With unpredictable conditions looming and a huge range of experience throughout the different teams, none of the four contenders are feeling complacent for Match Day 1 of the 2017 OFC Champions League Qualifier.
Lupe Ole Soaga, qualifiers in 2015, are hoping to repeat history with coach Paul Ualesi still at the helm. The Ualesi-led side enjoyed success not only in the 2015 qualifier but also the main competition, however two years on they will still be preparing for competitive opening match against Utulei Youth FC.
“We’ve really prepared hard for all of the opponents because we don’t want to underestimate any team,” Ualesi said.
“It’s the first game and we know it will be a big challenge for the team,” he added.
Overcoming hurdles as they arise and working on the team’s weaknesses has been imperative in Ualesi’s preparation of the side, but he is now confident they have the ability to repeat history.
“We need to be finishing well because we can’t win without finishing, and we need to win to qualify for the second stage,” he said.
“I’m confident for my team to play well. If they really play well and with discipline I think we’re going to be a top opposition.”
Utulei Youth coach Pita Sinapati has been working hard to prepare his side for the OFC Champions League Qualifier and hopes to cause an upset when they take on their Samoan opponents.
“We’ve been trying to build a team to compare to the standard of the competition,” he said.
“I know Lupe Ole Soaga are fit and their skills are maybe more accurate than ours but you never know.
“As of right now I am very confident because we’ve been combining as a team for two months now and I’m rooting for my team. I’ve got big confidence in them.”
Sinapati believes his team will prove themselves a worthy contender in the competition if they focus on working together and persevering for the full 90 minutes.
“Our goal is teamwork, never give up, and to keeping moving,” he said.
Veitongo coach Timote Moleni is looking forward to his side displaying their talent in front of a strong home crowd on Saturday, but knows the Cook Islands champions are going to be one of their hardest challenges.
“We don’t know much about Puaikura or the players they have from overseas but we know they will be a big challenge,” he said.
“They are the main team of our focus. If they win our game, I think the Puaikura team will definitely have a place in the Champions League.
“I’m confident in Veitongo and I am happy to face any challenge with them because I know the team came here for the game. They are here to play football.”
Moleni hopes that having the support of the crowd will give Veitongo the motivation to rise to the occasion and show the community their talent.
“I know that football is not a popular sport in Tonga, only rugby, but with the competition running in Tonga, maybe the people will come and support our team. We’re looking forward to it.”
With little knowledge on competition debutants Veitongo, Puaikura coach Matt Calcott is focusing on his own team’s performance, ensuring they play their best game regardless of their opponent.
“It’s pretty tough in the qualifier to find out a lot of information about the other teams but I think what will be important for us is that we concentrate on our own performance on Saturday,” he said.
“There’s been a lot of hard work that’s gone into Puaikura winning the league and qualifying and it’s great to come on board to build on that work which Anthony Samuela has done throughout the season,” he added.
With the high level of football development happening across the region, Calcott is going into the first game cautious of the challenges his side will have to overcome to earn the three points.
“The physicality of all the teams will be a big challenge for us,” he said.
“All the teams are improving due to the good work and the coach education around OFC and things like that.
“The game is really starting to improve in the region, which means all of the sides are a lot better prepared than they’ve been in the past.”
In spite of that, Calcott is confident the positive culture in Puaikura will help them prove dominant contenders.
“There’s a really good team spirit,” he said.
“A lot of them were in the U-20s together so it’s a young, hungry kind of team.
“We’ve gained a little bit of experience with some of the players from New Zealand. They’re not experienced in terms of age but they’re experienced in terms of football. They’ve had a lot of Champions League games and that’s great to see.
“If that experience can lend a hand to what is an already existing, excellent culture within the group, then I think we can get there.”
Utulei Youth will face Lupe Ole Soaga in the opening match of the round robin competition at Loto Tonga Soka Centre on 28 February at midday (local time), before Veitongo and Puaikura kick off at 3pm (local time).
Utulei Youth FC [ASA] vs. Lupe Ole Soaga [SAM]
Loto Tonga Soka Centre
Saturday 28 January
Kick-off: 12h00 (local)
Utulei Youth FC
Vital Statistics: 2017 is the second time in a row the side has represented American Samoa at the OFC Champions League Qualifier after defending their FFAS Senior League Championship title in 2016.
The Players: Kome Tomasi returns to the qualifier after travelling to the Cook Islands with the side last year. His dominance up front earned him a goal in the side’s opening match against qualifier winners Kiwi FC.
Coach Quote: “A win is everything for us and our country. It’s the most important. It will build that motivation for us to keep on moving forward.”
Utulei Youth FC: 1. Jonathan FA’AVAE (GK), 2. Neemia KALEOPA, 3. Tokoita VAIELI, 4. Kenneth KEREWI, 5. Rajendra SINGH, 6. Ryan SAMUELU, 7. Leuatea SIATUU, 8. Kome TOMASI, 9. Elama FAATONU, 10. BJ FIAALI’I, 11. Austin KALEOPA, 12. Moimoi TUALAULELEI (GK), 13. Paulo BOURNE, 14. Joe KOROIADI, 15. Iopu KALEOPA, 16. Sione MOEAKI, 17. Pesamino VICTOR, 18. Harvey MANU, 19. Peter HARRINGTON (GK)
Coach: Pita SINAPATI (ASA)
Lupe Ole Soaga [SAM]
Vital Statistics: The side’s 2015 OFC Champions League campaign was the most successful of any Samoan team in the competition. Lupe Ole Soaga won the qualifier undefeated and continued on to the 2015 Champions League where they drew 3-3 with Tahiti’s AS Pirae.
The Players: Goalkeeper Faalavelave Matagi proved himself a worthy gloveman last year when he represented Samoa at the 2016 OFC Nations Cup. The 19-year-old threw himself in front of world-class strikers from Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, and New Caledonia, pulling off some eye-catching saves.
Coach Quote: ““I know it is really important we win this game to lift the momentum of the team. We really need to win the first game to get a head start up the ladder.””
Lupe Ole Soaga: 1. Faalavelave MATAGI (GK), 2. Vaalii FAALOGO 3. Spencer KELI, 4. Vaa TAUALAI, 5. John TEO, 6. Darren ALATINA TALILAI, 7. Lawrie LETUTUSA, 8. Samuel MALO, 9. Suivai ATAGA, 10. Lapalapa TONI, 11. Ielome FUNAFUTI, 12. Suepasi PELESA, 13. Michael FIFI’I, 14. Tauati TANOAI, 15. Faafua ATAGA LALOATA, 16. Ivan FAAIVA, 17. Kareti SOAFA, 18. Mataio TOETU (GK), 19. Vito LALOATA.
Coach: Paul Ualesi (SAM)
Puaikura FC [COK] vs. Veitongo FC [TGA]
Loto Tonga Soka Centre
Saturday 28 January
Kick-off: 15h00 (local)
Vital Statistics: Puaikura played 19 games without losing a match to win their 2016 domestic league and book tickets to Tonga. They also won their domestic pre-season tournament and the Round Cup Championship.
The Players: Conroy Tiputoa was a standout in the side’s final domestic game to win the Round Cup Championship. The 16-year-old scored two goals in the 58th and 59th minute of the final, contributing to Puaikura’s 6-2 victory against Avatiu. In 2016, Tiputoa led the Cook Islands side in the OFC U-20 Championship in Vanuatu, and represented Cook Islands in the inaugural intake of the OFC Education Centre.
Coach Quote: “I know that for this team to get up and win it, they would have created history which shows you how tough the tounrnament has been in the past. We’re going to have to do everything possible to ensure that we get that end result.”
Puaikura FC: 1. Keegan INIA (GK), 2. Jarves APERAU, 3. Anthony SAMUELA, 4. Pekay EDWARDS, 5. Anthony HOBBS, 6. Kimiora SAMUELA, 7. Samuel MAOATE-COX, 8. Paul POILA, 9. Campbell BEST, 10. Grover HARMON, 11. Temata KARIKA, 12. Conroy TIPUTOA, 13. Tyrell BARRINGER-TAHIRI, 14. Maro BONSU-MARO, 15. Kris CARPENTER, 16. Renta YAMAMOTO, 17. Dwayne TIPUTOA, 18. Paul RHODES.
Coach: Matthew Calcott
Vital Statistics: The hosts of the tournament will make their second appearance in the OFC Champions League Qualifier this year after winning the 2015 Tonga Major League.
The Players: Tonga Football Association Technical Director Kilifi Uele has acted as a player-coach throughout the team’s preparation, assisting Timote Moleni in strategic planning. His knowledge on and off the field guides the younger players in the side.
Coach Quote: “Puaikura are a good team and I respect them but I have prepared my team to go out there and prove they are best. They will put in a good effort, especially against Puaikura.”
Veitongo: 1. Mahe MALAFU (GK), 2. Sione TUIFANGALOKA, 3. Sione UHATAHI, 4. Unaloto FEAO, 5. Kamaliele PAPANI, 6. Kilifi UELE, 7. Halapua FALEPAPALANGI, 8. Mark UHATAHI, 9. Hemaloto POLOVII, 10. Tupou UHATAHI, 11. Lafaele MOALA, 12. Sione KITE, 13. Vai LUTU, 14. Tuiakaetau FALEPAPALANGI, 15. Fetuli KATOA, 16. Etilei TUIONO, 17. Ofa KITE, 18. Oliveti VAI, 19. Deep KUMAR (GK), Soane FAUPULA (GK).
Coach: Timote Moleni (TGA)