THE Philippine Under-23 (U-23) squad sets out to give the Filipino contingent in the 31st Southeast Asian Games (SEAG) in Vietnam a strong start as it plunges into early action against Timor-Leste on Friday in the men’s football kickoff.

The U-23 Azkals gun for the full three points versus the Timorese in the 4 p.m. Group A matchup at the Viet Tri Stadium in Phu Tho Province (5 p.m. in Manila).

“We’ll go for the win,” said Philippine coach Norman Fegidero, who has tapped Azkals skipper Stephan Schrock as one of the “overaged” reinforcements of his squad.

The Pinoy booters are determined to reach the semifinals for the first time since Mr. Fegidero’s time as a player during the 1991 SEA Games in Manila.

But the current batch faces an uphill battle in what’s largely considered a “Group of Death.”

Aside from Timor, a semifinalist in the 2022 AFF U-23 Championship held last February in Cambodia, the Filipinos also have to deal with defending champion Vietnam (May 8), 2019 bronze medalist Myanmar (May 10), and Manila edition runner-up Indonesia (May 13).

The objective is to finish in the Top 2 of this bracket to qualify for the Final Four.

“We’re taking it one game at a time,” said Mr. Fegidero, remembered as the hero of the Philippines’ famous 1-0 upset of Malaysia in 1991.

“I believe in my players. They have the ability to upset the strong teams in our group,” he added.

The U-23 Azkals’ core competed in the Philippines Football League and held a training camp in Malaysia to prepare for the SEAG.

“This is my second time in the SEA Games (after 2019) and I can say this team is more prepared than the last time. I’m very confident in the ability of the players and I’m looking forward to making history with the U-23,” said Mr. Schrock.

The Philippines has yet to win a gold in football and failed to get past the group stage in 2019 on home ground.

The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) Women’s World Cup-bound Filipinas, meanwhile, hit the field on May 9 yet in the Group A opener of the distaff side over at the Cam Pha Stadium. The Filipinas are looking to ride the momentum of their historic semifinal entry in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup last January as they target the breakthrough mint after placing fourth at home. — Olmin Leyba