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A-League Women Season Preview 2021-22: New signings, key players, ones to watch

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Why Australia is set for a new 'exciting chapter' of football (1:07)

Sydney FC's Ally Green speaks about the important message behind the rebranding of the A-League and W-League. (1:07)

236 days after Kyra Cooney-Cross stunned Sydney FC with a last gasp olimpico to secure Melbourne Victory the 2021-22 W-League crown, Australia's premier women's football competition returns on Friday night with a historic first: expansion side Wellington Phoenix playing the first competitive fixture of their existence against Western Sydney Wanderers in Wollongong.

That it is the Nix that has been given the honour of opening the season is a suitably symbolic reflection of the rapidly evolving face of the professional game in Australia -- of which the very name of the competition is the most obvious shift. In the first year of its operation under the auspices of the Australian Professional Leagues (APL), the league has shed its W-League moniker and instead been christened as A-League Women (ALW); part of an effort to unify the leagues' branding under one synergistic facade and remove the stigma surrounding the men's competition previously holding the 'A' prefix unchallenged.

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Growing to 10 with the entrance of the Phoenix, this "new" league will also add two further teams to its ranks in 2022-23 through the Central Coast Mariners and Western United -- part of its efforts to boost the competition in both a footballing and profitability capacity by harnessing the groundswell of excitement and enthusiasm for the women's game in the lead into the 2023 Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

So great is the potential of the legacy of the tournament, it will, rightly or wrongly, cast a shadow over nearly every facet of the coming ALW season; every action from players, administrators and even fans examined through a context of what it all means for 2023.

And at some point, of course, there will also be some football played. A chance to push for a premiership, championship, or, for the first time a "club championship." Chaos seemingly being the defining characteristic of the Dub (a nickname of endearment that will survive any rebranding), what will happen in this next few months is anyone's guess -- but ESPN's experts Joey Lynch and Marissa Lordanic have given it their best shot.

JUMP TO: Adelaide United | Brisbane Roar | Canberra United | Melbourne City | Melbourne Victory | Newcastle Jets | Perth Glory | Sydney FC | Wellington Phoenix | Western Sydney Wanderers

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5:27

Football Fern Rebekah Stott opens up about cancer battle

Instead of dealing with attacking forays from rival strikers, Rebekah Stott is now firmly focused on fighting a much more serious battle against an unseen opponent.

Adelaide United

2020-21 was a season to remember in many ways for the Reds; young talent emerging to play key roles and a record standalone ALW crowd achieved when 5,159 supporters watched them beat Western Sydney Wanderers 3-1 at Coopers Stadium. But when the dust settled, it was a case of unlucky year 14: the foundation ALW side missing out on the chance to play in their first-ever finals series on goal difference to Canberra United.

Coach: Adrian Stenta

After coming agonisingly close to ending the Reds' finals drought in 2020-21 in his first year as in the main chair, Adrian Stenta was awarded a two-year contract extension this offseason; giving him scope to continue to build upon the foundations that have been laid in the City of Churches. -- Lynch

Stenta steered the Reds to their best-ever season and deserved the contract extension. Building on last season and breaking through that literal final barrier will be difficult. Whether they have recruited well enough to take that next step will be the big question of the season. -- Lordanic

Key outs: Charlotte Grant, Dylan Holmes, Mallory Weber

Key ins: Natasha Brough, Shadeene Evans, Leia Varley

What does success look like this season?

Finals would be the dream, but with an almost entirely new midfield it's looking like a big ask. -- Lynch

One to watch: Annalee Grove

Who ultimately dons the gloves and claims the No. 1 spot for the Reds will be fascinating to watch. Grove, 20, has played youth international football for Australia and Miranda Templeman, 18, is part of the Future Matildas program. With no senior keeper to lean on, one of these players will have to step up. And with only two ALW appearances between them -- both belonging to Grove -- the emergence of a new talent on the national scene could be imminent.

Brisbane Roar

It was the case of another year, another strong campaign for Brisbane Roar in 2020-21: riding Emily Gielnik's Golden Boot-winning campaign to a second-place finish and yet another finals bow. Losing Gielnik and heart and soul figure Clare Polkinghorne to overseas moves before the finals, however, the club was unable to subsequently make a charge towards a third championship: defeated 6-2 by Victory in the semis.

Coach: Garrath McPherson

A former assistant coach to Mel Andreatta during the club's Premiership-winning 2017-18 campaign, McPherson has returned to the Roar to replace Jake Goodship in the dugout this coming campaign. The head of the Sunshine's state National Training Centre program and boss of the Queensland Academy of Sport side in NPLW QLD he, if nothing else, is very well-placed to continue Roar's proud tradition of fostering local talent. -- Lynch

And McPherson's connection to the NPLW in Queensland and to the NTC program is pretty evident in terms of the squad he has assembled; there is plenty of merit to working with what you know. -- Lordanic

Key outs: Isobel Dalton, Tameka Yallop, Kim Carroll

Key ins: Hollie Palmer, Natalie Tathem, Ayesha Norrie

What does success look like this season?

The second-most successful club in ALW history, somehow recording yet another finals appearance in spite of the significant amount of talent that has been lost in recent years would be mighty impressive -- especially if it's combined with continued improvement from the very young, very local contingent. -- Lynch

Cracking into the top four might be a mountainous task for this side when there are more than a few question marks over this Brisbane defence. With no Polkinghorne, Kim Carroll, Winonah Heatley, or Kaitlyn Torpey, the Roar has lost plenty of experience. -- Lordanic

Ones to watch: Katrina Gorry/Natalie Tathem

I'm cheating and sharing two players in this Roar side that are making comebacks from two very different situations. Gorry is set to return to the field after giving birth to her daughter, Harper, back in August. Gorry seems to be in a wonderful place with her new family and while it may take a little bit of time for her to get back to her best, she is well on the way. The other returnee is Tathem. She made the move to Melbourne Victory last season and injured her knee in the first 29 minutes of the season; she did not take to the pitch again. Both players will add value to the centre of the park as they get back to full fitness. -- Lordanic

Canberra United

ALW's only standalone side, Canberra United rode an outstanding season from Michelle Heyman to a finals appearance in 2020-21 (breaking Adelaide's hearts in the process) before going down to Sydney FC in the semifinals.

Coach: Vicki Linton

Linton is one of the most experienced operators in the ALW having previously coached Melbourne Victory and spent time as part of the Junior, Young, and senior Matildas coaching staff. She got Canberra into finals last season and now, with arguably more depth at her disposal, she should manage to get the green machine there once again. -- Lordanic

Key outs: Jessika Nash, Bianca Galic, Kendall Fletcher

Key ins: Ally Haran, Allira Toby, Ash Sykes

What does success look like this season?

The obvious answer to this question is once again making finals and going one better. But another key element to Canberra's success will be finding other outlets to goal besides Heyman; this was, after all, a big reason why the team only made it to the semifinal stage of the competition. If they can find those outlets, and they appear to have the personnel, then they are already better placed to make it beyond the first week of finals. -- Lordanic

One to watch: Michelle Heyman

Yes, with the Women's World Cup on the horizon and the future supposed to be bright for the women's game in Australia there's a lot of focus on the youngsters this season. But sometimes you just want to watch really great players score goals and 33-year-old Heyman does that -- better than anyone else in ALW history.

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0:48

De Vanna discusses Stajcic dismissal

Lisa de Vanna shares her thoughts on the sacking of Alen Stajcic as Matildas coach in 2019.

Melbourne City

There was always going to be a bit of a letdown following the invincible season of 2019-20, but City's seventh-placed finish in 2020-21, nine points out of the playoffs, still represented a disappointing one for the club. Losing almost every member of their squad from the year prior, a series of near-misses in the transfer market left the club with a gaping void up top: something they hope to have fixed this year.

Coach: Rado Vidosic

Vidosic returns for his fourth year at the Citizens in 2021-22 but, alas for the 60-year-old, Steph Catley, Kyah Simon, and Ellie Carpenter aren't walking in the door any time soon; meaning the path to success likely lies in forging the more sustainable, developmentally focused program he has spoken of. He will also be focusing entirely on City's women's teams this year rather than juggling it with academy responsibilities. -- Lynch

City needed to move with the current towards a more youth-based squad and Vidosic has recruited accordingly and impressively. City, even after last season's disappointing showing, are still undeniably a destination club and it is no surprise that a number of young players have made to move to Melbourne from other ALW sides to work under Vidosic. -- Lordanic

Key outs: Alex Chidiac, Chinatsu Kira, Samantha Johnson

Key ins: Hannah Wilkinson, Leticia McKenna, Sally James

What does success look like this season?

Melbourne City is a proud club and not making finals is something they will not want to turn into a habit. This particular iteration looks to have a good mix of strong, experienced players and exciting, young ones. It took a little while for the side to get into the groove of things, finishing season 2020-21 much stronger than they started it. If City don't miss the start, finals are not outside the realm of possibility. -- Lordanic

One to watch: Rebekah Stott

Stott's journey from lymphoma diagnosis, treatment, recovery and now ALW has been one of courage, generosity of spirit and inspiration -- her refusal to let her illness govern her outlook a soaring example of the power the spirit holds even when our bodies are at their weakest. But now, she gets to focus on just kicking around the football and playing games -- making cancer just a part of, not her whole, story. You really do love to see it. -- Lynch

Melbourne Victory

Emphasising a strong core of young and local talent and supplemented by the tenacity of Lisa De Vanna, it all came together perfectly at just the right time for Victory in 2020-21: storming into finals, brushing aside Brisbane Roar and then riding the Cooney-Cross w√ľnderstrike to defeat Sydney FC in the decider.

Coach: Jeff Hopkins

The most successful coach in ALW history and the equal most decorated coach in women's national league history as a whole, Jeff Hopkins is a giant of Victory: arriving to take over a side at its lowest ebb and turning it into, arguably, the strongest program in the land. Beyond his work on the sideline, the 57-year-old former Wales international is tireless in his work scouting and building relationships in the local Victorian scene, demonstrated by the strong, local pipeline at AAMI Park, and is now playing a leading role in Victory's development of their own pathway. -- Lynch

Key outs: Gaby Garton, Lisa De Vanna, Angie Beard

Key ins: Courtney Nevin, Alana Murphy, Casey Dumont

What does success look like this season?

Beneficiaries of an extended preseason thanks to NPLW Victoria's cancellation and retaining the majority of the squad that won the title, Victory loom as favourites this coming campaign. Kayla Morrison would be a slam dunk Matilda if she was eligible, they can score goals, their young talent is strong, and there are late moves to bring in multiple high-profile reinforcements. If they can weather the likely loss of Cooney-Cross and Nevin to international duty during the Asian Cup is perhaps the biggest question. -- Lynch

This season, Victory will want the double. Plain and simple. The team was stung when they went down to Sydney FC in the last game of the season which decided the Premier's Plate. Getting to the top is difficult, and it took Victory a couple of semifinal exits before they could lift the Championship. Now having ticked that off their list, they will want to stay at the top and it is a task that will be difficult but well within the realm of possibility for this side. -- Lordanic

One to watch: Melina Ayres

At a time when Tony Gustavsson is clearly casting his net wide to find contributors for both 2023 and beyond, that Ayres hasn't received a call-up to a full squad yet is perplexing, to say the least. The 22-year-old attacker started every game for Victory's championship-winning side of 2020-21 while scoring eight times and earning a spot on the bench of the PFA's Team of the Season. If she can keep scoring and continue to become a complete striker, she'll be impossible to ignore. -- Lynch

Newcastle Jets

The Jets ran it back again in 2020-21: recording the same exact number of wins, draws and losses as they did the season prior. Nonetheless, Perth's struggles did mean that they were able to avoid a second-straight wooden spoon and there was a slight improvement in both their offensive and defensive performances -- giving them at least some sort of platform to build on.

Coach: Ash Wilson

Part of the vanguard of female coaches in ALW -- four of the league's 12 sides led by women -- Wilson will enter her second year in charge at the Jets in 2021-22; eager to continue to implement the plans and ideas she developed during her long apprenticeship as an assistant at the club. -- Lynch

Much like Cath Cannuli at the Wanderers can relate to her players having previously played in the league, Wilson can also relate to the juggle so many of the players must go through just to play football. A physical education teacher by trade, it seems a natural fit that she is also a coach. -- Lordanic

Key outs: Tessa Tamplin, Rhianna Pollicina

Key ins: Marie Markussen, Sunny Franco, Elizabeth Eddy

What does success look like this season?

Despite the race for the top-four (or at least third and fourth) looking remarkably open this season, a lack of top-end talent means finals are probably too long of a bow to draw for the Hunter-heavy Jets this season. However, progression on their two wins in 2020-21, given their dip into the international market, should be expected. -- Lynch

One to watch: Marie Markussen

Thrice capped at a senior international level by her native Norway, Markussen was the first international player the Jets have inked to a deal since the 2018-19 ALW campaign -- since joined by another import in Elizabeth Eddy on the eve of the season. -- Lynch

It's been a while since the Jets have added some international flavours to the squad so the expectations on both Eddy and Markussen will be high. At the other end of the scale are the Novocastrian players. This includes the likes of 18-year-old Kirsty Fenton who has been with the club's academy since she was 11 and has signed her first senior contract. There's also the return of Ash Brodigan who was last at the Jets in 2018 and has returned to the ALW level after spending some time away. -- Lordanic

Perth Glory

Seemingly everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong for Glory last season; a late-starting and disrupted preseason, challenges in recruitment and border restrictions meaning that Alex Epakis and his squad were seemingly on a hiding to nothing. After ending that campaign with just a single point, the only way is up.

Coach: Alex Epakis

Named Glory coach just a month out from the start of the 2020-21 campaign -- and not able to hold his first training until Christmas Eve -- Epakis was clearly working with one hand tied behind his back that season; it difficult to make any sort of judgement on the former NPL NSW standout's performance as a result. Given how quickly he went about recruiting some of the Eastern seaboard's most promising -- and overlooked -- talent this offseason, it's clear we'll be getting a bit of a better look at the real Epakis this season. -- Lynch

His signing last season was so exciting considering the wraps he came with from his time at Sydney University. He absolutely has a point to prove to the wider ALW public about what a team that he has assembled and actually spent a preseason with can do. -- Lordanic

Key outs: Lily Alfeld, Malia Steinmetz

Key ins: Kim Carroll, Lisa De Vanna, Mie Leth Jans

What does success look like this season?

The problems of West Australia's border remain, but it would be hoped that with a year's experience under their belt that the club has had a better chance to deal with it this season. They won't play finals, but a few wins -- Lisa De Vanna seems almost nailed on to will them to at least one -- and signs of development from their young squad would show they're going in the right direction. -- Lynch

Getting that first win will be an important milestone not only for Epakis but for the team as a whole. His signings -- both in terms of age profile and contract length -- suggest that Epakis sees this Glory team as a long-term project. With the move towards youth, Glory have futureproofed which is set to benefit not only the club but the wider national team playing pool. There must be a step up from last season's showing but this season is still only an early chapter in this Glory side's tale. -- Lordanic

One to watch: Hana Lowry

Playing out west and in a winless side as she did, the development of Lowry has been flying under the radar in the broader Australian football zeitgeist: the left-footed midfielder starting 11 games for Epakis last season at just 17-years-of-age. Debuting with the Junior Matildas just before COVID flipped the world on its head, the former Cockburn City junior's progression is worthy of observation in the months ahead.

Sydney FC

Stop us if you've heard this one before: Sydney FC played finals in the last ALW season ... again. The most successful ALW club in the competition's history, the Harboursiders secured their first premiership in 10 years in 2020-21, only to be denied a historic double by a bit of Cooney-Cross magic in the decider.

Coach: Ante Juric

Ante Juric is back again as the mentor in the Sky Blue dugout and looking to continue along the pathway he has envisioned for his side. The 48-year-old talked openly during the 2020-21 campaign about how his was a squad that, seeing the seachange in women's football and the potential impact of COVID, had been built to grow and mature around a core of locals in the years ahead. -- Lynch

Key outs: Teresa Polias, Clare Wheeler, Liz Ralston

Key ins: Paige Satchell, Jessika Nash, Sarah Hunter

What does success look like this season?

When you make nine Grand Finals in 14 seasons, how can a Grand Final berth be seen as anything other than the bare minimum? Last season's premiers will be stinging that they were unable to complete the double but they will certainly have a fight on their hands for silverware this season. -- Lordanic

Indeed, in some ways, Sydney are victims of their own success: anything less than a decent run at some silverware is going to be a letdown simply because the club has made that its standard in ALW. -- Lynch

One to watch: Taylor Ray

Ray has had as rough a run of injuries as the best of them. Consecutive ACL tears in her late teens kept the promising midfielder away from the park and has limited her to 24 appearances in four seasons. Long-term ALW fans might remember the gut wrenching vision of Ray down on the turf being consoled by another veteran of the ACL club, Amy Harrison. While she was thankfully healthy last season, she featured predominantly off the bench, falling down the pecking order behind captain Teresa Polias and Clare Wheeler. With neither of those players in Sky Blue this season, it's Ray's time to shine. Touch wood there are no more season-ending injury stories to tell.

Wellington Phoenix

History is set to be made this season with the entrance of the Phoenix: the Land of the Long White Cloud finally getting its own professional football team and giving young girls across the nation an opportunity to pursue their dreams without having to head overseas ... once they get back from Wollongong, that is.

Coach: Gemma Lewis

Giving an indication into the priorities of the side, Future Ferns Domestic Programme mentor and New Zealand Women's Under-20 boss Lewis has been tapped to guide the Nix history-making efforts in 2021-22; her role clearly just as much, if not moreso, about development than results. Alongside assistant Natalie Lawrence, she will also make up just one of two coaching staffs in the competition that are made up entirely of women.

What does success look like this season?

Wellington has the youngest average squad age in the entire league. The likes of Lily Alfeld and Chloe Knott qualify as elder stateswomen by virtue of being in their mid-twenties. While the situation is very different, it does feel a bit like Perth Glory last season. This squad has come together in a short amount of time and must contend with being based away from home. The Nix won't win many but they will finish the season with at least one three-point haul. -- Lordanic

The Nix entry into ALW looms as a massive boost for the growth of women's football in New Zealand in the years ahead -- but immediate results aren't going to be that great. With so many of the nation's top players either overseas or signed to other ALW clubs, Lewis' Kiwi-focused squad will be incredibly young this campaign and are going to take some lumps. Avoiding a winless season would be a positive. -- Lynch

One to watch: Grace Wisnewski

This squad features a few players who were part of the New Zealand side which came third at the 2018 U17 Women's World Cup. Of the six goals the Kiwis scored at that tournament, half of them came from Wisnewski. With a goal against Uruguay in the group stage and a brace in the third-placed match against Canada, Wisnewski -- now 19 -- knows how to score in important moments. It's that kind of experience which could be key to the Nix bagging some results this season. -- Lordanic

Western Sydney Wanderers

After a breakthrough finals appearance in 2019-20, a host of movement in the departure lounge saw the Wanderers slip backwards in 2020-21: finishing the season in sixth and three games behind fourth-placed Canberra United.

Coach: Catherine Cannuli

An assistant with the Wanderers ALW side since 2017, Cannuli will finally get her chance to put her apprenticeship to use as the main figure in the dugout this season. A west Sydney native and former Wanderer and Matilda as a player, the 35-year-old, it cannot be denied, will bring an innate understanding of the ethos of the club and its squad. -- Lynch

The really exciting thing about Cannuli assuming the reins of the Wanderers is that she is the first really obvious example of the player to coach pathway in the ALW. That pipeline in the men's game is so ingrained it's not even newsworthy. But it's a real significant development in the women's game and it's going to be interesting to watch how Cannuli stamps her mark on this side. -- Lordanic

Key outs: Nikola Orgill, Courtney Nevin, Georgia Yeoman-Dale

Key ins: Teigen Allen, Malia Steinmetz, Bianca Galic

What does success look like this season?

The Wanderers grew into the 2020-21 season and will be keen to continue that positive trajectory heading into this coming campaign -- especially if some late maneuverings in the transfer market can be pushed through. At the very least, closing the gap between themselves and the playoff spaces would be a good result. -- Lynch

As always in the ALW there are teams that find form in the final rounds of the season when it is far too late to make any sort of meaningful moves on the table. As Joey said, the Wanderers definitely fit that description. Western Sydney should be close to finals -- pending a more consistent showing which they look capable of -- but not quite there. -- Lordanic

One to watch: Liz Ralston

By no means a new name to the competition, Liz Ralston has made the move across town to join the Wanderers. The defender had been a mainstay at Sydney FC amassing 81 appearances which she would have added to last campaign if not for a season ending hamstring injury. She can provide experience and stability to this Wanderers backline. -- Lordanic