The new A-League and W-League seasons are less than two months away. Macarthur FC are finally up and running, while the numbers show an uptick in U21 opportunities and Wellington will have to relocate to Australia amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's the latest edition of the ESPN Australia and New Zealand Football Wrap to let you know what you missed and try to figure out what's ahead.
Macarthur FC ring in their arrival
On Sunday, Macarthur FC's bulls went on parade as the expansion club marked its own little bit of history by downing NSW NPL4 club Camden Tigers 6-0 in the team's first ever game.
The wet and wild conditions were far from ideal, even for a preseason friendly, but for Denis Genreau the chance to get on the park with his new teammates was a welcome moment. The Olyroos midfielder started for the Bulls against Camden, playing as a No. 10, before he, like the rest of the starters, were substituted after 45 minutes.
"Obviously we've been training for a while, so it's good to just get a game," the 21-year-old told ESPN. "We're all coming from different clubs, so it was good to finally get a game together and get to know how we play on the field."
This season Macarthur's players will have to get used to the sound of the cowbells, which were included in the club's inaugural membership packages. With a 20,000 capacity stadium, they were only able to sell 1,000 tickets for Sunday's game due to COVID-19 limits, but the fans that did show up certainly made an impression.
"The club clearly knows what it stands for and knows what area it represents," Genreau said. "That's what we want to bring to the A-League. We want to represent those people out in the west and do them proud. As players of Macarthur, we heard the cowbells and I think that will be really part of the club's culture. It was pretty fun when we walked out; they were ringing the cowbells in the rain. I think it will become pretty iconic for us, and that's what we need as a start-up club. You need to create those traditions."
While the fledgling club may want to work on its social media output in the weeks ahead -- no live updates or team news were supplied on the day -- the first game was a tangible reminder of just how far the Bulls have come since a license was awarded to them back in 2018.
Being an expansion side, continuity in the inaugural Bulls squad is sparse, but that doesn't mean the players are all strangers as all the Australian signings -- bar Aleksandar Jovanovic and the newly unveiled Liam McGing -- have been capped by their nation at either a senior or junior level.
The likes of Mark Milligan, Adam Federici, Ivan Franjic, Aleksander Susnjar and Tommy Oar will line up for the club in the 2020-21 A-League season, with inaugural coach Ante Milicic also a former Socceroos assistant and coach of the Olyroos and Young Socceroos.
Genreau himself arrived at Macarthur in August, after spending his formative years with Melbourne City. Despite making a number of starts for Dutch Eredivisie side PEC Zwolle while on loan in the 2018-19 season, the Paris-born youngster was never able to string together a sustained run of starts in Bundoora -- leading to his exit in search of a new challenge during the league's COVID-19-enforced break.
"Ante has been in that world for so long so he knows a lot of players that have come through," Genreau said. "I definitely think he's picked his players using that knowledge. I think what Ante wanted to do was get us in early so we could get to know each other and start building a culture -- because you're building something from scratch. He's got his methodology and way that he wants to play, which is very clear. You can see what he's done with the Matildas and the Socceroos before; he's got a very clear way of playing football.
"In terms of the culture, I think he's brought in players that all play football -- they all want to play with the ball, they're good with the ball. I think we're going to be a team that plays with the ball and is possession-based. He's only brought in people with good character and good personalities but that are also good footballers."
A chance for youth
As part of research undertaken for their annual A-League report, Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) found that minutes for players under the age of 21 increased in the wake COVID-19 and expansion of the substitutes' bench. Indeed, playing time for U21s went up 66% following the competition's restart, with Perth Glory's numbers jumping from 3.2% to 45% and Melbourne Victory going from 8.1% to 35.6%.
The focus on youth, according to the PFA, has continued following the Grand Final -- not surprising given shrinking budgets and reduced foreigners in the competition -- with the average age of players in the A-League falling from 27.5 to 25.
With the situation as it is, young players will likely never have a better shot at forcing their way into first-teams in the coming season and, if given the scope by coaches to grow and make mistakes, develop at a rate they never would have in the Y-League or NPL.
The report comes on the heels of FFA research into youth playing time exclusively revealed by ESPN, which identified significant issues in opportunities for youngsters in the pre-COVID environment and numerous structural barriers throughout the developmental system -- particularly surrounding contracting of players aged 21-23. The union zeroed in on U21s in their research while the FFA, no doubt influenced by Graham Arnold's status as Olyroos coach, looked at the U23 cohort.
Focus on players' wellbeing
But while the report shows opportunities for youngsters, it also raises responsibilities for those that employ them. Earlier in 2020, the PFA released its first Y-League Report, examining the working conditions of younger players,
With the prevailing trend in the A-League shifting younger and resources tightening, extra onus will be placed on all stakeholders to ensure that their needs are met both on and off the field -- placing their wellbeing at the forefront during a critical part of their physical and mental development.
"The annual PFA A-League Report encouragingly revealed an increase in the opportunities being afforded to our young players, which is a testament to both their quality, hard work and the trust in which coaches are placing in them," PFA co-CEO Beau Busch told ESPN.
"With this likely to continue into next season, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that these young players develop not only as players but importantly as people. Through the PFA Player Development Program we will continue to work with the clubs and FFA to provide players with access to critical programs and services to support their development, both on and off the pitch, to ensure we produce world-class footballers and people."
A little piece of home
If there's one thing the past months have taught us, it's that the presence of fans in the stands serves as sport's lifeblood -- injecting proceedings with a spirit and passion that can't be replicated by any type of technology. It's not known when COVID-19-related restrictions will eventually allow fans to return to the A-League in full numbers but, when they do, it seems some teams will receive more of a boost than others.
According to A-League players surveyed for the PFA's report, new Western Sydney Wanderers home Bankwest Stadium provides the best ambience in the A-League in 2019-20; rated as 4.6 out of 5. Jubilee Stadium and Coopers Stadium followed on 3.8 and 3.7 respectively, while AAMI Park games staged by Victory (3.3) and games at Westpac Stadium (3.1) rounded out the top five.
Whereas it possesses the most spectacular backdrop of all the A-League's grounds, Central Coast Stadium was judged to have the worst atmosphere in the competition -- scoring just a 2. In contrast to their navy blue rivals, AAMI Park games staged by Melbourne City (2.7) and Western United games at Kardinia Park (2.9) rounded out the bottom three.
Though it had been considered fait accompli, it was confirmed on Tuesday that COVID-related border restrictions will force New Zealand's Wellington Phoenix to relocate to Australia for the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
- Sources: Wellington Phoenix set to join W-League this season
- W-League, A-League to foster 'one club, one sport' mentality
- ESPN's W-League Next Steps Series: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
The Phoenix, who played finals for the second straight season under first-year coach Ufuk Talay in 2019-20, are likely to be based in Wollongong for the duration of their stay in Australia according to reports. However, they are hoping it won't be a season-long commitment -- flagging a review of the arrangements in the event that the Australian and New Zealand governments organise a travel bubble between the two nations.
The willingness to relocate to Australia represents an extraordinary level of commitment from 'Nix players, coaches and staff, having previously based themselves in an NSW hub for the end of last season. Thankfully, GM David Dome has told Newstalk ZB Sport that some players and staff will be able to bring family with them to Australia for some or all of their stay, with the club helping to facilitate this process.
Elsewhere, Phoenix also announced on Tuesday that David Ball had inked a new deal through to the end of the 2022-23 season and on Wednesday announced the signing of standout Kiwi youngsters Clayton Lewis and James McGarry.
Victory making moves
On Monday, Melbourne Victory's men announced the signing of former Championship midfielder Jacob Butterfield to their ranks, continuing the trend of just themselves and Macarthur Bulls bringing in new, foreign additions to the A-League.
Attacking lynchpin Robbie Kruse, who has been recovering from an injury, is also set to rejoin the team next week, as is new signing Callum McManaman and assistant coach Steve Kean -- who are both undergoing mandatory quarantine after flying into Australia.
With Victory scheduled to re-commence their 2020 AFC Champions League commitments against Beijing FC on Nov. 24 in Qatar, it's likely that any further Victory additions that need to fly in from overseas will be instructed to continue training in place before meeting their new teammates in the Middle East as a means of avoiding a lengthy Australian quarantine on the eve of the new season.
The club is in talks with government and health authorities surrounding their ability to train while in quarantine upon their return from Qatar -- which at the earliest will be less than a month out from the season commencement on Dec. 27. Should the club be drawn away from home for their first A-League fixture, there also exists the outside possibility they may seek to fly direct from Qatar to the state they are playing in should training in quarantine arrangements interstate be more appropriate, but this is not the club's preferred option.
On the W-League front, Victory confirmed on Tuesday the re-signing of young gun Melina Ayres on a three-year deal and, on Wednesday, the re-signing of veteran midfielder Amy Jackson. Both stalwarts of the NPLW scene, the pair are very capable of letting loose with absolute piledrivers when given a yard of space.
Viduka: People running Australian football don't have a clue about the game
Now living in Croatia, the former talismanic striker claims football's leadership in Australia has overseen a grave decline in talent development.
In a recent interview with Optus Sport, FFA CEO James Johnson voiced his increasing frustrations with the glacial pace of negotiations surrounding the unbundling of the A-League, W-League, and Y-League from the national federation, declaring that "COVID has brought out some of the frailties of our governance structure." The urgency expressed by Johnson, as well as his willingness to apply public pressure, are welcome additions to the process. At a time when the game is faced with some of its most pressing challenges in decades, the protracted negotiations have left the game spinning its wheels with parties involved unable to truly shift into gear until the matter is completed.
The FFA CEO also gave his clearest indication yet of the potential timings of a National Second Division (NSD), declaring that 2022 was a date that the game could "shoot for" for its introduction.
Demonstrating an ability to stay on message that no doubt helped him previously hold high-powered positions at both FIFA and City Football Group, his other qualifiers, almost verbatim, echoed what he told ESPN in August: stating that the resources freed by the separation of the leagues from the national federation were an important part of the sequencing involved in the introduction of a national second-tier, but cautioned that he had yet to see any formal modelling of the concept.
In so clearly and consistently identifying the unbundling of the leagues from the FFA as paving the way for the potential introduction for a NSD, Johnson has given those working towards it a clear signal to keep going with their preparations -- signalling that broader support on the way. However, this also creates clear expectations that when the time comes, the FFA will be fully committed to seeking, in good faith, the introduction of a NSD as soon as is viable. Failure to do so would deal significant damage to both his word and that of the organisation he leads.
Football for free?
Last Thursday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that pay-TV provider Foxtel -- which owns the rights to show next year's A-League and W-League on its Fox Sports channels -- was considering moving select content from behind a paywall on its sports streaming service, Kayo.
Non-marquee sports that could benefit from more eyeballs, such motorsports, surfing or volleyball, were flagged by the report as possibly being amongst the offerings that could be shifted outside the paywall under the plan. Football, which despite its large participation base has increasingly struggled for viewers and has a fanbase split between the Australian offerings on Foxtel and the European selection on Optus Sport, would also ostensibly benefit from such a move -- allowing the Australian game to reach more fans in the final year of its deal with Fox.
"Discussions with Foxtel are ongoing," an FFA spokesperson told ESPN. "The [inclusion in a freemium model] question is one consideration amongst many for us to consider with our NPL, FFA Cup and possibly National Second Division framework."