This week, we close out the W-League 2019/20 season by examining the two playoff rounds in Australia, look at the attendance figures and what comes next for the W-League and the Matildas, touch on the Matildas qualifying for the next Olympic Games, present news of Canberra United's young Matilda Karly Roestbakken moving to Norway and Sydney FC's Amy Sayer going to Stanford University in the States and we begin with our exclusive interview with American forward Rylee Baisden—who in a few short months went from playing in the Australian regional state leagues, to starting for the Roar, and onto a tryout in the NWSL for the 2020 season with the Houston Dash.
Australia W-League End of Season Wrap-up
Interview with Brisbane Roar's American revelation Rylee Baisden
Brisbane Roar missed the playoffs in the recently completed 2019/20 Westfield W-League season (after two consecutive playoff appearances) by finishing in fifth place and 5 points adrift of fourth place Western Sydney Wanderers, but one of their success stories this season—along with that for the W-League—was American forward Rylee Baisden's strong performance this year. Baisden, who played collegiately at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California (just north of Los Angeles), scored 3 goals and added 3 assists, accounting for over 25% of her side's 22 goals (the 22 goals scored were fourth best in the league). The American was picked up before the season from the local Australian state league (NPLW). TribalFootball.com talked exclusively to Baisden last week to get her thoughts on her unorthodox way into the W-League and how it has now led to a NWSL team trial for 2020.
Brisbane Roar signed the young American Rylee Baisden (25) after she was invited to a trial of some selected NPLW-Queensland players after leading Moreton Bay to the Queensland State League Finals, scoring 33 goals in 24 matches. Baisden explained her route from the Australian minor leagues into the W-League, "It was kind of a whirlwind because I came from the second division [NPLW], then had to trial and then signed a contract to play in the first [W-League]. For me it was pretty picture perfect and not how I planned it to go but I thought it was pretty awesome that I got the opportunity to do that….It was definitely not a normal way to do things…. It just shows that you can bridge the gap between the second division and the first. I think it was exciting that I could encourage girls in the second league that that opportunity is out there."
Before arriving in Australia, Baisden had registered for the NWSL College Draft in 2017 but was not drafted and first went to Sweden's third division to play professionally with Slovde KIK. Europe and particularly Sweden and Iceland have become the first step on a common path for North Americans who are not selected in the NWSL draft (typically 200 to 300 sign up for the draft every year but only 36 players are chosen, and not all of them are always brought into preseason camps by the 9 clubs). Baisden talked very positively about her time in Sweden, "To me it was a perfect start. It was a nice first introduction into playing overseas. I lived with a host family. The league itself wasn't as competitive as I wanted it to be, especially coming from Division 1 college, but it was a short season for me—only 3 months (playing only the Spring portion of the league that takes a summer break and resumes during the mid-year transfer window in late July/August and ending in November).
Baisden then was selected to play in the World University Games in Taiwan for the U.S. and proceeded back to Europe to play in France with Caroix de Savioe in the second division. She felt that the move was good for her as it was a longer season (8 months) and found that the competition was higher than in Sweden, having moved up a division in the process. She explained, "People go there hoping to be seen by the first division [teams] but breaking into the first division is very difficult [in France]. We played Olympique Lyon and other division 1 teams in tournaments."
Her journey to Australia started in France as she had an American teammate at Croix de Savioe who had done an internship in Brisbane and contacts led to the men's coach in the Moreton Bay organization passing her information onto side's women's coach, who reached out to sign her. Basiden talked about the differences between the second division NPLW in Australia, the W-League and Division 1 soccer in the States, saying, "Going from college to the W-League is not a huge jump but, because I played overseas and had a few more seasons under my belt, I transitioned a bit better. Playing with other national team players and other really good Americans who come over for the offseason from the NWSL [in the W-League], I think the level is way higher [in the W-League] in skill level speed, thought of play and just reaction time in general [compared with] the NPLW. Girls who come over from the NWSL the past couple of seasons say the W-League is pretty comparable to NWSL in terms of quality."
Baisden was so successful with the Roar that, when the club needed some late season help, they went the same route, signing another American from the NPLW Queensland league in Shea Connors—a native of Connecticut who played at St. Johns University and in the WPSL with Yankee United FC. Connors scored 25 goals for Logan Lightning in 15 appearances in Australia this season, with six goals in one match. Connors said that her goal is to play professionally at home, "The Westfield W-League compares a lot to the NWSL, which is where I want to reach one day."
Baisden, after her strong season with the Roar, has the chance to play in the NWSL this season, as she is currently trialing with the Houston Dash, again showing a continuation of her professional football path from Europe, through Australia's minor league to the W-League and onto the top American league. She said, "I am hoping to break into that league and hopefully go back and play another season in the W-League. There are talks about NWSL extending their season [and] because the season is short in the W-League, that wouldn't really work in terms of timing. I would definitely play in Europe again if NWSL doesn't work out. I loved it; playing in Europe is second to none. It seems like everyone is going to Europe now." Tribal Football.com says 'Good on you' to Rylee Baisden and she is definitely a talent to follow, whether she stays with the Dash or another NWSL team or returns to Europe and Australia.
W-League Playoffs Review
Melbourne City became the first W-League side to win four Grand Finals on March 21 with a 1-0 win against 2018/19 champions Sydney FC at AAMI Stadium in Melbourne, in front of a small group of family and friends, as Football Federation Australia earlier in the week ordered the match and A-League men's games to be played behind closed doors because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sydney FC started brightly with a high press that prevented Melbourne City from getting into the dominating ball-control pattern but was unfortunate to give up a goal to City in the 14th minute against the run of play. Steph Catley [OL Reign] dribbled down the left wing and shot from 6 yards out near the end line but Sydney FC goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe [Washington Spirit] muffed the save; it bounced off of her into the net on the first shot she face of the game. Sydney FC justifiably could feel aggrieved when Catley handled a Sophia Huerta [OL Reign for 2020] cross in the box, which appeared to hit Catley in the face but replays showed that it deflected off of her arm. Catley was named the Player of the Grand Final. Besides her goal, she led both sides with 102 touches, had 4 crosses and won 8 out of 11 duels with opponents.
Melbourne City finished the season undefeated, a feat they accomplished in their first season in 2015/2016 while Canberra United accomplished the feat in 2011/12 when only 10 regular season matches were held. Sydney FC was playing in their third consecutive Grand Final and fourth in the past 5 campaigns. Their three losses during that spell have all been to City.
In the semifinals, Sydney FC used an early goal from Veronica Latsko (Houston Dash) and defended resolutely to defeat Melbourne Victory 1-0 on March 14 to advance to its seventh Grand Final in the league's 12 year history. Latsko now has three goals on the season. The defending champions, who also finished in third last season, reversed a 3-1 loss to the same side 2 weeks ago, also in Melbourne, that gave the Victory second place in the final league table and hosting rights for the semifinal. Sydney's defense was outstanding, with 34 clearances to Melbourne's 8.
Melbourne City continued their unbeaten run and qualified for their fourth Grand Finals in their five seasons in the league with an emphatic 5-1 thumping of the Western Sydney Wanderers on March 15. Kyah Simon scored a brace, with singles coming from New Zealand international midfielder Rebekah Stott, Scottish international forward Claire Emslie (Orlando Pride) and an own goal from Wanderers back Courtney Nevin.
For Wanderers, they finished the season with 1 win out of their final 5 games, scoring 6 goals and allowing 17 in that stretch but still made history in making the playoffs for the first time in 8 seasons.
What is next for the W-League and the Matildas?
With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting everyone's life in all parts of the world, even though the W-League was able to complete its season, there are some questions to be answered for W-League players, the league and the Matildas in the weeks and months to come. So many leagues have suspended their seasons and with international travel discouraged, what happens to players who have not signed a contract yet with a club for 2020, including Grand Final FOX-TV analyst and Melbourne Victory's English international Natasha Dowie and Australian internationals Kyah Simon and Lydia Williams of Melbourne City? Even those returning to the NWSL face ambiguity as they are going back to teams who are currently not practicing with a regular season that will not start in mid-April as schedule, including Melbourne City's Scottish international forward Claire Emslie (Orlando Pride), and Australian internationals Steph Catley (OM Reign), Ellie Carpenter (Portland Thorns) and Emily Van Egmond (Orlando Pride) and Sydney's Australian international centerback Alanna Kennedy (Orlando Pride), U.S. international Sofia Huerta (OM Reign) and Canadian international Lindsey Agnew (North Carolina Courage).
The W-League needs to answer questions about possible expansion (with A-League expansion sides Western United in Melbourne entering this season and MacArthur FC in the Sydney area for next season), extending the length of the league (currently 12 regular season games and could impact using NWSL off-season players), VAR (used in the men's A-League but not in the W-League) and continued sponsorship revenue building. The direction of some of these decisions is contingent on if the 2023 Women's World Cup Finals are awarded to Australia and New Zealand as joint hosts. That decision, expected this summer, is likely to be delayed as well as FIFA deals with a massive re-think of its global events calendar.
W-League Attendance Figures
The 2019/20 season posted the third highest overall per game attendance average in the 12 seasons of the W-League, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and bush fires that devastated portions of the country. With a few game's figures missing, the league drew 79,923 (1,536 per game) for 52 of 54 regular season matches in 2019/20, behind a record 2,139 in 2017/18 and 1,784 last season; 2019/20's results can be considered good considering the country faced bush fires throughout much of the season and then the effects on all sports of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sydney FC (2,598), Brisbane Roar (2,355), Western Sydney Wanderers (1,840), Melbourne Victory (1,803) and Newcastle Jets (1,691) all were above the league average, with Canberra United (1,313), Melbourne City (949), Perth Glory (766) and Adelaide United (689) lagging behind.
Unfortunately, the finals series attendance was an all-time low, with people encouraged not to congregate in large crowds during the semifinals and the Grand Final played officially in a closed door setting, so the 3 games average per game was only 439 fans. Year 2's average in 2009 was the previous low at 811, while last season was a record high of 6,332. In normal situations, we would have seen at least 10 times the 2019/20 figure for these games.
Australia advances to Tokyo Olympics
During the international break, Australia's women's national team qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (still scheduled to be played this summer but depending on the COVID-19 virus, the dates could be moved into next year) 7-1 on aggregate. They won their home leg in Newcastle 5-0 on March 6 with Sam Kerr (Chelsea) scoring a brace and then won the return leg in Vietnam 2-1 on March 11, with Kerr and Hayley Raso (Everton) each scoring. The second leg was played in a closed stadium without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic and veteran forward Huynh Nhu (28) scored for Vietnam, the first time they have ever scored against the Matildas, who have made their fourth Olympics after 2000 as host, 2004, and 2016. Huynh Nhu plays with HCM City, who she has won the Vietnam National Women's Football Championship in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019.
Karly Roestbakken moves to Norway
Karly Roestbakken (19) has signed with Norwegian powerhouse LSK Kvinner. Her father is Norwegian and played in the second division before immigrating to Australia two decades ago. She has spent four seasons with Canberra United. Roestbakken was a surprise last minute selection for the 2019 Women's World Cup team in France after Laura Brock (Alleway) had an injury. Roestbakken was on the team that helped the Matildas through the third and fourth round of 2020 Olympic Games Qualifying and has six caps in total.
LSK, based in Lillestrom, have won the last six league titles and seven crowns in the last 8 seasons along with 5 cups, and were Champions League quarter finalists in 2018/19, when they were beaten by Barcelona (4-0 on aggregate). Roestbakken told Canberra United's website, "I am looking forward to playing for LSK this season. It will be an exciting challenge to play in an international tournament with a leading club in LSK. I hope in some way I can help with a winning title or two. I also want to thank Canberra United for helping me get to this point in my career and for their ongoing support throughout the Westfield W-League season."
Amy Sayer Will Play with Stanford University this Fall
Eighteen-year-old Sydney FC midfielder Amy Sayer (who appeared as a substitute in the Grand Final), who has been capped at the U-17, U-20 and full national team level, will play at Stanford University in California this fall on scholarship. Sayer, who only played one game during the 2018/19 season due to injury, has played three seasons in the W-League (one with Canberra United) with two goals. Stanford is reigning Women's College Cup Champions in 2019 and has won the title two of the last three seasons.
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey