Michelle Heyman will lead Canberra United out as captain on Friday night. (Photo: Canberra United/Twitter)

When Canberra United runs out for its season opener against Melbourne City just hours from now, fans wouldn't be wrong for thinking it's 2016 again.

When Canberra United runs out for its first game of the 2021/22 A-League Women season on Friday night, it will be a blast from the past for rusted on fans.

Michelle Heyman will don the captain’s armband, with Ash Sykes back to line up beside her again. They’ve just come off a semi-final loss the year before, with exciting American imports and local young guns signing on.

You wouldn’t be mistaken for thinking it was the 2016/17 and 17/18 seasons all over again.

This time around though, Heyman is feeling the world of difference. Older, wiser, and most importantly happier, the star striker is taking on the responsibility with a whole different mindset to last time around.

“[The captaincy] means everything to me, this club means everything to me,” Heyman told media on Wednesday.

“For myself, five years ago it would have been a lot of pressure to put on my shoulders [to be the sole captain]. Now, I think I’ve matured over the years and take the responsibility and lift the team with that.

“To be a captain, to be able to wear that armband, to be able to go out on that field and represent everything that I love, it’s super important.”

Not long after her first stint with the armband which she shared with Sykes, Heyman departed for a season at Adelaide United before taking a break from football all together.

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Under pressure from the national team to keep up her form and keep hitting the back of the net, it was the most difficult point of her career, with the weight of expectations holding her down.

The difference in the 2020/21 season was night and day, however.

Enjoying her football more than ever, Heyman played a career best season at 32. She scored 10 goals and assisted three in her 12 appearances as the focal point of a finals side.

The veteran was then awarded the league’s most valuable player award, the Julie Dolan Medal, after having previously claimed the honour in 2009.

“The ability to just play for fun… I don’t have the Matildas knocking on my door and telling me how to play. It’s more personal now, it’s more about the way I want to play and how I feel on the field,” Heyman said.

“I just go out there every single game wanted to score goals. If I can continue with that mindset, I think it’s my successful way of playing football.”

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This year though, Heyman will have a bit more help up in the front end.

Coach Vicki Linton often organised her troops in a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 formation last season, leaving Heyman as the central focal point in front of goals.

This year, she’ll have the prolific scoring capabilities of Allira Toby and Sykes around her, with Sykes likely taking up a spot as a winger and Toby as a second striker.

Alongside the additions of NWSL talent in Chelsee Washington and Ally Haran, and the globe-trotting experience of Margot Robinne, Heyman is confident in the mix they’ve got.

“We always need that experience on the field. You can always have young ones coming through, but you need to have someone who understands the game a little bit more and knows how to manage a game,” Heyman said.

“Having Ash back is the best thing that’s happened. Already in training, it’s like we’ve never spent a year apart. Things are falling to our feet, we know our runs, we know how to play with each other.

“It’s a big confidence booster for the rest of the team, to know now we’ve got this same feeling on the field of what we’ve got 10 years ago. It’s so nice to bring her back… I’m pumped.”

A last minute addition

With just hours to spare ahead of the club’s season kick-off, Canberra United announced that young fullback Karly Roestbakken would be returning for the 2021/22 season.

She made her debut in 2016 as a 15-year-old, and earned her first Matildas call-up at the 2019 World Cup.

The Queenslander was named in the squad that recently took on the USA, but didn’t make an appearance off the bench as coach Tony Gustavsson favoured Ellie Carpenter, Tameka Yallop and Alanna Kennedy.

Rounding out the squad, it’s adding to the familiarity that United fans will be feeling at Viking Park this year.

“I’m so excited to be back at Canberra for part of the season,” Roestbakken said.

“Canberra is home, I always love coming back here, especially to this club. I’ve heard very good things about Vicki so I’m excited to work with her and help the team achieve great things this season.”

“It is great to be able to sign Karly on loan from her Norwegian club,” coach Vicki Linton said.

“It’s a good addition for us and a great way for her to continue to train and play over the next couple of months.

“Karly is a local Canberra player and has played for the club for a number of years. I look forward to working with her for the first time and to see what she can bring to the group after her recent experience with the CommBank Matildas and time overseas.”

Roestbakken is every chance to be named as the starting right-back in Friday night’s starting XI against Melbourne City, complementing Emma Ilijoski on the other side.

The squad that Linton has assembled will be put to the test after a rigorous, shortened pre-season against a side with some of the biggest signings of the off-season.

Adding Melissa Barbieri, Rebekah Stott, and Rhianna Pollicina to a side that wasn’t far off last season has made City one of the teams to watch in 2021/22, and a perfect first up test.

“It’s been a shorter pre-season, it’s been more challenging because of COVID, but the way we’re just forming as a group, the way that we unite as one… everything’s clicking,” Heyman said.

“[Melbourne City is] a solid squad. They’ve always had a lot of cash to be able to buy the players they like… every player would like to play for that team.

“For us, beating the best is the best feeling. We’re going to go out there as hard as we can with a never-say-die attitude and give it our all. I can see it being a fun game.”

Canberra United and Melbourne City kick off tonight at Viking Park at 7:45pm AEDT.

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