15/04/2024

Remy Siemsen (L) and Bryleeh Henry (R) are just two parts of the next generation of Matildas. (Photo: Matildas/YouTube)

Following the Matildas exodus to Europe, the A-League Women competition still continues to produce players for the national team.

We were spoilt in Australia before the ‘Matildas’ exodus‘. It was not very long ago that the entire Australian starting 11 played in the then W-League.

Each of the 2019 World Cup squad signed for an Australian team following the tournament, and watching the local competition was the best way to follow your favourite national team star.

But that changed when Chelsea signed Sam Kerr. The league’s marquee player and then record goal scorer embarked on a new challenge in England. It was a signing that made news across the world and had almost immediate effects at home.

Most of the team followed. Eight more starters went to the FAWSL, mostly to London.

Alanna Kennedy joined Tottenham, Mackenzie Arnold and Emily van Egmond to West Ham, Caitlin Foord, Steph Catley and Lydia Williams signed for Arsenal.

Hayley Raso laced up for Everton as did Chloe Logarzo for Bristol City. Elsewhere across Europe, Ellie Carpenter and Laura Brock went to France and Kyah Simon was recruited by PSV Eindhoven.

In June of 2020, a Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) survey showed that 93 per cent of Australians abroad were now in Europe. That figure in 2019 was 39 per cent.

Previously many of Australia’s women footballers had played half the year in the USA and the other half at home. The full European schedule made that impossible. In fact, it may have been part of the attraction.

The W-League was at a crossroads.

“With the emergence and attraction of European powerhouse clubs and leagues, the W-league must consider its place within football’s ecosystem to ensure the career pathway for Australian footballers is dignified and legitimate,” PFA co-chair Kate Gill said at the time.

The highest level of domestic women’s football was suddenly a development competition. Just weeks before the PFA report, Football Australia had declared ambitions for it to be one of the top five leagues in the world.

With many of the best players and biggest names gone, how good would the league be now?

Crisis or opportunity?

Sam Kerr was typically matter of fact.

“That’s football you know, players come and go,” she said of the departure of top talent.

“It’s a pathway for these girls to step up, start playing bigger minutes.”

It was no surprise that this happened. The situation forced clubs to trust younger players to deliver. There was little opportunity to recruit international stars, and most clubs looked to the state leagues or to their academies.

What has been most exciting is how well it has worked out.

The 2020/21 W-League season was competitive from start to finish. Adelaide United missed out on finals only by goal difference, Western Sydney hit an exciting late run of form, the premiership was decided on the final day and the Grand Final in the final minute.

Canberra made the semi final anchored by 16 year old Jessika Nash in central defence. Bryleeh Henry developed into a starting striker for the Wanderers and Kyra Cooney-Cross became the league’s most dominant midfielder.

All of these players are under 20. Each are in the most recent Matildas squad.

Alongside them are Courtney Nevin of Melbourne Victory with Charlize Rule and Remy Siemsen from Sydney FC.

Charli Grant, Teagan Micah, Clare Wheeler and Angela Beard are currently based overseas, but played in Australia for the 2020/21 season. Micah had been in previous squads, but she jumped from third choice keeper to first after a breakout season at Melbourne City.

None of last season’s domestically based players have looked overawed as Matildas. As emerging fullbacks, Nevin and Grant they may solve long standing tactical issues.

In the case of Kyra Cooney-Cross, the game plan was essentially designed around her as a deep midfielder for the last three international matches.

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In the aftermath of the ‘Matildas’ exodus’, the league was expected to struggle. Instead it has delivered 10 new faces for the 21 players in the current squad.

There are still players that might consider themselves unlucky.

Nikki Flannery from Canberra might have been capped by now if not for an unfortunate knee injury at the Talent ID camp.

Grace Maher scored multiple goal of the season contenders in the last campaign and Princess Ibini was decisive for Sydney FC.

The top scorer for the eventual Grand Final winners Melina Ayres remains uncapped despite career-best form for Melbourne Victory. Matilda McNamara was impressive in Adelaide’s back four and Isobel Dalton became a prolific chance-creator at Brisbane.

That players of such quality and influence still await a chance under Tony Gustavsson is a sign of how high the quality was last season. Because he clearly is watching the progress of the local players.

At the end of 2020, the Matildas’ exodus was seen as a crisis. In their place more have risen and once again the A-League Women’s hosts numerous national team players.

As the new season begins, the domestic league has once again become a place to watch some of the national team’s best players.

We were spoilt once, and now we are again.

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