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Kendall Fletcher Blog: On the Wonderful Land of Oz

Fun Fletcher Fact #2 – During the off-season of WPS I travel down to Australia (the wonderful land of Oz!) to play in the Australian Westfield W-League!

The Westfield W-League is the women’s professional league in Australia.  There are seven teams in the league that are located all across Australia and the season runs through their summer months from October until February.  This timing works out perfectly for any WPS player, i.e. ME, who is looking for something to do and somewhere to play during the off-season.  I mean who wouldn’t want an all-expense paid vacation to the land down under for 4 months, where you get to travel across Australia AND play the game you love?  Seems like a no brainer to me and that is the way I have spent my last two off-seasons.

My first year I played for the Central Coast Mariners with two of my Athletica teammates Jill Loyden and Lydia Vandenburg.  Our home games were played in Central Coast, which is about 2 hours north of Sydney, at an amazing field right on the water called Blue Tongue Stadium.  Most of the team, including me, however, lived and trained in Sydney.  The experience both on and off the field was one amazing adventure after the next and I was so grateful for the people I met and the opportunity I was given while I was there.

After such a wonderful experience the first year when the 2nd season rolled around the plan was to go back down and play for the Mariners again, however, at the last minute the team folded, which left me in search of a new team and subsequently a new adventure!  After speaking with different teams and coaches, I decided the backdrop for my new adventure would best be set in Melbourne playing for the Melbourne Victory in my 2nd season of the Westfield W-League.

Both seasons were extremely different, but at the same time were equally thrilling experiences.  After spending seven months of the past two years in Australia, it has started to feel in part like home.  I had the opportunity to live with some amazing people and really embrace the Australian culture, which is full of life, color, and adventure!  As you can tell, my trips to Australia were as much about the experiences off the field as they were about the soccer played on the field.  That being said, an Equalizer reader, James (@jrsmith04), submitted a question through twitter asking me to compare the Westfield W-League and the WPS.  I thought it was a great question and wanted to take the time to answer from a purely soccer perspective.
Level of Play

The first question I am usually asked about the Australian W-League is, “How does the level of play compare to that of WPS?”  Overall, team by team, the level is not up to the standards of WPS.  That being said, there are very good players in the Australian W-League, some of whom play in WPS as well.  I think the difference in the level comes in when you compare rosters.  On a WPS team, especially this season, there is little difference between the “best” player on the team and the “worst” player on the team.  In Australia, the rosters have some great players on the teams, but it is difficult to fill out the entire roster with that kind of talent and experience.  One major reason for this is that many of the girls I played with, especially on the Victory, were only 16-19 years old.  The average age of players in the Australian W-league is much lower and so their experience level is as well.  Tactically and technically many of the players are still developing and have yet to reach their highest potential, whereas in WPS, although players are still developing, most of them have had the opportunity to play in a collegiate program for four years, allowing their skill and talent to be more developed.    That, however, is one of the main reasons the Australian W-league was started – to help create an environment where their younger players can develop.

Environment

Unlike WPS, the Australian Westfield W-League was created in a large part by and for their national team programs.  The head coach of the Australian national team, Tom Sermanni, has a great deal of say about the direction of the league.  His aim is to use the league to create an environment for both his full team players, and youth national team players to develop as well as assess talent and find new players to bring into the national team program.  It is both a training environment and a feeder program for their national teams.  Now WPS can also be seen as a feeder program as it is an environment that Pia Sundage can use to access and compare talent, and because the national team players do play in the league it is somewhat of a development tool for them, but the two components are much more separated than they are in Australia.  I think the two sides work much more in tandem in Australia than they do in WPS.  It’s hard to say which method is more effective, and I am sure there are pros and cons to both sides, but overall I would imagine it is more beneficial from a developmental standpoint and financially if both the professional league and the national team programs can work together in a mutual partnership.

In terms of the environment that is created within each team, I have found, at least in the teams that I have played with, that although the pay is much less in Australia (which requires most players to have a job if they are not still studying in University or high school) the training, travel, and playing environments are very comparable.  In fact, the game venues in Australia far exceed those in WPS.  Many times in the Australian W-League we are playing in the same stadiums as the Men’s A-League, which is the men’s professional league in Australia.  At the very least we are playing on grass in a soccer specific stadium.  This is mostly due to the fact that soccer is more of a national sport in other countrie. Australia is no exception, and there are more soccer venues available because there is more soccer played.

Personal Benefits

From a personal standpoint I see the Australian W-league as a phenomenal training environment that helps improve my game and prepares me for the WPS season.  Six months is a long off-season for a professional sport, especially if you want to continue to improve your game during that time.  The Australian W-League provides me with 10-12 competitive games, a team to train with, and enough time to train on my own and rest without feeling burned out or over worked.  The coaches I have played for are as capable as the coaches in WPS and have been able to create training sessions that have helped to improve my technical and tactical awareness.

The games in Australia are challenging in different ways than the WPS.  In WPS the level and standards are very high.  You are playing with and against very good players, the best in the world, which means you are being pushed to your limits each game and can be punished much more severely for your mistakes, especially in the back and in the midfield.  This pressure can cause you to have to play more conservatively at times.  In the Australian W-league, however, the generally lower experience level allows more latitude to take the occasional risk and push the envelope a little more when taking people on, or trying new things, which is exactly what you want in an environment where you are working to improve your game.

In the Australian W-league, you train in the evenings 3-4 days a week which allows the Australian players to work or go to school, but for internationals players like myself, it provides an opportunity to train on my own if I feel that I need more work in an area, as well as explore, relax, and travel a bit around the amazingly diverse country.  WPS has a much more demanding schedule, as it should, and can be draining both physically and emotionally after a six month season.  In contrast I find the W-league to be very rejuvenating, which again is something you want for an off-season environment.  This past season with the Melbourne Victory was especially refreshing for me.  As I mentioned before many of the players I played with were much younger than me and with that youth comes a hunger and enthusiasm that is refreshing to play and train with.  I got a sense that many of the girls were grateful for the opportunity they were given and were very keen to improve every game and every training session.  It was a great reminder for me and something I think players in WPS might find well worth remembering as well.

Overall, WPS is a higher caliber league that provides an unmatched opportunity to play with the world’s top talent.  That being said I am a big advocate and supporter of the Australian W-League and find both leagues contribute invaluably to my development as a player (and also as a person for that matter).

James, I hope this answers your question.

Until Next Time,

Kendall Fletcher

Kendall Fletcher is a defender/midfielder for Sky Blue FC of Women’s Professional Soccer. She will be contributing blog posts to The Equalizer throughout the 2011 season. Do you have questions for Kendall? Would you like to see her write about a particular subject? Send your thoughts to info [@] womens.soccerly.com.

Blog No. 1: Introduction to Fun Fletcher Facts

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