Can Scott Cooper and Dan Palami guide the Philippines to AFF Suzuki Cup success?
The Philippines have a first-ever Asian Cup to look forward to in January but, as important as the continental tournament is, it will have to wait. The AFF Suzuki Cup is the priority. Fans of the Azkals long for a first piece of silverware, and that prospect is far more realistic in November and December when Southeast Asia comes together for its biennial competition.
For Thailand, a team that has come to dominate the region with two successive AFF triumphs, it is completely correct to see the tournament as a way to prepare for the Asian Cup -- but the Philippines are not at that point yet. Had they won in 2016, then maybe things would be different now but they didn't and so they aren't.
For years the team were the whipping boys of Southeast Asia, but that all changed in 2010 with the first of three successive semifinal appearances. After those three experiences, 2016 was seen as the time that the Philippines could finally break new ground. The stage was set: The team looked strong, the coach had been in place for some time and there was home advantage.
However the fans never came, with crowds struggling to reach a total of 10,000 for the host's three games combined and the results were poor: Two draws and a defeat. It was a damp squib all round with the team exiting the tournament in the Friday night rain just north of Manila. To say it was a disappointment would be as big an understatement as saying Manila traffic can be a challenge.
Coach Thomas Dooley kept his job and steered the team to a first-ever Asian Cup qualification before being dismissed in June with the former United States defensive midfielder replaced by former England defender Terry Butcher. It was a slightly surprising move to hire a coach with a short spell with Sydney FC as his sole coaching experience outside the United Kingdom.
Eyebrows were raised much higher in early August, however, when Butcher resigned without even overseeing a single game and without giving a reason why. Local rumours suggested that he found facilities to be lacking. Team manager Dan Palami was accepting of Butcher's decision.
"I was looking forward to working with Mr Butcher as we build a strong team for the country's first Asian Cup," Palami said.
"It is unfortunate, however, that Mr Butcher had expressed difficulty in executing his plans for the national team program."
At least replacement coach Scott Cooper, who had joined Butcher's staff as a senior adviser, has some experience in the region and has taken charge of Thai giants Buriram United and Muangthong United as well as Mitra Kukar in Indonesia. That Southeast Asian knowhow should stand Cooper in good stead ahead of the AFF Suzuki Cup.
While there are concerns that the Sheffield-born coach will not have enough time with his players, it should be remembered that Dooley had the best part of three years with the team ahead of the 2016 tournament and that was a failure.
There have been some training camps, though. The Phillipines squad went to Bahrain in September and fought to a 1-1 draw with the host nation, before a longer camp in Qatar. Cooper sent young players to a Bangladesh tournament and on Friday the team picked up a creditable 1-1 draw with Oman in Doha, despite being under some heavy pressure.
Neil Etheridge was in fine form in that game but the goalkeeper will not be at November's tournament. He is busy trying to keep Cardiff City in the Premier League and will not be released for a competition that is not recognised by FIFA. In addition to that, defender Daisuke Sato is likely to stay in Romania.
It remains to be seen if Cooper recalls Stephan Schrock. The former Bundesliga midfielder fell out with Dooley and has been out of the national picture since. The former coach also had issues with Dennis Cagara and Martin Steuble, but the slate has been wiped clean. Familiar faces such as the Ott brothers, the Younghusband brothers, Iain Ramsay and talented forward Javier Patino have plenty of international experience.
There is enough talent there at least to get out of the tougher of the two groups. Defeating Singapore at home in the opening game would set the tone for what should be an away win in Timor Leste. A home game against Thailand is tough but winnable and the hope is that the team will make the final trip to Indonesia needing to take all three points.
Get out of the group and anything is possible. Thailand are not at full-strength, leaving Vietnam as the team to beat with Cooper's side not far behind. The Philippines fell flat in the 2016 edition, but the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup might just be the Azkals' best chance at finally winning some silverware.