Every season, a group of young players make the first big step on the journey to becoming the new stars of the A-League.
The Inner Sanctum takes a look at the most likely candidates to be this season’s breakout performers, including Melbourne Victory’s Edmond Lupancu, Melbourne City’s Raphael Borges Rodrigues, Sydney FC’s Adrian Segecic and more.
Adelaide United: Alexandar Popovic
Popovic became Adelaide’s first signing this summer after putting pen to paper on a one-year scholarship deal. Following a solid campaign in the local National Premier League with the Young Reds, he seems ready to shine under Veart.
The 18-year-old is a strong and fast ball-playing defender with experience in the Australian National setup, mainly with the Joeys. He’s also a natural leader, having captained the Reds NPL side a couple of times.
With a number of senior first-team figures having left the club, Popovic could line up alongside other promising youth products, including Louis D’Arrigo, Kusini Yengi, and the Toure brothers.
Brisbane Roar: Cyrus Dehmie
Dehmie was one of 13 players aged 23 and under who played for the Roar during the 20/21 season. After taking part in the pre-season, he gained his senior opportunity by impressing in training and in the NPL.
On a rainy night in Wollongong, the promising striker made his debut against Wellington Phoenix replacing Masato Kudo.
Two months later, after scoring seven goals in three NPL Queensland appearances, Dehmie was rewarded with his first A-League start away to Adelaide but struggled to impose himself.
Following the departures of Kudo, Wenzel-Halls, and Mabrahtu, it seems like Dehmie will get another chance under Moon this season. His agility, technique, and raw speed could be a real weapon for the Roar who are coming into the campaign as outsiders once again.
Central Coast Mariners: Maximilien Balard
Max Balard was part of Central Coast’s double-winning NPL side that took home both the NSW Championship and Premiership under new head coach Nick Montgomery in 2020.
His official and full debuts came last season under Alen Stajcic, but he did struggle for game time with the likes of Oliver Bozanic, Gianni Stensness, and Josh Nisbet ahead of him.
Balard is a technically gifted defensive midfielder who can also play as a centre-back despite being just 5’8″ tall.
With Stensness moving overseas and Nisbet being preferred out wide, Balard could get a good number of chances to impress this season under his ex-youth coach.
Macarthur FC: Michael Ruhs
Some could argue that Ruhs already had his breakthrough, but the young winger actually played only 463 minutes, making just three starts.
The biggest moment of his debut season came when he sealed the semi-final victory over Central Coast Mariners with his second goal in the 119th minute.
Very quick, skillful, and direct, Ruhs could prove to be a nightmare for A-League defenders, especially if he’s used as an impact sub, which probably will be the case given the depth that Macarthur has in wide areas.
The ex-Sydney United forward could also provide a unique option for the number nine spot as he’s very different compared Tomi Juric.
Melbourne City: Raphael Borges Rodrigues
Raphael made his first start for City last season, but his debut for the Blues actually came at the end of the 19/20 campaign against Western United. At that time he became City’s second-youngest debutant.
The attacking midfielder has Australian and Brazilian citizenship but was born in Maastricht, Netherlands, where his father Cristiano played for Roda JC.
The 17-year-old impressed Patrick Kisnorbo during his time in the NPL and will be looking to emulate the success of fellow youngsters Marco Tilio and Stefan Colakovski who were a vital part of City’s title-winning season.
He feels most comfortable as a number 10 but can also play as a winger on either side.
Melbourne Victory: Edmond Lupancu
Edmond Lupancu is a 19-year-old versatile defender who joined Melbourne Victory after a successful trial with the club in 2018. He started his youth career at South Melbourne where he played as a central midfielder before reinventing himself under the guidance of Victory’s youth coaches.
Lupancu has played both at left-back and centre-back for the NPL side this season, making a total of 14 appearances. He also featured in the second half of Victory’s most recent friendly match against Box Hill United.
At 6’2″ and capable of playing in a couple of positions across the backline, the youngster could be a perfect fit for Tony Popovic’s back-five formation, ideally starting on the left-side of a back-three.
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Newcastle Jets: Riley Warland
Riley Warland joined the Jets from Perth at the start of July after spending one season with the Glory. Before that, he had spent a season with English Championship outlet Fulham where he played for the U18’s squad.
Warland is a tall, fast, and versatile defender who can play both as a centre-back and a left-back, and doesn’t shy away from a crunching tackle.
He will face stiff competition for a starting berth at the Jets from the more experienced Matthew Jurman and Jordan Elsey, but his versatility should help him especially if Arthur Papas decides to play with a back-three formation.
Perth Glory: Giordano Colli
Colli burst onto the scene after winning both the NPL Player of the Year and Youth Player of the Year in his debut season for the Perth Glory NPL side.
His professional debut came soon after in the 2020 AFC Champions League, where he came on in the 76th minute against Shanghai Shenhua. Two AFC starts followed, but he struggled to cement a spot in the A-League squad once the star players returned.
Colli currently captains Perth’s NPL side and has continued to impress under the guidance of Ruben Zadkovich. A chance in the first team seems imminent following the departures of some experienced midfielders.
Sydney FC: Adrian Segecic
Adrian Segecic has been considered one of Australia’s most promising midfielders for some time now. He has had trials with clubs including Ajax and Dinamo Zagreb, and recently won Sydney’s Rising Star Award for the best Academy prospect.
In 2020 he almost signed for Steven Gerrard’s Glasgow Rangers, but the move to Ibrox failed at the last minute.
Segecic forced his way into Steve Corica’s thinking at the end of last season when he was named on the bench for the A-League semi-final against Adelaide United, and will be hoping for more once the season starts next month.
Being a graduate of the Sydney FC youth system should make the starlet perfectly suited to the Sky Blues’ 4-4-2 system, as he looks a like-for-like replacement for Milos Ninkovic.
Wellington Phoenix: Ben Old
Ben Old is an attacking midfielder who joined the Wellington Phoenix Football Academy in 2018. He has spent the past two seasons playing for the Wellington Phoenix Reserves, scoring four goals in 25 appearances.
The 18-year-old enjoyed a breakout season in the ISPS Handa Men’s Premiership which saw him make his A-League debut for the Nix in a 3-0 win against Western United.
Old was also part of the New Zealand U-17 team that won the 2018 OFC U-16 Championship and qualified for the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup. He was also named as a Travelling Reserve for the OlyWhites team at the Tokyo Olympics.
With Wellington struggling to recruit overseas players and Old signing a new three-year contract, we could see him feature much more often in one of those wide-playmaker positions.
Western Sydney Wanderers: Ali Auglah
Ali Auglah is another player who was part of the Joeys U17 World Cup campaign in Brazil, where he started only one game.
He’s a quick and dynamic striker who can play on the wings and has the ability to both score and create goals. Having impressed in the Y-Leauge and the NPL, he made his debut in 2020 and has looked closer and closer to making a start since then.
In May, after scoring 11 goals in 12 NPL games, Carl Robinson praised Auglah in front of the media, saying that he will get his chance soon.
Western United: Noah Botic
At the start of August, United managed to secure the signing of young striker Noah Botic on a deal until the end of the 2022/23 season. He returned to Australia after two years spent with Bundesliga team, Hoffenheim.
Botic secured a move to Europe after a prolific campaign with the Joeys during the 2019 Under-17 World Cup in Brazil. He scored four goals there which led to interest from big clubs like Bayern Munich and Manchester United before signing for Hoffenheim.
Injuries and the COVID situation in Germany hindered his development, which saw him switching Sinsheim with Melbourne where he’s expected to fill the boots of legendary forward Besart Berisha.
The Sydney-born is tall, quick, and capable of finishing with both feet as well as with his head. These traits should make him a perfect replacement for Berisha on paper, but he’s still unproven at the senior level and will likely need time to adapt.
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