MANILA, Philippines -- Fitness will be one of the most crucial factors for the Philippine women's national football team (PWNFT) in their quest to qualify for the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023.
This, according to new head coach Alen Stajcic, who is training the team in their camp in Irvine, California ahead of the 2022 AFC Asian Cup in India.
At stake in the Asian Cup are five spots to the World Cup that will be jointly hosted by New Zealand and Australia.
"There's so many positives within this group," Stajcic told reporters recently. "[It's] such a good group, such a united group that I've noticed."
"I know that they're all aligned and driven to succeed as one, and that's what we have to do to give ourselves every possible chance of getting one of those spots for the World Cup," he added.
The Filipinas have been in California since early November, with Stajcic admitting that they need to work on virtually all facets of their game. The PWNFT qualified to their second straight Asian Cup after winning Group F of the qualifiers in September, but even then it was clear that there was plenty of room for improvement.
"We definitely have to improve in every facet. You know, we have to improve our defense, we have to improve our attack. We have to improve our transitions. We have to improve every aspect of our game -- game management," said Stajcic.
"We're working hard to minimize all those deficiencies and try and cover up those, and get as fit as we can. That's one of the biggest challenges we got -- to try and get as fit as we can," he stressed.
Stajcic, who previously coached the Australian women's national team, believes that the fourth or fifth game of the tournament will be the most crucial for the Filipinas.
The Philippines will have three group matches -- they play Thailand on January 21, Australia on January 24, and Indonesia on January 27. The top two teams will qualify for the knockout quarterfinals, as well as the two best third-placed teams.
Teams that advance to the semis will secure a spot to the FIFA Women's World Cup, while the losing quarter-finalists will figure in a repechage to determine who gets the last spot.
"I keep saying to the group, it will be the fourth or the fifth match in this tournament that will determine who goes to the World Cup, and it's imperative that we're fit enough by the time we get to the fourth and fifth match, to give ourselves every chance of winning that match, to qualify for the World Cup," said Stajcic.
To help them in this regard, the women's team has been competing in friendly matches with local clubs in California. Stajcic stressed that the results of the friendlies are secondary; their priority is to gain match fitness while also trying different combinations of players to determine the best fit for the team.
"One of the hurdles that we have to overcome is the lack of playing time and training time in the last 12 months for a lot of the playing groups. We're trying to catch up on that and play as many games as we can," he explained.
Though they are still working on the physical and technical aspects of the team's performance, Stajcic is optimistic that the squad's mentality is already strong.
"I've noticed within the group that they've got a firm belief in wanting to be positive and wanting to win and wanting to back themselves," he explained.
"That's exactly the type of player that will be selected, and they are the ones that will carry the flag and carry the nation's hopes. So you know, unless you've got that positive mindset, there's no use even setting foot on the field," he added.
The team will head straight to India after wrapping up camp in Irvine, California. The Asian Cup opens on January 20 and runs until February 6; Japan are the defending champions.