the Philippine national league coming to fore, the UFL still has a very important role to play.

4. Representatives in AFC competitions to do well 

Philippine club football broke new ground in 2016, with Ceres Negros and Kaya progressing past the group stages of the AFC Cup for the first time.

Next year, UFL champions Global FC will become the first Filipino team to participate in the AFC Champions League (ACL), albeit in the qualifying playoff, starting in January.

While it will be a huge challenge to qualify for the group stages, Global's mere participation in the ACL is a milestone for the game in the Philippines. Just six years ago, Global were playing only semi-professional, weekend football.

"This is the first time for us to play at this level, so we have realistic expectations. We worked so hard last season just to be here," says Global FC administrative manager Mark Malcampo.

UFL runners-up Ceres Negros will play in the Group G of the 2017 AFC Cup, which includes Hanoi T&T, Felda United and Tampines Rovers.

Philippines coach Thomas Dooley
Thomas Dooley failed to guide the Azkals out of the Suzuki Cup group stages on home soil.

5. It might be time for Dooley to go

Coaches are easy scapegoats for teams doing poorly in tournaments. But for the Azkals and Thomas Dooley, the criticism is perfectly warranted.

Dooley will point out that injury denied him defenders like Simone Rota while the unavailability of Daisuke Sato and Javier Patino limited his other options. But, with the way he managed his team, the former United States captain has to shoulder some of the blame for the Azkals' early exit from the AFF Suzuki Cup on home soil.

Stubbornly playing all-time leading scorer Phil Younghusband in a defensive midfield role has been a source of frustration for players and fans alike. Many others would also have noted his disappointing substitution patterns, with precious points being dropped against Singapore and Thailand in their Group A matches in November.

The lack of centre-back options had been looming since February. And yet, Dooley's solution in the end, was to call up an out-of-favour wing back on the eve of the tournament.

Giving a 17-year-old full-back his debut against defending champions Thailand in the centre of defence, in the Azkals' biggest game of the year, was a mark of desperation.

Reports of unfulfilled management promises, leading to player unrest right before the tournament, also did not help his cause.

Even if it is not the most financially prudent thing to do, perhaps a change of head coaches is the only logical choice left for the Azkals?

Certainly, if Dooley fails to lead the team to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, he should definitely go.

Manila-based Ryan Fenix is football columnist for Sports5 Philippines and analyst for InterAksyon.com. He is also a FIFA Ballon d'Or juror.

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