The Inner Sanctum 2021/22 A-League Women's Season Review: Canberra United (Photo: Canberra United/Twitter; Design: Will Cuckson)

With coach Vicki Linton departing, a lean year for Canberra United saw it drop from being a finals threat to seventh.

Canberra United’s 2021/22 season was a dramatic drop off from its finals campaign the year prior.

Early off-season moves saw a number of its young talent including Jessika Nash, Paige Satchell and Sally James depart elsewhere. But always a strong member of the A-League Women competition, it was expected the girls in green could bounce back.

As the squad began to form, the defensive line started to look thin. With the loss of Nash and Kendall Fletcher returning to the NWSL, there was a significant talent drop.

American Ally Haran‘s recruitment looked to bridge the gap, but with Emma Ilijoski unavailable for a number of games and Karly Roestbakken‘s time in green limited, the girls at the back never quite got a proper chance to gel together.

The highs

When the first win finally came, it was like the floodgates opened after what was a tumultuous year to say the least. The timing in particular was possibly the best it could have been.

Canberra was left licking its wounds after going down 6-0 to grand finalists Sydney FC. The following week, the side looked so much more dynamic up front against Newcastle, but ground out to a 3-3 draw against the Jets in a scoring flurry.

Similarly against Perth, despite scoring first, Canberra couldn’t hold the lead.

The win against the Western Sydney Wanderers allowed United to show off all the best parts of their game across the season, finishing in a 5-0 thumping.

They had a whopping 16 shots on target, with a late brace to Margot Robinne the cream on top of the breakthrough victory.

Canberra managed to find a positive from a negative in goals, after once again suffering drama in the nets this year.

Last year, injuries meant goalkeeping coach Chantel Jones had to pick up the gloves, but this year, it was a trial by fire for teenager Chloe Lincoln.

Lincoln was called up after Keeley Richards went down with injury. Reserve keeper Beth Mason-Jones had her contract released, so it left the youngster as the last woman standing.

While she struggled to find her feet early, once she became comfortable, the 17-year-old made the gloves her own.

After the loss to Wellington, the youngster would only give up five more goals, including three clean sheets. Against grand finalists Melbourne Victory, she made four saves, unfazed by Catherine Zimmerman and co.

She seemed to enjoy playing the Victory, with an incredible penalty save in the first of the two drawn match ups.

The lows

Canberra’s woes around goals seemed to keep it out of games in the early part of the year. The girls in green would often have more shots and sometimes even more on target than their opposition, but just couldn’t hit the back of the net.

United scored just eight goals in the first half season. While they managed to pick it up with 16 in the second half, the damage had already been done.

Even in later games like the nil all draw with Victory, Canberra was the side doing comprehensively more attacking. The side took 25 shots, with five on target, playing the ball through to the likes of Michelle Heyman and Allira Toby with ample opportunity.

The two looked out of sync in the early part of the season, with coach Vicki Linton trying out different structures up front. Neither playing as a strike pair or keeping Heyman as the number nine seemed to do much good.

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United would eventually find a better structure when utilising the impact of Margot Robinne and Holly Caspers off the bench. Robinne in particular showed off her experience when called upon often.

The lack of Emma Ilijoski in defence, out multiple times through COVID protocols, often left Canberra wanting for more in the back third.

Had Karly Roestbakken been available all season, life may have been easier. But without her, United were left vulnerable when faced with quality offences like Sydney and Adelaide United.

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Import Chelsee Washington started the year slowly, but as she came into her own, she was easily the most damaging offensive player Canberra had at its disposal.

She appeared in all but one game, and was the ever reliable central midfielder that helped support Grace Maher and the wingers excellently.

While her distribution and creative passing was often left unrewarded by the front third, she took the attacking into her own hands as the season wore on.

Washington finished the year with three goals and an assist.

Canberra will be hoping that the Orlando Pride are willing to loan Washington again next season, as she returns home to play in the NWSL.

Breakout player

Hayley Taylor-Young became the answer to nearly every issue Canberra had throughout the season, and flourished wherever she was played.

Typically a winger with her best impact coming off the bench, the youngster was trialled as a wing back and then eventually at full back out of necessity. What her teammates discovered was that she was excellent at defending.

Taylor-Young’s pace and endurance are the perfect qualities for a full back, able to sprint up and down the right side and support teammates offensively and defensively.

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She’s aggressive on the ball and isn’t afraid to make a big challenge or tackle to win possession back.

The final word

After the season ended, it was announced that Linton would not be returning to coach the club in season 2022/23.

It’s been a tough five years, and after the side looked on the up again last season making finals, it all goes back to square one now.

The upside, as it always has been for Canberra, is that it continues growing players from the ground up. United’s locals always seem to grow into strong players.

However, as seen last year, they’re beginning to attract interest from elsewhere, both from other A-League Women clubs, and internationally.

While Washington, Robinne, and Haran were strong recruits, compared to the imports other teams were able to pull, Canberra didn’t seem to quite be at the same level.

The first step will be appointing a new coach. From there, United will need to desperately hold onto their core of players, and look to quickly grow to a level to compete with the best the competition has to offer again.

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