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Brisbane Roar’s win over Sydney FC may be a turning point in chaotic W-League season

The W-League weekend in 280 characters or less

Brisbane make a statement with two wins in four days over Western Sydney (2-1) and Sydney FC (4-1), Melbourne City’s home game against Newcastle is postponed due to Victoria’s lockdown, and Adelaide stun Canberra with a 2-1 win to go third.

Winners

Brisbane Roar

Much of the conversation leading into Sunday afternoon’s game between Sydney FC and Brisbane Roar revolved around the Sky Blues: their historic undefeated streak, their poetic defeat of Melbourne City in doing so, and the possibility of their first Premiership trophy in 10 seasons drawing ever closer.

But it seems we’ve been focusing on the wrong undefeated team. Strangely, Brisbane Roar entered this week’s game as the underdogs — a result, perhaps, of their not-quite-as-impressive four consecutive draws to open their own campaign — and all the tips in the media box (including mine) were in Sydney’s favour.

Of course, in a season as unpredictable as this one, it feels safer at this point to lean towards (and even expect) chaos. Four days after a potential stutter against Western Sydney Wanderers (with Brisbane’s points kept safe thanks to a literal last-touch-of-the-game save by their new goalkeeper, Morgan Aquino), Brisbane Roar brought the Premiership favourites plummeting back down to earth from their sky-blue heights.

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While nothing has changed in terms of ladder position, this game felt like a turning-point in the mentalities of both sides. As they’ve done all season, Brisbane dominated in most statistical areas — they had more possession, more success in duels, more corners, more passes, more shots, and more tackles than Sydney — but there was something different about their performance. It felt distinctly like there were pieces settling into place, a machine whirring to life, that made this arguably Brisbane’s most convincing win yet.

Roar coach Jake Goodship puts it down to the growing togetherness of the group — epitomised by captain Clare Polkinghorne‘s baby celebration for Katrina Gorry.

“It was a great game, especially to back up with Wanderers and coming to Sydney, a fantastic team themselves and a good club,” he said afterwards. “Very happy, good dressing room at the minute.

“[The celebration] says it all. The feeling in the group, the environment and the culture we have, is second to none. It’s the best thing that I think most of the players have been part of for a long time and it means a lot to them. You can see by the celebration of Polks, as well. It says a lot.”

Brisbane are now two points behind Sydney with an extra game played, but the belief and chemistry that’s now flowing through the squad — coupled with the wake-up call they delivered to their opposition — suggests they may not stay there for much longer.

Leena Khamis

For all the talk of young players stepping up to fill the shoes of their departed senior peers this season, there are still a few battle-worn veterans making significant contributions to their W-League sides. Indeed, this topsy-turvy season provides these elder stateswomen — Polkinghorne, Michelle Heyman, Teresa Polias, Cote Rojas — with an opportunity of a different kind: to embrace their positions as leaders and mentors and pass on the knowledge and work ethic that comes with being seasoned pros.

Leena Khamis has had a difficult start to her campaign with Western Sydney on the scoresheet, but the fortunes and effort of the team ebb and flow with that of their 34-year-old striker. Khamis’ last two games have been her best in black and red; games which Western Sydney also happened to look more organised and threatening than they have all season.

Khamis, for her part, scored her first goal of 2020-21 and, had Roar goalkeeper Aquino not been having a brilliant game, likely would have earned the Wanderers an extra few points. The former Matilda had two clear-cut chances, both of which saw her almost one-on-one with the keeper, but both strikes were brilliantly saved. A header from Sarah Hunter that pinged back in-field off the post and a strike by Bryleeh Henry that came off the crossbar was all that kept the club from leap-frogging Melbourne City on the ladder and putting a dent in Brisbane’s Premiership title hopes.

Although there’s little to show for Western Sydney’s recent improvements — they still sit in eighth, just three points ahead of Perth Glory who have four games in hand — there are signs that they could be the kind of team that finds form towards the season’s end, resulting in them snatching crucial points from other sides.

And based on her performance against Brisbane, Khamis will likely play a big role in that, both physically on the field and psychologically off it as well. Alongside captain Caitlin Cooper, Khamis will be a key figure for this club as they undergo their rebuild, setting an example to the next generation of Australian players about what it really means to play for a club and the sacrifices that are required. Even if the Wanderers miss out on finals this season, they’ll be a better team for that.

Losers

Sydney FC

I suppose I should apologise. Like many other football writers in Australia, I’ve become increasingly swept up in the potential Sydney FC fairytale. My own club allegiances aside, the Sky Blues have all the markers of what the future of the W-League should look like in my eyes: a multi-year project of developing young players without overly relying on seniority or international imports for success. That every single player under 23 years old in Sydney’s squad has national team caps at youth level (many of whom, it should be noted, have been on Sydney’s books for several seasons) points to the pathway and the environment the club has built to help develop these stars of tomorrow.

But getting swept up in the hype and the narrative can have unintended consequences — not just for fans, but also for players. Sometimes the line between confidence and arrogance can blur — and sometimes it’s people like me who help smudge it. Ante Juric said as much after Sydney’s 4-1 loss to Brisbane, telling media: “Maybe a little bit of arrogance popped in with six in a row; I tried to keep that in check but maybe that came out a little bit.

“[Early substitutes] were maybe a message because we weren’t at our best; we weren’t working hard, we weren’t showing for it, we weren’t showing the intensity. Sometimes when media say things about certain players, they get carried away — and it’s not their fault, it’s just human nature. So it’s a bit of a message.

“This loss will do us good, especially [with] the age of the team. It’s come at a good time. In saying that, you want to win every game you play, but this loss is excellent for us in a lot of ways.

“This kind of game gets you grounded again.”

Sydney are still top of the ladder leading into round 9, but their hype balloon has been slightly deflated. Perhaps, as Juric said, it’s exactly what they (and we) needed.

Michelle Heyman

You know that feeling you get when you’re about to sneeze — the tickle that starts at the back of your tonsils from a mote of dust or pollen and which slowly creeps into your nasal cavity as you tilt your head towards the sky, only for the sneeze to never arrive?

That is Canberra icon Heyman equalling (or breaking) Sam Kerr‘s all-time W-League goal scoring record. Any time someone has mentioned Canberra United in the past two rounds, it has come with the prerequisite reminder that Heyman stands on the precipice of history. Based on the form she opened the season with — a hat trick against Adelaide, and three goals since then — it’s not hard to think the 32-year-old striker would eventually do the thing.

But our faces have been contorted in anticipation for some time now. Heyman remains, hilariously, on 69 goals — one short of Kerr and two short of ensuring she is remembered well beyond her second (and, most likely, permanent) retirement. Her last goal came against Western Sydney at the end of January, and in the two games she’s played since then, she has been quite comprehensively marked out of it (she made just 37 passes and had one shot vs. Sydney, and had 33 passes and four shots vs. Adelaide). You have to wonder whether she has been figured out.

But, of course, as this week’s column proves, as soon as I suggest anything about any team or any player, they turn things around the following week. So take this section as a foreshadowing of the celebrations that are bound to happen next week when Heyman inevitably finds the back of the net twice to break Kerr’s record. You’re welcome, Michelle.

Canberra United icon Michelle Heyman is on the verge of a sneeze (or, making W-League history). Mike Owen/Getty Images

Victorians

It’s been almost a year since the coronavirus pandemic first affected the W-League in any tangible, visible way. And yet, despite all the time that’s passed — despite all the new habits we’ve adopted, the new social distancing measures we’ve become accustomed to, the new “normal” we’re all experiencing — the sense of panic that comes whenever a new, rapid lockdown or border closure is announced is almost as strong as it was when this all started.

On Friday at 11:59pm, Victoria was plunged into their third major lockdown of the pandemic, which will last five days. The Newcastle Jets W-League team, who’d flown down to Victoria on the morning of the announcement, were quickly hustled back onto a plane and flown home to NSW; their game against Melbourne City planned for Saturday night postponed. Luckily Melbourne Victory had a bye this round — the consequence of Perth’s own lockdown protocols — and so haven’t been as disrupted this week.

And yet, in many other ways, Victory’s players and staff will be going through exactly the same emotional processes as their crosstown rivals. Anxiety. Exhaustion. Powerlessness. The added stress of a new variant of COVID-19 — one which appears to spread more rapidly than before — hasn’t helped alleviate the fear that we have all learned to carry around with us day to day.

That a bungled quarantine situation has compromised the integrity of a number of sporting leagues around the country is one thing, but that it also plunges millions of human beings back into a state of personal and community emergency, affecting not just people’s ability to enjoy the entertainment sport offers but interrupts everything else around and in between, is quite another.

We have been here before: sport, ultimately, doesn’t matter. What does matter is the people who make sport what it is: the players, the staff, the media, the administrators, the fans. Their jobs and livelihoods — not to mention their mental health — are just as affected by these pockets of chaos as anyone. And if the Victorian government isn’t able to get things under control, there’s no knowing whether the lockdown will extend into future rounds, potentially scuppering their seasons and sending their delicately-balanced professional and personal lives crashing to the ground.

Victorians may be the losers this week, but it’s not through any fault of their own.

Here’s the tea

What makes a good W-League goalkeeper?

When Lydia Williams jointly won the Golden Glove award for the 2019-20 season, I remember feeling a little puzzled.

Melbourne City had arguably the strongest defensive system not just of that year, but perhaps in the history of the league. Anchored by two internationals in Rebekah Stott and Lauren Barnes, flanked by two Matildas in Steph Catley and Ellie Carpenter, and screened by the indefatigable Aivi Luik and Yukari Kinga in midfield, City barely gave other teams a glimpse at goal, let alone gave them an opportunity to shoot at it.

With those kinds of players protecting her, it never felt like Williams had to do much in goal. By contrast, the goalkeepers of teams further down the ladder — Claire Coelho at Newcastle, say — were called into action far more regularly, even if they did end up conceding more goals because of it.

Williams made 32 saves all season while Coelho saved 68. Williams’ save percentage was 86.5%, yet Coelho’s was 70.5% — not that huge of a difference considering Newcastle conceded almost seven times as many goals. So how do we judge who was best?

This question bounced around in my head as I watched Sydney FC’s Jada Mathyssen-Whyman palm a Jamilla Rankin cross into her own net this past weekend. Like Williams, Mathyssen-Whyman had conceded the fewest goals across the league up until this point (1) and made the fewest number of saves (9). By contrast, Melbourne City had conceded the highest number of goals (17), while their goalkeeper Teagan Micah has also made the highest number of saves in the league (27), yet is still widely regarded as the W-League’s best goalkeeper.

Indeed, we saw a number of performances from goalkeepers this round that threw this question into sharper relief. Brisbane Roar debutant Aquino made two sensational saves to win against Western Sydney before sloppily clearing the ball into Sydney’s Clare Wheeler, who scored from the deflection. Canberra’s Keeley Richards had a howler against Sydney last week only to keep Canberra’s goal difference from being annihilated against Adelaide this week. Western Sydney’s Sarah Willacy conceded three goals on debut against Canberra before her last-gasp save rescued two points against Adelaide.

Of course, player performances fluctuate week to week — especially in a season as disrupted as this one. But the overarching question still applies: how do we judge the quality of a W-League goalkeeper? How many data points and percentages can we dig down into before we find the answer? Is the quality of a goalkeeper even measurable?

Perhaps, instead, it is just something about how they move, how they communicate, how they react and respond to emergency scenarios, that is more qualitative or subjective than the simple stats we use to judge them.

Is there a gif of that?

Speaking of goalkeepers, Brisbane’s young shot-stopper Aquino seems to be embracing the cliche, “taking the opportunity with both hands” literally, pulling out this sensational save to earn the Roar all three points against the Wanderers.

I think we can all agree that this is what quality goalkeeping looks like.



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