To fans of women’s football, a Sydney FC vs. Melbourne City Grand Final is a familiar occurrence.
Although Melbourne City’s A-League side was unsuccessful in a maiden tilt at the title on Sunday, their women’s team created history five months ago, when they lifted their fourth W-League trophy with a 1-0 victory over Sydney FC.
In contrast, it’s the Sydney FC men who are celebrating a record fifth championship, and as the curtain comes down on season 2019-20, the discussion about what the next incarnation of both domestic leagues will look like will start to heat up, particularly for the women.
Because of the uncertainty surrounding the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, kickoff for season 13 of the W-League has yet to be confirmed. December or January seem most likely, but what is certain is that Melbourne City will field a side that bears little resemblance to the Grand Final team that ran on the field on March 21, 2020. Of that starting XI, every Australian player has opted to take their talents overseas.
— Matildas on the move: Kerr, Catley lead mass exodus to Europe
— Lewis & Lynch: Next Matildas coach a test of Australia’s Football IP
— ESPN’s W-League Next Steps Series: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
In late August, Emily van Egmond became the last of the group to put pen to paper, striking a loan deal with West Ham that will see her join former City teammates Lydia Williams, Steph Catley, Kyah Simon, Ellie Carpenter, Emma Checker and Aivi Luik in Europe.
With Sydney FC’s Alanna Kennedy recently confirmed to be Tottenham-bound, the exodus of Australia’s top female talent is complete and has left many fans of the W-League wringing their hands about the future of the domestic competition.
Far from the negative outlook peddled by some, Matildas goalkeeper Williams says the role of the W-League has never been more crucial.
“I think it’s more important now — more than ever,” Williams told ESPN, speaking from her new home in London. “The younger players, we need to have more of them coming through, and I think the W-League is probably the perfect platform for that, to give those younger players a chance to play at a really high quality.”
As for the other end of the playing spectrum, Williams, who signed for Arsenal in July, thinks the national team will also reap the benefits of the European experience, both mentally and physically.
“Playing and being based in one place is a big one,” she said. “A lot of us have gone back and forth for a number of years. Now we get to be in one place, you get to unpack fully and make a bit of a life for yourself.
“It’s a different style of football. We get to not only play with English players but you play with European internationals, and these are the players that make World Cup semifinals, the final eight.
“So you’re like, ‘OK, this is what it takes to make that next stage, and we haven’t done that yet.’ So for us it’s a learning experience as well, in how these athletes perform and how to fit into a style of play and adapt.”
Player agent Ryan Oostendorp, who represents Kyra Cooney-Cross, Indiah-Paige Riley and Angela Beard, agrees that these new experiences for Australia’s current and potential national team players are crucial for football development.
“The best footballers are continually playing outside their comfort zone,” Oostendorp told ESPN. “If players are aspiring to be the best, they need to get used to playing outside their comfort zone as early as they are ready for that step.”
Oostendorp, who recently struck deals to send Beard to KR Reykjavik in Iceland and Riley to Denmark’s Fortuna Hjorring, said Europe is a market that is increasingly attractive for Australia’s female footballers.
“With so many strong leagues in close proximity, it offers opportunities for the future,” he said. “For those clubs playing in the Champions League, it offers players the chance to test themselves against some of the best players from all over the world.
“And remember, that’s just a sample of the talent they will be up against at the World Cup.”
Former Brisbane Roar young gun Riley is one of those who could get a run in the Champions League next season after a whirlwind fortnight of negotiations saw her off to Europe in search of more competitive minutes.
“Over here in Denmark, it’s professional all year round, and that was something that was hard to get in Australia, with the W-League running only in the later parts of the year,” Riley told ESPN.
“That was one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Europe: When Europe comes calling, you answer. I’m so grateful to be over here. I want to be in challenging training environments and playing environments.
“The speed of play is amazing. If you take too long, you get crunched. You have to be quick, you have to be fast, and it’s really fun and exciting to play.”
Riley didn’t take up the game until she was 12 years of age, but the 19-year-old has rapidly become one of the rising stars on the women’s football scene. With her contract in Denmark running until 2023, it’s hoped that the benefits of this international experience will not be lost to Australia, with the Young Matilda also eligible for New Zealand at senior level.
Reluctant to be drawn on the choice ahead, Riley says she’d be happy just to be playing at that level.
USWNT’s Sam Mewis has high hopes for her time at Manchester City after signing from North Carolina Courage.
“Obviously, I’m available to play for New Zealand and Australia, and honestly, I’ll be happy with whoever I choose,” she said. “But yes, there has been conversations between both.
“It’s exciting, and I can’t wait ’til I hopefully play some senior international football.”
She also had encouraging words for players wanting to follow in her footsteps and cut their teeth in elite football through the W-League.
“To be put in challenging environments as a young player, it really tests your growth,” Riley said. “It tests your talent and your mental ability, so for them it will be a really good league.”
So far, 36 current and aspiring Matildas have made the switch from the W-League to Europe in the past 18 months, which means there will be no shortage of minutes for a raft of younger talent coming through on the Australian domestic scene. Oostendorp, who confirmed that Young Matildas star Cooney-Cross will remain in the W-League next season, says the clubs must embrace their role in that development.
“I feel it could deliver what Australian football fans have been asking for: more opportunities for exciting, young Australian footballers,” he said.
“The clubs that will be most successful will invest in analysing and identifying talent, build confidence developing these prospects in a pro environment and offering them the opportunities.
“For those spreading doom and gloom, the W-League is far from finished. Obviously, some creativity might be needed from those steering the league, but it will rebuild and have its place in the world.”