Expat soccer team hoping to make history

By Tony Phillips  /  STAFF REPORTER

Fri, Mar 07, 2008 - Page 22

Taipei City FC are on the verge of making a little bit of history as they prepare for a game which, should they win, could see them become the first expat team to claim the Businessmen's Soccer League (BML) title for 16 years.

The feat would be all the more remarkable as the side are in their first season, and their initial campaign started unpromisingly, as joint club captain Ross Conlon recalls.

"After our first four games we only had four points, but we haven't dropped a point since," says Conlon, a 26-year-old Irishman from Ennis, County Clare.

The teething problems came from trying to get a new group of players to gel and from searching for the right playing formation.

"We started out with 4-4-2 but it was too defensive," says 31-year-old Englishman Dan Calvert, the other club captain. "Most of our players are good going forward, so we switched to 3-5-2."

Taipei City have their roots in long-standing expat side Taipei Animals, who both Conlon and Calvert played for.

"There were some differences of opinion -- over tactics, the way forward," Calvert recalls. "We decided to set up our own side but we still have good relations."

The Animals play in the Tavern Premier League (TPL), composed almost exclusively of expat teams, while City stayed in the BML, which, apart from City and one other side, is made up of all-Taiwanese teams.

"The standard of play in the BML is better overall than in the TPL," Conlon says. "There is a fair amount of overlap though, as most of our players also play for TPL sides."

"There are eight expat teams playing in the TPL, so the talent pool is diluted between the clubs, but many of the best players in the league play for us too," Calvert says.

Part of the reason for the split was a desire by Conlon and Calvert to be as competitive as possible and play at the highest standard they could.

"We aspire to be one of the best teams in Taiwan, not just the best expat team," Conlon says.

The BML is one level below the top tier of Taiwanese soccer but still includes clubs able to field former Taiwanese internationals and, indeed, proficient expat players like Calvert, once on the books of English professional side Peterborough United, and Conlon, who played for highly rated Irish junior side Avenue United.

The style of play is another thing that marks the leagues apart.

"Teams in the BML tend to keep the ball on the floor, they pass and move," Conlon says. "Expat teams tend to play more of a long-ball game and the TPL is probably slightly more physical."

The BML is a national league, although all matches are played in the Taipei area because of superior facilities and the fact that it's where most of its clubs are based.

Taipei City's final game of the season on Sunday week is a winner-take-all clash against league leaders Fritz FC. Fritz are firm favorites to win their penultimate game this weekend, which would leave them three points clear at the top of the table.

Should City beat Fritz the title could come down to goal difference. As things stand, City have the edge on this score so things couldn't be poised more tantalizingly.

Win, lose or draw, City have good cause to be pleased with the way things have gone in their first season. Even so, there is no chance of them resting on their laurels.

Although they lack Taiwanese players at present, it's a situation City hope to remedy. Probably the most encouraging avenue for progress is young players.

Calvert coaches local children and hopes that some will eventually strengthen City's ranks.

He is cautiously optimistic about the future of soccer in Taiwan, having been impressed by the standard of the kids he has worked with, but believes the game needs a higher profile before it can compete on a more equal footing with basketball and baseball.

City's final game of the season against Fritz FC takes place at Bai Lin Bridge in Shilin, Taipei, on March 23. Kick off is at 4pm.