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The Week in Women's Football: A-League focus; Hopkins exclusive; World Cup hopes

This week, to start the new year, we will review the first third (approximately) of the expanded (18 games for each club) A-League Women 2022/23 season in Australia, with some interesting story lines developing.

In part 1, we examine the top six sides at this point of the season: Melbourne City, Sydney FC, expansion club Western United, two-time reigning champions Melbourne Victory—for who we feature some thoughts from a recent interview with their head coach Jeff Hopkins—Adelaide United and Brisbane Roar. Next week in part 2, we will look at the other five clubs: Newcastle Jets, Canberra United, Perth Glory, Western Sydney Wanderers and Wellington Phoenix, with some input from a recent interview with new Phoenix head coach Natalie Lawrence.

Note: League standings are through Round 8 games completed on January 1, 2023.

2022/23 A-League Women in Australia--Season to Date Review

In a crucial season for the A-League Women, with next summer's Women's World Cup expected to turbocharge interest in the women's game in both Australia and New Zealand, the start of the 2022/23 campaign has provided some interesting stories in the race for the top four and the playoffs, for which still only four teams make the playoffs, despite adding one expansion team each of the last two years. At this point, Western United—the surprise club of the season—would replace Adelaide United (currently out on goal difference) from last season in the playoffs, with Melbourne City, Sydney FC and reigning champions Melbourne Victory again in the post-season.

Melbourne City (5-0-1—15 points—Tied for First)

Melbourne City is far and away the team goalscoring leaders this season with 18 goals from six games. They have four of the top nine scorers in the league, with Rhianna Pollicina (25—a futsal star in New South Wales and former Junior Matilda), American import and loanee from Racing Louisville of the NWSL Emina Ekic (23) and Chilean international Maria Rojas (35—and on a series of short term contracts to cover for injured players) all tied for third in the league with four goals—along with young Americans Madison Haley of Sydney FC and Sarah Griffin of Newcastle Jet (both 23)—while Australian full and U-20 international Bryleeh Henry (19) has three goals. Their 3-1 loss to fellow Melbourne area side Western United on December 17 has been their only blemish of the season thus far. They drew a league season high of 5,392 fans on December 17 for their 3-1 loss at home to Western United and then 4,341 for their 1-0 win over Perth Glory at AAMI Park on December 27. Ekic scored the only goal against Perth on the hour mark from the penalty spot but then had to leave the game ten minutes later with an ankle injury, the extent of which is unknown at press time

Sydney FC (5-0-1—W-D-L—15 points—Tied for First)

The Sky Blues brought back striker Remy Siemsen (23) from AIK of Sweden, which she joined in the Spring but the Stockholm club was relegated at the end of the 2022 season. Siemsen explained her move back home, "I'm excited to be coming back and I want to have a great season of playing and training to get into that (Matildas) squad in the next seven months." On December 30, it was revealed that Siemsen was moving back to Europe for a record transfer fee for Sydney FC. Her new club has not been announced yet as of press time to comply with European leagues transfer window rules. She also hopes that the move will increase her chances to make the 2023 WWC squad, but she needs to perform much better than she did for AIK this past summer, where she scored 3 goals in 21 games for the side that was ultimately relegated from the top tier in their second season in the Swedish top flight. She had two goals this season in four matches for the original Harbour City side.

After losing their first match of the season on the road to Adelaide United (1-0) on November 20, Sydney defeated Melbourne Victory 2-0 at home on November 26 in a repeat of the last two Grand Finals, with Victory winning both of those title matches. New American import and U.S. youth international Madison Haley scored in her first match in the A-League Women, and a Melbourne own goal comprised all of the scoring. Haley played at Stanford University and won two national championships and was the seventh overall draft selection by the Chicago Red Stars in the 2021 draft.

She has four goals in four matches this season and Sydney head coach Ante Juric said after the win over MV, "The two things that caught my eye with Madi is that she holds the ball up and puts people into play, but she's an exceptional finisher too. She works well in our team and she actually fits perfectly with what we do. She'll only get better and better too."

So far this season, she looks to be an inspired acquisition by Sydney and Juric, particularly with Siemsen leaving the club so early in the season.

Western United (5-0-0—15 points—Tied for First)

The new expansion side in Melbourne, Western United, is off to a fantastic start and every week their wins add more depth to their special story. They drew 2,753 to their first match on November 19 to see a 1-0 derby win over Melbourne Victory, the two-time reigning league champions. American import and 2019 WWC winner Jess McDonald scored the only goal of the game.

After the win over Melbourne Victory, Western United's head coach Mark Torcaso said, "We went into that first game thinking we could win and wanted to win. There was also the daunting task of facing the champions. Our four weeks of preparation was the best we could possibly do in a short period [with many coaches complaining about the reduced preseason from last season's six weeks]. I was concerned about that. Victory was a team that has been together for a long time. I was concerned we wouldn't be ready for that. But that's when getting the right people in—staff and playing wise—helps. People like Jess McDonald, Chloe Logarzo and even someone like Aleks Sinclair [34—who scored 26 goals in 29 NPLW games in 2019, when Calder United won the championship and she won her second straight Victoria Player's Player of the Year title], American Hillary Beall [23—who is on loan from Racing Louisville and was a member of the U.S. U-20 Women's World Cup Final side in France] are the ones that calm the nerves a bit in those kind of games."

Then on November 26, Western made the long trip to Wellington and defeated the Phoenix 4-1 in front of a strong crowd of 1,541 (after the Phoenix drew 5,213 the week before in a 4-0 loss to Melbourne City in the second-year franchise's first ever game in New Zealand, after having to play all last season in Australia due to COVID—see more in next week's column), with Americans Hannah Keane (2), McDonald and Sydney Cummings (American-born and raised who plays internationally for Guyana) all scoring. Western then went to Adelaide on December 4 and trailed 1-0 as the match went into injury time, but then the suburban Melbourne side stunningly scored two goals, one from Cummings in the 91st minute and a long-range blast from Emma Robers (24) to shock the Reds and the viewers on television and online. Veteran A-League Women television announcer Teo Pellizzeri, on Channel 10, said after the second goal, "This is what the Liberty A-League is all about! Adelaide won't believe what's hit them."

WU then amped up their game in Round 5 and sent host Melbourne City out of the ranks of the undefeated on December 17 as Matilda Chloe Logarzo scored a brace in a 3-1 win. Western showed in this game that they will be a serious championship contender should they maintain form and make the playoffs, as City led Western in total shots (16 vs. 9) and shots on goal (6 vs. 4), but the new franchise still prevailed for an important win.

In Round 8 to open the new year on January 1, Western continued the heroics by fighting back from a 2-1 deficit after 53 minutes in Perth to the Glory, through a Chloe Logarzo goal in the 67th minute and then a Perth own goal four minutes from time; they remain undefeated and untied after five games.

Their American goalkeeper Hillary Beall has one shoutout and surrendered only three goals in four games. McDonald in particular has been a hugely impactful acquisition with her veteran savvy and has two goals, even with fellow American import Sydney Cummings, who plays internationally for Guyana, while the other U.S. import, Heather Keane, has three goals. Chloe Logarzo also has three goals in five games.

'This is what the Liberty <a href='/leagues/a-league'>A-League</a> is all about!': The late, late drama that sent Western top

Emma Robers (#11 in center) celebrates her game winning goal in the 97th minute for Western United against Adelaide United (2-1) in South Australia.

Photo Courtesy A-League Women.

There is another way at looking at Western's early success, that based on the core of the team coming from NPLW and internationally known powerhouse Calder United in Melbourne, we shouldn't be so surprised. Sacha Pisani, on December 23 on the A-League's website, detailed how a close partnership between Western and Calder has been formed since Western announced that they were joining the A-League Women in September of 2021, and now there is a pathway from juniors all the way through to the A-Leagues. Western head coach Mark Torcaso and players Alana Cerne, sisters Adriana and Melissa Taranto, Emma Robers, Julia Sardo, Aleks Sinclair, Natasha Dakic, Alyssa Dall'Oste, Stacey Papadopoulos, Raquel Deralas and Harriet Withers all moved up from Calder United and were key factors in their NPLW championship in 2022. The Taranto sisters, Dakic and Cerne all could have national team futures based on their rapid adjustment to the top women's league in Australia.

Torcaso talked about the club's transition from the state league level to the national league, "The transition so far has been amazing. I did have my question marks over some players and how they would transition into an A-Leagues set-up but we got our foundations right a couple of years ago with Calder and we wanted to make sure players were prepared to go to the next level….I truly believe that this could be something other clubs should be looking at as a way to way develop players and having a pathway, right from Miniroos (youth from ages 4-11) at Calder to Western United in the A-Leagues…The transition was challenging initially but if we set the right balance and tone at Calder, once we came to Western, these players will be ready and were ready. We're seeing that. I don't think any of our Calder players are out of their depth."

Calder previously was a feeder club for other Liberty A-League teams. Torcaso explained, "The reality is, 70% of that side MV dual champs [Melbourne Victory's 2021/22 and 2022/23 championship side] is from the Victorian NPL. I'd say four or five were from Calder previously and the rest from Bulleen, Heidelberg and that."

Torcaso was the Calder head coach for six years—winning three Grand Finals and four consecutive NIKE FC Cups [the Football Victoria Women's State Knockout Cup Tournament]—having coached Bundoora United senior women and Under-16 girls at Whittlesea Zebras previously. He has also had Liberty A-League experience himself prior to this season, serving as a goalkeeper coach at Melbourne Victory, helping the team to win the 2014 Championship.

Other top NPL sides around the country, such as Syndey University and Illawarra Stingrays in New South Wales, must be studiously analyzing Western's move to the A-League Women, which could allow more NPL clubs to move up in the future, or even create sides for a possible A-League Women Second Division, a fully professional league, but with a lower cost of entry and perhaps with a more regional focus, much as the USL Super League in the United States is planning to launch in 2023 as a second tier below the NWSL.

Melbourne Victory (4-0-2—12 points—Tied for Fourth)

The Victory surprisingly fell to expansion side Western United (1-0) and then to Sydney FC (2-0) in their first two games of the season, but then ran off four straight wins (1-0 at home to Wellington Phoenix, 3-0 at Perth Glory, 5-2 at home against the Newcastle Jets and 1-0 at home over Canberra United). talked recently with Melbourne Victory head coach Jeff Hopkins, who discussed his side's slow start of the season and the of play that he likes to implement at the club. He also discussed the expansion of the league season this season--up to 18 from 14 games last season and 12 games for many years in prior years—and if that released the pressure some with their slow start to the season of two losses.

Hopkins explained: "The longer season does take the pressure off a little bit. It is still important for a number of reasons to get a good start to the season. One of the most important things this year that maybe people don't realize is that, although we have an expanded league and another six weeks of season assignments, we actually had our preseason period cut by a week, so we only had a five-week preseason. Most probably in hindsight we might have gone a little too hard too early for our squad. It has been a balancing act. Every year we want to make improvements to every part of our program, the fitness, the technical ability, the game understanding, the decision making.

"You are always pushing to train more and train for a little bit longer and get that competitive edge on our opponents. This year we might have not quite got it right. Even with an expanded season, it is still quite a short season in terms of games…. The league is set up [where] winning the championship game makes you the champions [not ending the season at the top of the table, which is the Premiership title in Australia]. We try to make improvements every week, we try to make improvements every game and coming into the last few weeks of the season, the finals, we hope we are peaking and at our best for the most important part of the season. We obviously prepare really hard and really well for the start of the season but, when you have a poor start, it is not the time to panic, it is the time to regroup and make sure we are improving."

Hopkins felt that last year was quite an anomaly in terms of how the season went, "Last year we didn't get a game for three and a half weeks [due to COVID] and then had 7 games in 19 days [at the end of the season]. There was no prep for that and the players dealt with that. That was a test of the physical and mental side as well at the end of the season. The most rewarding thing was seeing that the players were dead on their feet a few weeks before and then making the finals, we had a whole week off to recover. We got through a tough period and we were mentally stronger than the teams we were playing against."

For this season Hopkins remains consistent on the of play he implements for his side while making small changes to implement some new team members, "Our game principals are pretty set; we will always be a team that tries to, with the build-up, possession play and play through the thirds [of the field]; without the ball, we will be a team that pressures as high up the field as we can to try to win the ball back as close to our opponent's goal as we can. That doesn't change. Each year we have to do things slightly differently to complement the type of players that we have. We brought in [midfielder] Elise Kelland-Knight this year [the long-time Matilda with over 110 caps and Brisbane Roar player who returned from Sweden] and midfielder Amy Jackson [who has played 7 of her past A-League Women seasons with the Victory and played collegiately in the U.S. and professionally in the Korea Republic] is out injured. They are a little bit different so, at the moment, we have to play within our principles but slightly adjust it to get the best out of KK and, when AJ gets back, we may move things around and build up a little differently there as well.

"There are subtle changes in the way we do things. We have principles that we stick too but if we do things exactly the same way, we will become very predictable and it will be too easy for opponents to read and put in strategies to stop us. It is a good thing that we are evolving a little bit."

Focused on his back line, he said that [American] "Kayla Morrison, our captain is back from injuries [going out in the first game in 2021/22 to an ACL after scoring a goal and then was out for the season]. That has been a massive bonus for us. We have brought in a couple of fullbacks as well who play the game a little differently to the fullbacks we had last year. We have to fit them into our playing style and that is an adjustment there as well. Jessika Nash [18—who played last season with Sydney FC and has been capped by the Matildas] at right back has a lot of potential for a young player; [she is] super fit, super quick with a lot of talent.

"Gema Simon is one of the most experienced players in the league and gives us something different on the opposite [left] side. Technically she is very, very good. She has had a few injuries in the preseason but is coming back. [Simon (32), has been capped at the senior level, and played all 14 seasons in the league, mostly with the Newcastle Jets, but played one season with the Victory in 2014 and won a league title—she has also played in Canada, Korea Republic, Iceland and Norway]. We have a really great back four in the league plus goalkeeper Casey Dumont in goal [who was the 2021/22 Goalkeeper of the Year in the league]—defensively very, very sound and also a team that is very comfortable with the ball, so we have a very good mix there at the back. There has been plenty to do to keep me busy and our coaches busy during the preseason and the early part of the season."

Jeff Hopkins also discussed the impact that the 2023 Women's World Cup will have in Australia: "Everyone is talking about the legacy that the World Cup will leave…. Number one is we are hoping to grow the participation base at the grass roots level; that's what we need to get ready for that and make sure we have got the infrastructure, in terms of clubs, pitches, changing rooms and coaches. At the moment, there is a bit of a race on to make sure that that is happening."

Turning to the A-League Women, Hopkins said that the league needs to build up the fan base beyond, "the 1,500-2,000 people who come to the games now…. We don't want them to turn up once or twice and we get back to where we were [before the 2023 Women's World Cup]. Clubs and coaches and players have a big role to play in that, to play a fast, attacking brand of football like what they will see in the World Cup. If we can do that, then we can start to grow the crowds who come to the game and make the game a little more financially viable for the players and the club."

Note: In 2021/22, the A-League Women averaged 1,175 fans for 67 regular season games, with a record season average of 2,139 fans (54 regular season games) in the 2017/18 campaign.

Melina Ayers leads the league in scoring with five goals from five games—tied with Perth Glory's American import Rylee Baisden, who also has scored five times in five games—and scored the only goal in Round 3's 1-0 win over Wellington at home to give Melbourne Victory their first win of the season. Ayer's goal came on a header from Alex Chidiac's cross. Ayers missed all but four games last season due to a series of hamstring issues but came back for Melbourne Victory's championship title run, after the club barely edged Perth Glory to the fourth spot in the postseason.

Ayers told KEEPUP (the A-League's website) that she had joked to head coach Jeff Hopkins, "Maybe I'll try and just play the last four games every year." Ayers (23) did admit that, "It was pretty frustrating because I did it [her hamstrings] at the start of pre-season and then I did it two more times. So…doing it more than once is frustrating because you know what you've been through and have to do it again… and then it's sort of hard to trust your body when you are coming back and, when you do that first sprint back, it is pretty scary because you just don't want to do it again."

In the playoffs last season, Victory surprised the Adelaide United Reds in the Elimination Final in Adelaide, who had defeated Melbourne 3-0 just a few weeks before. Ayers scored a second half winner to knock the Reds out of their debut finals 2-1. The next week she scored the opener and assisted on the winner against heavily favored Melbourne City.

After winning the title with MV last season, she joined Iceland's top side Breidablik on loan but only played 12 games in all competitions. She explained that she did not have an easy transition to European play in her first stint abroad, "I didn't get to play as much I would have liked so I probably got a lot of extra training and a lot more gym sessions in than the previous years, so obviously I'm getting match fit again now…I'm definitely in a better place now. I have all my hamstrings intact so hopefully it can stay that way…. They [Iceland] have a very different style of football to what we play. It's more sort of, American style, so I had to adapt my game… but, in the end, I didn't get an opportunity to do that. I probably learned more off the field in terms of just keeping myself ready in case he (coach Þorsteinn Halldórsson) did change his mind and pick me and I got a lot of extra work in the gym, and swimming.

Despite Ayers difficult transition to football in Iceland, she was able to play in the UEFA Champions League in the 2022-23 season, "It's a different sort of world, European football, so it was like a really cool experience. I got to play in the Champions League and got ten minutes in that [in a 4-2 loss to Rosenborg of Norway in the first round on August 18]. It was really cool to experience European football and you see why European teams are so good. They are so professional."

As far as her future, Ayers said, "Right now, I just want to have a good season. I still feel like I haven't put together a complete season and I want to do that then see what happens after. It's kind of cliche but just see what happens but I'm not putting any pressure on going overseas again, but yeah, just have a good season and go from there."

If Melina Ayers can keep up her goalscoring skein for the Victory and drive them back to the playoffs, she could make a late case for consideration with the Matildas ahead of the 2023 Women's World Cup; she has been capped at the U-17 and U-20 levels by Australia.

Adelaide United (4-0-2—12 points—Tied for Fourth)

Adelaide United could easily have been undefeated and untied after their first five games except for Western United's injury time heroics (see above). Chelsea Dawber has come back home from the Chicago Red Stars on loan and leads the team with two goals, but their five team goals is ninth best in the league and they need to unlock English native Fiona Worts, last season's top scorer and Julie Dolan award winner as MVP, who has not yet scored this season. The Reds had another hiccup on the road on December 31 as they fell to Newcastle by a 2-0 scoreline.

Brisbane Roar (3-1-3—10 points—Sixth)

Brisbane is off to a competitive start and well placed in the 2022/23 playoff race early in the season, but needs to tighten up its defense, having allowed thirteen goals in seven games. They could use more firepower as their offense has been a bit anemic, with only seven team goals in seven games. Veteran Matilda and A-League Women players Larissa Crummer and Katrina Gorry lead the club with two goals each.

Note: For more detailed information on A-League Women team rosters, please see our previews from November 2022: (The Week in Women's Football: A-League Preview - including big name transfers ins & outs - Tribal Football and The Week in Women's Football: A-League Preview PII - plus Matildas update - Tribal Football).

Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham is on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.

Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey

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