A-League Women set for a new season of firsts

A new name, a new logo, a new broadcaster and one new team mean plenty of firsts for this season of Australia's premier women's football competition, which kicks off its 14th edition this week.

Gone is the W-League moniker and its affectionate nickname 'The Dub', replaced by the gender neutral 'A-Leagues' as part of football's domestic rebranding, so the competition will now be Liberty A-League after a new sponsor was announced on Wednesday.

Also consigned to history is the Fox Sports logo and the fame of 'Tuba Guy', whose cameo appearance on the coverage went viral during one of the numerous technical glitches that beleaguered the long-time football broadcaster.

Women's football has a new home on 10 Bold and Paramount +, and the introduction of a Wellington Phoenix women's side brings the league to 10 teams and sees the 'bye round' is a thing of the past.

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The return of the Matildas to home soil in recent weeks, to host Brazil and the United States in front of record-breaking crowds, has shown the appetite for women's football is as voracious as ever, and the national debuts handed to the likes of Sydney FC's Remy Siemsen and Jessika Nash as well as Western Sydney Wanderers forward Bryleeh Henry should give all aspiring Matildas in the Liberty A-League renewed passion and ambition to put themselves front and centre as the battle for spots in Tony Gustavsson's 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup squad goes down to the wire.

While the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over, the league has sought to future-proof itself from the upheaval of last season with the initial part of the draw to be conducted in a conference system to deal with ongoing state border closures.

Melbourne Victory, Melbourne City, Canberra United and Adelaide United will play in one conference along with Perth Glory and Brisbane Roar, who will play each other twice in the opening weeks in the hope that border restrictions in Queensland at least, if not Western Australia, will be relaxed by mid-December.

The other conference features Sydney FC, Western Sydney and Newcastle Jets as well as Wellington Phoenix, who will spend this season based in Wollongong.

As fans of women's football resign themselves to yet another season without a full home-and-away fixture list, it's inevitable that the uneven nature of a 14-week season will still favour some more than others despite the introduction of a second-chance week in the finals.

Fate has been kind to the Phoenix, who face defending premiers Sydney FC twice in the opening month but then avoid second encounters against the two Melbourne sides as well as top-four finishers Brisbane Roar and Canberra United.

The Wellington women nevertheless face an uphill battle, after their late inclusion in the league along with strict regulations around their playing roster that left coach Gemma Lewis with a herculean task to find elite talent not already signed to other clubs.

The closure of the New Zealand-Australia travel bubble has seen the squad take up temporary digs for their debut season in Wollongong, with their two proposed 'home fixtures' in Wellington to be conducted on a fly-in fly-out basis in February and March 2022.

Just three of the squad have played in the league before, with captain Lily Alfeld and Isabel Gomez, signed from the Glory and Western Sydney respectively, joining former Melbourne Victory and Newcastle Jets defender Annabel Martin, who will be the most experienced player in the squad with 40 league appearances over the past five seasons.

Last season it was Perth Glory as the side under the pump, their season beset by Covid-19 related issues that saw coach Alex Epakis stranded in hotel quarantine for much of the preseason before border closures wreaked havoc with their schedule; the Glory went winless in their 12 outings, finishing bottom of the standings with just one point.

This time round it was Glory's players who were delayed in hotel quarantine, with Demi Koulizakis, Susan Phonsongkham, Deborah-Anne de la Harpe and Courtney Newbon joining the squad only slightly ahead of American Cyera Hintzen and Dane Mie Leth Jans just weeks out from their season kick off against the Roar.

Even so, Epakis is much more buoyant about this season, with his latest star signing, Lisa De Vanna, putting pen to paper to confirm her return to the west-- going back to the club where she made her W-League debut in 2008.

The 150-cap Matildas legend has won titles with Melbourne Victory, Melbourne City, Sydney FC and Brisbane Roar, and she will be keen to get back on the park after a tumultuous off-season saw her in the headlines amid allegations of historical abuse during her international career that led to the set-up of an independent complaint process through Sport Integrity Australia.

Canberra United are also celebrating the return of a hometown hero, with news last week that the club's record appearance holder, Ashleigh Sykes, has returned. Sykes, who is making a second comeback to the League, said she found her love for football again in the past winter season, which will be music to coach Vicki Linton's ears if the striker can add to the 41 goals she has scored in her previous 11 seasons -- in which Canberra topped the Premiership table three times and lifted the Championship trophy twice.

If Sykes refers to her multiple comebacks as John Farnham-esque, then her reunion with Michelle Heyman is certainly a case of getting the band back together. The two were formidable back in Canberra's heyday, and, with 200+ appearances and more than 100 Canberra United goals between them, they could add an X-factor to Linton's balanced and talented squad. With no trophies to boast of since Canberra won the Premiership in 2016-17, loyal fans of the team in green would love to see some silverware back in the capital after being dumped out of the running in the semifinals last season.

Adelaide United were level on points with Canberra at the end of last season, with goal difference alone denying the Lady Reds their first finals spot.

Adelaide are definitely 'Here for the Game' in season 14. That phrase, of course, refers to the anti-gambling campaign championed by the club to tackle the rising issue -- with the Reds commendably turning down sports betting partnerships to partner with the South Australian Government instead to spread key messaging -- but Adrian Stenta's side will certainly feel they have unfinished business on the park after the heartbreak of going so close to finals football last season.

The margin between fifth position and the bottom half on last season's table showed a gap in class between the clubs that was further exposed when various events, including a European exodus and the global Covid-19 pandemic, brought the influx of internationals to a grinding halt.

Western Sydney felt it more than most, losing their star international signings before their first ever semifinal in 2019/20 and winning just four matches in the subsequent season.

American star Lynn Williams, who helped the Wanderers to that maiden finals appearance, has been back in Australia this week -- alas for new Wanderers head coach Catherine Canulli she was playing for the United States Women's National team -- but the international debut of Bryleeh Henry for Australia may signal the talented young forward is set for a breakout season. Wanderers' addition of New Zealand international Malia Steinmetz, who has made the move from Perth, and Canadian striker Bella Habuda, who was named in the NPL Women's Team of the Year after scoring 20 goals for Gold Coast United, give Cannuli plenty to work with as they ease into the season with a trip to Wollongong to face the Phoenix.

Cannuli is one of four female coaches in the league, a marked improvement on the one (Vicki Linton) last season. The aforementioned Gemma Lewis is the third, at Wellington, and Ash Wilson at Newcastle Jets rounds out the quartet after finally getting the nod following a five-year apprenticeship.

Despite the promotion to the top job, Wilson, like many others in the A-League Women competition, will still juggle her duties with full-time employment -- in her case a teaching position at Hunter Sports High. Outside school hours, she'll be working with many familiar faces. Hannah Brewer, Cassidy Davis and Gema Simon are already well-known to the Jets faithful, but Wilson will be hoping that newly signed Norway international Marie Markussen will add firepower up front to help the side improve on last season's eighth-placed finish.

The Jets are still waiting for a new owner, so further investment in players remains on the back burner, but interested parties who saw the record crowd turn out to watch the Matildas play on a rainy night in Newcastle this week can only have been impressed by the continued strong support for the women's game in the Hunter region.

Down south, Melbourne City have the richest owners in the league, and they have recruited heavily in a bid to recover from their rapid fall from grace last season -- when the wholesale exodus of players to Europe saw the four-time champions concede 23 goals and finish seventh.

Many have scoffed in the past at City's ability to splash the cash and build superstar teams, but there will surely be big cheers from everyone for defender Rebekah Stott, who returns in their backline after a 622-day absence.

Stott originally departed Melbourne City for Brighton & Hove Albion, but her Women's Super League season was cut short when she was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Successful treatment saw her announce her cancer was in remission just over four months ago, after which she wasted no time returning to a football pitch in the NPL and now to the side with which she has won four championships.

Up in Brisbane, the Roar faithful will also be in full voice when star midfielder Katrina Gorry steps back onto the pitch after giving birth to her first child in August. Looking to challenge for a third championship, under new coach Garrath McPherson, Brisbane have a host of fresh faces drawn from the top talent in Queensland's NPL.

There's a different look to the Brisbane side this year, as the club aims for a more Queensland-centric approach.

Larissa Crummer returns to action in orange after a year out with injury, Rosie Sutton has signed on once more for her hometown club, and Jamilla Rankin is back after a strong showing in her first season along with the likes of Mariel Hecher and Georgina Worth.

The Roar will also have a new fan in the stands this season, with Gorry's baby daughter Harper sure to be supporting her mum.

Speaking of mothers, it's the first season in the league's history that Teresa Polias will not be on the park, with the W-League appearance record holder expecting the imminent arrival of her first child.

The engine room of the Sydney FC midfield played in seven grand finals and led the Sky Blue to five of the past six deciders; her 157 league matches worth of experience will be missed, but the talented roster of Ante Juric's side nevertheless holds bucketloads of talent and the ever present expectation of silverware.

At the back, Nat Tobin takes on the captain's armband and Ally Green is back as the defending premiers look to maintain their standards of 2020-21, when they were the stingiest defence in the league -- conceding only 11 goals all regular season. Nash has joined, and the teenager was recently rewarded with a Matildas debut following a standout season in the Canberra defence, but defensive stalwart Ellie Brush will be missing after a re-rupturing an ACL.

Siemsen, similarly starts the new A-Leauge Women season as a capped Matilda, and she once more leads a formidable attacking line that includes last season's regulars Princess Ibini, Mackenzie Hawkesby and Cortnee Vine complemented by experienced Chilean international Maria Jose Rojas and New Zealander Paige Satchell, who joined with Nash in the transfer from the Canberra.

When last season finished with Sydney FC lifting the Premiers Plate before falling to Melbourne Victory in a last-gasp loss in the Grand Final, you could feel the Sky Blues plotting revenge before the tears were even dry. 

The Victory have no plans to relinquish the trophy, however, and the defending champions are looking to turn AAMI Park into a fortress, playing all their home games at the ground as double headers.

Grand final star Kyra Cooney-Cross resisted the lure of European football, and she'll be joined this season by fellow Matilda Courtney Nevin in a side that Jeff Hopkins has managed to keep relatively stable. American/Australian Kayla Morrison takes the armband this year after collecting the Victory medal and Player's Player Award last season, but she will lead a side without the experience of De Vanna, Angela Beard and Annalie Longo.

Victory have a habit of starting slowly -- they claimed just four points from the opening four fixtures last season -- but it's safe to assume all eyes will be on AAMI Park on Sunday to see if they can pick up where they left off eight months ago.

Perhaps the most scrutiny of the new season, though, will be reserved for Paramount + after fans were left fuming at the inferior Fox Sports W-League broadcasts last season that saw viewers plagued by myriad streaming issues.

After a rocky start to their A-League Men's season, fans of the A-League Women are expecting a much improved offering from the new provider as clubs vie for the trophy and players jostle for a chance to win the right to wear the Green and Gold on home soil in the FIFA Women's World Cup.