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The Week in Women's Football: Nicole Koslova exclusive on Ukraine transfer; A-League bottom 6 review

This week, we present part 2 of our second review of the 2023-24 A-League Women season in Australia, after approximately two-thirds of the season (10 teams have played 14 games out of 22, while Canberra United and Western Sydney have played 13),

We examine the teams currently in seventh through twelfth place: Wellington Phoenix, Melbourne Victory, Newcastle Jets, Brisbane Roar, Adelaide United and Canberra United. Last week, in Part 1, we looked at the top six teams in the table who would qualify for the playoffs: Melbourne City, Western United, Sydney FC, Perth Glory, Central Coast Mariners and Western Sydney Wanderers (see link: The Week in Women's Football: A-League top 6 review; chat with Jaclyn Sawicki on that Philippines NZ WC shock - Tribal Football). also talked exclusively with Ukrainian international forward Nicole Kozlova, who was born in Canada and moved, after two years with title winning side Hoge in Denmark, to play in the 2023-24 season in Eastern Ukraine with Vorskla Potava.

2023-24 A-League Women Season to Date—Part 2

Wellington Phoenix (6-1-7—19 points—Tied for Seventh)

Starting on December 15, the Phoenix lost five of six games, four on the road and all by one goal: 2-1 away to Adelaide, 1-0 away to Sydney, 2-1 against the Roar in Brisbane, 1-0 at home against Central Coast Mariners on January 12 and 2-1 versus Melbourne City away on January 19. Their road record is really crippling them—they have one road win in Round 2 against Western Sydney 3-0 and five losses, while at home they are 5-1-2 (W-D-L). Mariana Speckmaier (see our interview with her last month: The Week in Women's Football: Mariana Speckmaier exclusive - Wellington & Venezuela potential; rejecting CSKA - Tribal Football) leads the team with six goals—scoring a brace on January 27 at home in a 2-0 win over Canberra United, which snapped their four game losing streak and moved them up the table to within one point of a playoff spot.

New Zealand youth international Emma Main (24) is next on the team with three goals while American forward Hope Breslin (24) and New Zealand youth international Macey Fraser (21) each have two goals. American forward Isabel Cox (22) has one goal in five games but missed some game time to get married; the team needs her goal scoring potential though their 20 goals is the sixth highest total in the league, while their defense has been solid, allowing only 16 goals to tie for fourth best in the league with Western Sydney. The Nix certainly should not be counted out for a playoff spot after a wonderful start to the season but they desperately need to pick up more points on the road in their final games.

Melbourne Victory (5-4-5—19 points—Tied for Seventh)

The Victory has really struggled over their past stretch of games since just before Christmas; after going six games undefeated starting with Round 3 (four wins and two ties), the wheels came off and MV earned one point from twelve possible points (one tie against Perth at home and three losses)—their biggest deficit being at home against Western United (4-1) on January 6. It is also the first time they have lost three straight games in a single season since 2016. Rachel Lowe has had a great season with eight goals to lead the club and is joint tied for third in the goal scorers race with Sophie Harding of Western Sydney Wanderers and just one goal behind joint leaders and Canberra United duo Vesna Milivojevic and Michelle Heyman, who are on nine goals. Japanese import Kurea Okino and American forward McKenzie Weinert each have three goals, followed by American defender Kayla Morrison and 18-year-old Australian forward Ella O'Grady with two.

Midfielder Alex Chidiac, last season's Julie Dolan winner as the A-League Women Player of the Year after scoring six goals and five assists in 13 matches, has played four games since joining the side for the December 30 2-0 loss away to Western Sydney. She scored in Melbourne Victory's 3-2 away in Canberra on January 20. She played the past few years with Racing Louisville in the NWSL, and then went on loan for the past few months with UANL Tigres in Mexico (see:

She signed a long-term contract with the Victory through the 2025-26. Another late season signing for the Victory is Emily Gielnik, who played with the Matildas at the 2019 WWC Finals in France and has over 50 full international caps; she scored her first goal of the season with an amazing long-range dipping and curving shot from over 20 meters when she was not closed down by the Canberra defenders just before the end of four minutes of injury time. Gielnik played for the past two seasons with Aston Villa in England's WSL before returning to the A-League Women for the 2023-24 season.

Newcastle Jets (5-2-7—17 points—Tied for Ninth)

From Rounds 8-12, the Jets won three games and tied once, with only one loss, including a 4-2 win at home over last season's finalists Western United. Philippines international Sarina Bolden is scoring consistently—what she has done throughout her career—with seven goals from nine games—more than double that of the next highest scorer, long-time Jet Lauren Allen, who has scored three times in 14 games. First year defender Lorena Baumann (26) of Switzerland has started 12 matches and subbed in for two more and helped the defense which has allowed 26 goals—tenth best in the 12 team league. Four goals in total were allowed in consecutive losses in Rounds 13 and 14 to Sydney FC away (2-1) and to Central Coast Mariners (2-0) at home.

Despite the two losses to their New South Wales opponents and sitting in a tie for ninth with Brisbane, they are only three points out of a playoff spot. They have scored 21 goals on the year—tied for fourth in the league with Western United—but need a second goal scorer to take the pressure off of Bolden, who has a third of the team's goals since joining the side after the season started.

Off the field, shocking news came when head coach Gary Van Egmond—a long-time resident of the city—resigned to take a job with the China Football Association. With negotiations going on for a month at least, his departure was not a surprise and Jets CEO Shane Mattiske seemed less than pleased with his decision: "With our Women's team drawing record support and building great momentum at the half-way mark of the competition [the club is averaging 2,662 fans a game after six matches at Newcastle #2 Sportsground, when last year they averaged 998 fans in 8 matches, an increase of 63%], Gary has made a big contribution to the team and we are disappointed that he is leaving the club at this point."

Van Egmond was appointed by the Jets on a permanent basis in March last year, of having stepped in on an interim basis following the departure of Ash Wilson midway season. Assistant Coach Ryan Campbell will take over the side on an interim basis; he coached in 2022 at Adamstown Rosebud with Northern New South Wales in the state league. Van Egmond's specific role with the CSA has yet to be defined as of press time.

Brisbane Roar (4-5-5—17 points—Tied for Ninth)

Since winning their first two games of the season, Brisbane went eight games with no wins and only four points out of 24 (with four ties and four defeats). First-year American import Mia Corbin (26) has had a fantastic first season in the league, scoring 7 goals in 14 matches—after scoring three Serie A Femminile goals with Parma in 2022-23 from 12 games. She played at the University of California-Berkeley and also in Costa Rica with Alajuelense.

Corbin scored the clinching goal in her club's 3-1 surprising win away to Western Sydney in Round 14 on January 26, lifting the club most had left for dead around the half-way point of the season to only three points out of a playoff spot. In this season of constant change among the top playoff sides, it is too early to count the Roar out yet, particularly if they put an undefeated run together now to close out the campaign.

Goalkeeper Jordan Silkowitz of the U.S. has two shutouts in 14 starts; the defense has surrendered 22 goals (tied for eighth best in the league with leaders Melbourne City) while their 18 goals scored is tied for seventh best in the A-League Women, with Western Sydney and Perth.

Adelaide United (3-2-9—11 points—Eleventh)

Adelaide United has taken a major step-back after making the playoffs for the first time ever in 2021-22 when they finished in third place but fell to eighth last season among 11 clubs. They have scored 16 goals—tied with Sydney FC for the lowest total in the league —and have surrendered the most goals with 31—one more than Canberra United (30). They unfortunately have fallen back into their pattern of the past, where they won three or fewer games in 11 of their 15 seasons. South Australia seems a difficult place to recruit to despite Adelaide being a lovely city; head coach Adrian Stenta, if he is back for a fifth season in 2024-25, needs to deliver some experienced domestic and international talent and not just rely on home-grown talent.

American forward Mallory Weber has not been back to the team since the 2020-21 season—she suffered an ACL injury in her right knee just minutes into the Kansas City Current's 2022 season and then she tore it again in the same knee early in the 2023 season. She just was signed again for Kansas City for the 2024 season at the end of January. When healthy, she would be the type of import that Adelaide needs as she had six goals in 21 matches and was a tremendous leader.

Dylan Holmes, who played one season in Sweden with Hacken in Gothenborg and is in her seventh season with the Reds, leads the side with three goals. American Mariah Lee (27), who has played in Scotland with Celtic FC (scoring 6 goals in 11 matches in 2021-22), Denmark and Spain and a short time with the Seattle Reign after college at Stanford and Wake Forest, nine-year Adelaide United Australian defender Isabel Hodgson (27), Japanese import midfielder Nanako Sasaki (24)—in her third season with the club—and English-born New Zealand youth international Hannah Blake (23) all are tied for the team lead with two goals each.

Blake played collegiately at the University of Michigan and played with Perth Glory last March as an injury replacement, scoring three goals in six starts, after which Adelaide brought her on with a full-time professional contact for 2023-24. Blake has represented New Zealand at U-17, U-20 and full international levels; she was with the Football Ferns in their pre-2023 WWC Finals training camp, but was a late cut and did not make the final 23-player squad.

Adelaide United's New Zealand international Hannah Blake (in white) played collegiately in the U.S. with the University of Michigan. Photo courtesy of University of Michigan Communications Department.

Canberra United (2-4-7—10 points—Twelfth)

Canberra sits at the bottom of the league table but their offense has been terrific and long-time striker Michelle Heyman (35), the all-time league goal scoring leader, set another benchmark when she became the first A-League Women player to hit triple figures for goals (she is behind only A-League's Albanian and Kosovo international Besart Berisha, who won four league titles with Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory and finished with 131 goals). Heyman scored a brace on January 12 in Canberra's home win over Adelaide (3-1) for her historic 100th and 101st goals. Vesna Milivojevic (22) scored the third goal just past the hour mark on a brilliant shot from the top of the box.

Their offense is second best in the league with 25 goals, only six goals behind league leaders Melbourne City (31), but their defense has been their Achilles heel, as they have given up 30 goals, ahead only of Adelaide United (31). Heyman has nine goals on the season, as does Serbian international Vesna Milivojevic (22), to share the league's Golden Boot lead. Nicky Flannery returned from missing a year with an ACL injury and has two goals and three assists, tied for the team lead in assists with Heyman and Milivojevic.

Canadian-born Ukrainian international Nicole Kozlova moves to Eastern Ukraine side Vorskla Potava after two successful seasons in Denmark

Ukrainian international forward Nicole Kozlova (25) had a vibrant building career in Western Europe, winning two titles in Denmark in her two seasons with HB Koge, but then chose, before the 2023-24 season started, to join Vorskla Potava in eastern Ukraine, signing a one year contract, during the second year of the war after Ukraine was invaded by Russia. Kozlova, Canadian-born and raised and who played at Virginia Tech University, has played for Ukrainian national youth teams since 2016 and was first capped at the senior level in 2019. talked exclusively with Nicole Kozlova recently about her move to play in Ukraine during the war.

She explained: "I had a lot of contacts with that team through teammates on the national team [and] the head coach [Nataliia Zinchenko—44] used to be my youth national team coach and the senior national team coach for a bit. I had a lot of internal connections to the club and they were current champions of Ukraine with Women's Champions League on the rise. It's a very good squad and I know the coach well and a lot about the training process. One thing that is great is that women's football is growing in Ukraine, and even, off the field, [as in] living standards, salaries—which are important to your career—are improving massively."

She showed a tremendous amount courage in moving into a war zone, particularly as her club is in Eastern Ukraine, which has faced a majority of the incursions and attacks by Russian troops, but to her it is important to stand with the nation: "Obviously, first I joined due to the war and feeling that I had a duty to be in Ukraine, [as well as] second being closer to family and then third the football reasons, in a good training environment, getting Champions League games and being the key role in attack was something I felt I needed in the current stage of my career."

Kozlova talked about playing in Eastern Ukraine, in Kortava [near Kharkiv] in a war zone: "It is a relatively safe is a great way to say it. Kortava is one of the safer east side cities you could live in [though there are] lots of air raid sirens; it's hard to define safe during the war."

Her new club, Vorskla Potava, finished the first half of the 2023-24 season three points behind Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih (31 vs. 28 after 11 games). Kozlova has had a fine season and was second in the league in scoring with 11 goals—behind fellow international Roksolana Kravchuk (26) and club teammate at Vorskla Poltava with 14—with three tied for third with 10 goals: Mariya Vykalyuk (21) of Shakhtar Donetsk, Viktoriya Giryn (23) of Ladomyr Volodymyr, who is also a full Ukrainian international and played last season in Spain with Deportivo La Coruna in the Liga F and Polina Yanchuk (22) of Kryvbas (Kryvyi Rih), who has played for Ukraine at the U-17 and U-19 levels.

For the second half of the season, when the league split into mini leagues with the Championship Round for the top six and the Relegation Round for the bottom six—Vorskla finished second to Kryvbas but did qualify for the WCL again for 2024-25, as Ukraine is allocated two spots. Kozlova felt that splitting into two sub-leagues for the second half of the season—the first year the league has done that—was good: "The format of the top six and bottom six for the Spring is much better for our Ukrainian league as there is a big gap between the top six and bottom sides… It is a growing league and we see it getting stronger."

Kozlova talked about her role and scoring success this season: "Thanks to the team's four attackers, my job is to help put the ball in the net… I got to play a lot of minutes and scored a few Champions League goals as well and helped my confidence… It's always nice to put goals in but the best part are team results and we have been getting a lot of them as well."

Vorkskla has had a good run in the 2023-24 UEFA Women's Champions League, advancing from the Champions Path Qualifying Round 1 Group 2 over Flora Tallinn of Estonia (4-3 after extra time)—after fighting back with two late goals to win the match 4-3—and then besting Osijek of Croatia (3-0). In Round 2, they met 2022-23 Italian Serie A Femmenile champion AS Roma in the two leg second round (falling 3-0 and 6-1 for a 9-1 aggregate win for Roma). Kozlova said: "With Flora and Osijek, we played two good solid teams but we knew, if we play our game, we could win both those games. We made it a little tougher than it had to be [against Flora] but ended up winning in extra time and then with Osiek, we did what the coach set up in the game plan; we did it to 100% and the game plan was perfectly correct and shut down that game in the first half with three goals."

For the draw in Round 2 against Roma, she said: "There's good and bad about drawing Roma [in the Round of 24 ahead of the 16 team League stage]; the bad is that it realistically would be very hard to qualify for the group stage, which was our goal, but the good is that these are the types of teams we want to be playing and the level a lot of us want to be playing on. Roma is one of the best teams in the world right now.

"We had to play both games in Rome [because of the war] and they were very, very kind and hospitable to us, [including] the fans and the team… I was able to test myself against those kind of levels. One day I hope I can be on a team like that."

Roma won 3-0 and 6-1 for a 9-1 aggregate win. Last season, Roma surprised many by making the Quarterfinals, where they fell to Barcelona 6-1 on aggregate. This season, they finished in last place in Group C with a 1-2-3 (W-D-L) record for five points, despite capturing four points in their first two games—a 2-2 tie with third place Bayern Munich of Germany away and a 3-0 tie at home against second place Ajax of the Netherlands, before losing twice to Group winners Paris St. Germain of France (2-1 and 3-1) and losing their momentum.

She said that the league has seen a reduction of imports, just as on the men's side, when many men's league players left when the war started in February of 2022: "The league was growing the international side of things but the war pushed everyone out and, once players came back, it was mostly Ukrainians."

A few of the imports this year include:

League leaders Krybas had six imports:

  • Goalkeeper Mengdi Zhu (24). who is a Chinese youth international and joined the club this season from Sichuan at home; she is the first Chinese women's player in the Ukrainian league.
  • Defender Kristina Aleksanyan (34) of Armenia, won four league titles in Russia with Zvezda Perm (two), Rossiyanka and Ryazan.
  • Defender Tiegnou Fatou Coulibaly (36) is an Ivory Coast international and played in the 2015 WWC Finals in Canada.
  • Defender Ysis Sonkeng (34) is a Cameroon international and played at the 2012 Olympic Games Finals in England and at the 2019 WWC Finals in France.
  • Midfielder Mahira Ali (26) of Egypt, who played with Wadi Degla last year in the African Women's Champions League, was born in Mansoura, Egypt and played in Canada with the Oakville Blue Devils in League1 Ontario—a semiprofessional league—for 2 seasons in 2018-19, scoring 34 goals in 21 matches across those two seasons and won the league title in her second campaign.
  • Midfielder Cynthia Shilwatso Musungu (24) of Kenya is a full international and played in the past in Spain's Liga F with Logrono.

Kozlova's club Vorskla had two internationals this year:

  • Midfielder Kamila Kumagambetova (28) played for Kazakhstan's youth and senior international sides; she was a fixture for years with Kazakh powerhouse BIIK Kazygurt, winning four titles.
  • Midfielder Olga Osipyan (28) played for Armenia at youth and senior international and for clubs in Kazakhstan and in Russia's second tier.

FK Zhytlogud-1 Kharkiv (1), who finished fourth in the regular season with 20 points in 11 games, also had two imports:

  • Goalkeeper Gamze Yaman (24) is a full international for Turkey.
  • Defender Alevtina Utitskikh (35) of Russia played for their full national team in 2012.

At the national team level, this season in the UEFA Nations League, Ukraine finished third in Group 3 of League B, with six points from two wins and four losses; Poland and Serbia tied on 10 points, but Poland won the group with a better goal difference (+7 to +5) while Greece finished fourth with 3 points. Ukraine won two of their last three games, including a pair of 1-0 wins over Greece and Serbia along with a 1-0 loss to Poland—keep in mind that, due to the war, they cannot play any games at home so Ukraine is the essence of a homeless side for now.

Kozlova was still very positive about the new UEFA competition which divides the 51 nations into three different tiers and multiple groups of four teams [one League C group contained three teams]: "Nations League is great for countries like ours; so when we schedule friendlies, it is not against such good competition, and with this ranking, we don't see any 5-0 and 8-0 games any more and most games in [Leagues] A, B and C have been close games."

<a href='/players/nicole-kozlova'>Nicole Kozlova</a> WU 19 Ukraine March, 2018 - YouTube

Nicole Kozlova [left in yellow] in action for Ukraine's WNT. Photo courtesy UEFA.

The top three third place sides in League B, including Ukraine, will face the three best-ranked League C runners-up over two legs in late February, aiming to avoid relegation to League C. Ukraine will face Bulgaria on Feb 23 and Feb 27 while Latvia plays Slovakia (League B) and Montenegro will play Northern Ireland (League B).
Note: interviewed Kozlova two years ago when she was playing for Ukraine in the UEFA Women's EURO Qualifiers and at Virginia Tech University (see: The Week in Women's Football: Interview with Ukraine star Kozlova; Damallsvenskan shock; Spirit visit Qatar - 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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