TFPL Team Preview: Taiwan Steel Enter the Title Race

The remarkable transfer activity of the Tainan side means that they start the season as genuine title contenders, and perhaps even outright favourites.

Taiwan Steel generated a significant amount of interest during the off-season with a raft of high profile plunders, mostly from their league rivals.

They can now reasonably claim to have the best strikeforce in the league, with two of last season’s highest scorers arriving in the form of Haitian Benchy Estama (25 goals for Hang Yuan) and Turks and Caicos Islander Marc Fenelus (23 goals for Tatung).

Both Fenelus and Estama have often looked almost impossible to stop for Taiwan’s Premier League defenders, so the prospect of them lining up together will likely give Steel’s rivals a real headache.

How well these two attackers combine, and how opponents respond to them, will almost certainly define the season. This is not lost on Steel’s players. “Both are incredible on the field,” states Steel’s Chilean midfielder Mati Godoy, who acknowledges that the top teams “are on a very similar level.”

Godoy is correct about the likelihood of a close contest this season, which means that any team with title aspirations needs to make a quick start to the season. With last season’s top two sides, Tatung and Taipower, losing just three games between them last season, Steel can ill afford to make a sluggish start.

However, even if, for some reason, Fenelus and Estama struggle to combine in their new surroundings, Taiwan Steel have plenty of other reasons for optimism.

Providing competition upfront is highly regarded 21-year-old forward Yu Chia-Huang. Although Yu is young, he is already an established Taiwan international player and has plenty of league and AFC cup experience.

But it is not just the final third that is looking strong. At the other end of the pitch, Steel have added quality and experience.

27-year-old Taiwan international centre-back Chen Wei-Chuan has also been prised away from FC Tatung, where he won three titles in a row. Chen’s experience in the league will be a valuable asset to Steel and will surely calm many of the newer or more inexperienced players.

Chen will be assisted in defense by Taiw Russian Alim Zumakulov. The 28 year-old central defender is much less of a known quantity than Chen and has arrived from Mongolian Premier League side Anduud City. Zumakulov will need to hit the ground running if he is to help propel Steel to the title. If not, his ability to play across the back four might at least make him a useful squad player.

To further shore things up, Taiwan’s starting goalkeeper Pan Wen-Chieh has been brought in and will join his national team understudy Hsuan Tuan. Steel were fortunate to land the fan favourite, with the charismatic keeper signing after his move from Tatung to Hong Kong Premier League champions Tai Po fell through in January.

Signing Pan, whose prowess as a keeper has improved significantly in recent seasons, may well prove to be Steel’s most astute signing. “Without a doubt, Pan is extraordinary,” says Godoy.

It is hard not to share Godoy’s enthusiasm. Pan is an experienced and talented player and his prospective transfer to Tai Po was regarded by many as a just reward for consistently being the league’s best keeper.

With so many additions in defence and attack, Steel’s midfield is perhaps looking a little bare by comparison. Steel have refrained from bringing in any major signings in midfield. However, they can still rely on big players, such as captain Wu Chun-Ching.

The 31-year-old has 50 international caps and has been a regular with the national team for a decade. With his tenacious pressing and ball-playing ability, Wu protects his defence and provides a platform for the team to build from. “[Wu] is a great contributor in the midfield… he runs more than all together,” summarises Godoy.

With their flurry of high quality signings over winter, Taiwan Steel have built a team that seem capable of ending the title duopoly between Tatung and Taipower. If the team stays healthy and the new signings play as well as they have done in past seasons, it is difficult to see how they will not thrive. They are surely certain to improve on last season’s distant fourth-placed finish, but their sights will be trained on the biggest prize.

Olivier Vidal

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