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Westfield W-League season in Australia ends with 2023 World Cup looming

Photo: Ann Odong/FFA.

It has been only a week since Melbourne Victory defeated Sydney FC 1-0 on April 11  in the Westfield W-League 2020-21 season’s Grand Final on a 120th minute goal by Australian youth international Kyra Cooney-Cross, directly from a corner kick.

Victory had lost 2-1 to Sydney the week before in a delayed regular season match and were considered a long shot to win against the home side, particularly as Sydney went virtually post-to-post as leaders to win the Premiership title at the end of the regular season, while Melbourne Victory finished in third but could have finished out of the playoff picture if Adelaide had qualified for the first time; the Reds just missing out on goal difference to Canberra United. The Grand Final was the first in 13 years to ever be decided in overtime.

We evaluate the 2020-21 W-League season from the perspective of what went well and what changes should be made to the Australian domestic league competition with the 2023 Women’s World Cup top of mine, which Australia and New Zealand will host in a little over two years’ time.

The World Cup can be a key platform to expanding the women’s domestic game, not only in Australia but also in co-hosts New Zealand and throughout Southeast Asia and Oceania. The W-League’s role in this 2023 run-up and what it looks like after are key decisions for league management.

What went right in 2020-21

A lot of things went well in 2020-21 for the W-League, though there were a lot of differences compared to past seasons. COVID-19 had little effect on 2019-20 other than that the Grand Final between Melbourne City and visiting Sydney FC had to be held behind closed doors in March 2020.

This season, COVID-19 state protocols and travel restrictions played havoc with the schedule, which was constantly changing. Notwithstanding, the W-League successfully completed a full regular season calendar and playoffs and that was no small thing; the W-League was able to keep a constant presence and afford players an opportunity to compete in games that mattered.

The change in schedule from an early November start to after Christmas in 2020-21 allowed the W-League to begin at the same time as the men’s A-League, which most years had started in September. The opportunity for more expanded double-headers with their men’s clubs and larger crowds was in large part washed away with COVID, while expanded television coverage in Australia was compromised by radically reduced television contracts by broadcasters who were badly hurt financially by COVID, who were renegotiating contracts with all of their sporting partners in 2020 in order to reduce their expenditures.

W-League attendance figures were down compared with the past six seasons, but an unofficial final regular season average of 1,074 was acceptable given COVID-19’s impact on gates in some states; two games had to be moved into Melbourne’s AAMI Park from other venues because of field quality issues and then held without fans because the clubs could not receive approval from the Victoria State Government in time to bring in fans to the venue.

The league averaged just under 1,600 in the 2019-20 regular season with an all-time best of 2,139 in 2017-18. A huge plus for the season was the crowd of 5,159 for Adelaide’s final game—a critical 3-1 win over Western Sydney in Round 13 on March 21 — a record for the club in a stand-alone women’s league game in South Australia and the highest attendance this season, even surpassing the 4,619 total at the Grand Final.

I was frequently asked my opinion on the quality of the league compared to past seasons, particularly in 2018-19 or 2019-20, before the mass departure of Matilda pool players to Europe. In addition, there were only six Americans in the W-League this season compared to 24 in 2020-21 as NWSL loan agreements essentially ended with the uncertainty caused by COVID and both leagues changing their seasonal start dates — with the admirable aberration of Kansas City NWSL’s Mallory Weber returning to Adelaide United.

The other six North Americans — three of the Americans and the one Canadian were at Melbourne Victory — largely came to the league from the Australian state leagues, as was the case with a number of imports from other nations. The NWSL switching to a Feb. 1 start for training camps really eliminated the opportunity for these loan agreements, while other potential imports were hampered by COVID quarantine restrictions and club budget constraints.

Despite this, the quality of play overall was similar to recent past seasons and there were still enough experienced players around to guide the youngsters moving up from the NPLW state leagues, such as goalkeeper Melissa Barbieri Hudson (41) at Melbourne City and forwards Lisa De Vanna (36) at Melbourne Victory, Michelle Heyman (32) at Canberra, and Leena Khamis (34) at Western Sydney Wanderers. Most of the games were available for streaming on ESPN+ where viewers saw spirited play, flowing attacks, stellar goalkeeping and impressive defensive plays, along with three exciting injury-time game winners from Canberra United, which was crucial to their capturing a playoff berth for the first time in four seasons.

League Expansion within New Zealand and Australia

The path ahead for the W-League with the 2023 Women’s World Cup fast approaching includes New Zealand and deciding on if they will expand to the nation for 2021-22. Efforts to bring in a Wellington Phoenix (long-time men’s A-League side) for this past season—which would have played in Wollongong in New South Wales because of COVID — broke down over the idea of counting New Zealanders as domestic players rather than imports — something which the Canadian Soccer Association knows far too well in their past discussions with American leagues.

With New Zealand as co-hosts for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, this is a crucial issue to resolve. However, if it happens, the seven Kiwis in the league this season would likely play for Wellington and Football Ferns head coach Tom Sermanni — who was spotted at a number of W-League games this season as he lives full-time in Australia. Perth could potentially lose their three first year import starters from across the Tasman Sea including ex-LSU goalkeeper Lily Alfeld, who was particularly impressive for a struggling Glory side, while midfielder Annalie Longo, who was stellar for league champions Melbourne Victory, could also join the Phoenix.

No one knows the high value of the W-League over the years for youth development than Sermanni, who was one of the architects for the launch of the league ahead of the 2008-09 season while head coach of the Matildas, building off of their tremendous 2007 Women’s World Cup campaign in China, where they narrowly lost to Brazil 3-2 in the quarterfinals in Tianjin.

This reporter asked Sermanni about the possibility of a New Zealand side joining the W-League at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, after a match in Grenoble; he felt that at that time the idea was remote as Australian officials would be more interested in adding teams from their home markets, “We’ve looked at the possibility of that. We would love to do it in New Zealand. From the Australian perspective, they would look at the finances and what benefit it would do for Australian football to being in New Zealand when they could bring in another Australian team, which logistically, financially and development-wise, would be better for them. Convincing them to bring in a New Zealand team is difficult.”

The 2023 World Cup has changed drastically changed things and bringing in the Phoenix would add some needed new energy and create a natural rival for each current W-League club. The league should also hold A-League recent expansion franchise Western United FC (Greater Melbourne) to its stated commitment to join the W-League and put some pressure on high flying A-League newcomers Macarthur FC of suburban Sydney — coached by 2019 WWC Matilda head coach Ante Milicic — to do the same, in order to expand the footprint of the league.

The league officials should also do some strategic planning to look at adding a team in Tasmania (Launceston unsuccessfully bid to host 2023 World Cup games), as well as examining the possibility of bringing in some of the strong state league teams — Illawarra Stingrays in Sydney or Calder United SC in Melbourne — who have both been great developers of talent over the years. Further afield, a second team in New Zealand (perhaps after 2023) and even a representative team from the island nations of Oceania would help expand the reach of the game in a region that is vastly lagging in resources devoted to women’s football.

The Future of Imports into the League and the Power of Youth

As the world starts to open up with more COVID-19 vaccine options around the world, the next two W-League seasons should see more imports coming from abroad to join teams. For the possibility of NWSL loanees returning, it really depends on if the NWSL continues with the model of an early start of the season with the Challenge Cup before the regular season. Other nations’ players will be interested in playing in a stable league, with some current internationals wanting to get a sense of the country ahead of the 2023 Finals.

The 2022-23 season should see more Matildas moving back home from abroad in order to be available for training camps and friendlies, with a number of countries no doubt wanting to tour Australia and New Zealand for friendlies in order to build their comfort levels with conditions. The W-League could even dialogue with certain federations that are likely to qualify and arrange to bring in a few of their players on loan for league teams.

The Czech Republic was eliminated by Switzerland in the Women’s EURO Playoffs last week after penalty kicks following two legs that each ended 1-1; the Swiss were heavily favored and the Czech squad played quite well. A European off-season in Australia could be appealing to a few players for a federation like the Czech Republic, or even from sides in Africa or South America. This season, there were two W-League sides that utilized no imports at all — Sydney FC and Newcastle United.

The latter has struggled with ownership issues and has not used any imports since 2018-19. Every team gets a pass this season because of COVID with quarantine issues and budget constraints at play. A few talented Matilda pool players did return home to play after struggling with club sides in Europe—most notably Melbourne City’s trio of Alec Chidiac, Jenna McCormick (both home from Spain) and Emma Checker (returning from a short spell in France but who recently signed to play in Iceland this summer). We should see more of this over the next two years.

The W-League since year one in 2008-09 has always been known for its young players — some in their mid-teens — and North Americans on loan have discussed their role in mentoring them, which has been beneficial for both the imports and the locals. These young players entering the league likely will continue as a hallmark of the league and allows W-League match viewers to see some amazing goals and celebrations from talented teenagers, with a resulting knock-on effect for the Australian national teams programs. One key issue for the league to address is what will the league look like after the 2023 World Cup, with a mix of imports (including possibly North Americans), seasoned local players and youth from the state league and how do league officials operationalize this vision.

All of the above ideas will take money, which is in short supply right now in Australian sports. The W-League must work with the Australian Football Federation and their Players Association and draw up a 10 year strategic plan to decide what they want and particularly how to leverage the upcoming Women’s World Cup. Growing sponsorship through marketing efforts—even involving their talented youth internationals like Melbourne’s Kyra Cooney-Cross — will help some of these younger players to delay going abroad for a few years by adding to their income stream.

The W-League needs to be more aggressive in their sponsorship development and marketing efforts in general in a struggling market. They also need to decide if they will continue to be a three-four month league with 12 game regular seasons or expand that to a six month or longer campaign. This has been talked about for years but a longer league season needs considerable funding — with livable salaries for players so they can turn professional or at least semi-professional — as many local players work other jobs or go to school — and a clear plan for achieving this.

One plus which the W-League teams can leverage is that all current W-League cities will be holding 2023 Finals matches with the exception of Canberra, which didn’t bid to host matches, and Newcastle in New South Wales, which was eliminated along with the Tasmania bid and New Zealand’s Christchurch in the effort to stage the Finals in only nine cities (10 stadiums) for cost reasons. The W-League sides in Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney must be creative in their marketing efforts over the next two years to leverage their importance to the WWC effort.

There were a few W-League followers who expected the 2020/21 W-League season to show a steep decline in quality and interest with so many Matildas and NWSL loanees not playing this season—that was nowhere near the case and there is still a large quality gap between the W-League and local state league games.

The W-League officials must leverage a successful season in 2020-21 to expand over the next few years and become a destination league for domestic players and imports in the ramp up to the 2023 Women’s World Cup, and decide now where they want the league to look like in ten years’ time and how they get there.


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