The 2020-21 season kicked off with just three games after Sydney's COVID-19 cluster forced last-minute postponements and fixture reshuffles. But the games we did get -- Brisbane drawing 0-0 with Melbourne City, Sydney FC defeating Western Sydney 3-0, and Canberra winning 4-3 over Adelaide -- served up more than enough brand-new storylines, exciting characters and gasp-inducing moments to ensure that we enter the New Year on a high.
Teagan Micah (and, by extension, Melbourne City)
Based on the 0-0 scoreline, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the W-League's season opener between Brisbane Roar and Melbourne City on Tuesday afternoon was a tightly-contested battle between two of the league's most successful clubs.
But it wasn't. Not only did Brisbane out-possess the traditionally possession-heavy City (57% vs. 43%), but they also delivered almost twice as many corners, over four times as many crosses, and five times as many shots as their Melbourne opponents.
And yet, City came away with a point and no goals conceded - statistically a better start compared to last season's 1-1 draw with Newcastle Jets. That was thanks almost entirely to City's new shot-stopper, Teagan Micah. The Matildas' third-choice keeper produced a Player of the Match performance for her new side, reminding football fans why she was plucked from the U.S. college system to sit on the bench for Australia at last year's Women's World Cup. Micah made seven major clearances and saved all eight of Brisbane's shots on target, as well as recording the most touches of any other City player across the 90 minutes.
Still only 23 years old, Micah demonstrated a fearlessness, aerial dominance, and a reading of the game that were beyond her years, throwing down the gauntlet for all other emerging Australian goalkeepers this W-League season. If Melbourne City are to get anything from their upcoming campaign -- especially based on the largely shambolic performance across the rest of the field against Brisbane -- you can bet that Micah will play a major part in it.
Canberra United's main narrative this season is "homecomings" -- not just a return to former glories in the sense of points and trophies, but also the return of players to the club where they made a name for themselves in Australian football.
Nobody encapsulated these two narrative threads better than Michelle Heyman this week. The former Matildas striker was all but retired from professional football after her season with Adelaide in 2018-19, but the back-room overhaul at the club she has always called home drew her back for one last crack.
And boy, has that decision been vindicated. Heyman's hat trick against Adelaide was her first in nine seasons for Canberra -- her first coming against Perth in the 2011-12 season, the same one in which she won the Golden Boot. She almost single-handedly won the game for Canberra on Wednesday, pulling the team back from 2-0 down at half-time to seal the deal in stoppage time, just moments after Adelaide threatened to claw their way back into the match.
There has been a lot of talk about the importance of young, local players to the future of the W-League, but Heyman is proof that older local players still have a huge role to play in getting it there, too. Welcome back, Michelle.
There's a scene in the film Happy Gilmore where Adam Sandler's character, Happy (an ice hockey player who has taken up golf), under-hits a putt on the green, resulting in the ball pulling up just short of the hole. Infuriated, Happy kneels down next to the ball and asks it through gritted teeth: "why don't you just go home? That's your home! Are you too good for your home!?"
That scene came to mind during Brisbane Roar's draw with Melbourne City on Tuesday.
On paper, the Roar were far and away the favourites coming into the contest. They have the highest number of capped and senior Matildas in their side (five), as well as a host of highly-rated local and young players. And they played like it. From the opening whistle, Brisbane dominated, and they should have been two goals ahead within 15 minutes after Tameka Yallop's strike was incorrectly disallowed despite crossing the line while Emily Gielnik hit the post.
You started to feel like it perhaps wasn't Brisbane's day when City defender Sam Johnson committed a blatant hand-ball in her own penalty area that was completely missed by the officials. Later in the game, Yallop scuffed a golden chance at point-blank range, Katrina Gorry hit the crossbar, Gielnik elephant-touched a potential one-on-one opportunity, and Teagan Micah acrobatically tipped a deflected shot onto the bar and out of play.
In the words of Happy Gilmore, the ball just didn't want to go home. It could be a result that comes back to bite the Roar given how vulnerable City are looking, meaning other clubs will be racing to fill the void that the reigning Premiers and Champions will likely leave in the top four if they aren't able to find their groove soon.
Western Sydney Wanderers
Well, it was fun while it lasted. "It" being the balance of power between Sydney's two major clubs swinging in the direction of the west. But after the loss of almost their entire regular starting XI in the off-season, the Wanderers now look to have swung back in the direction of mediocrity. Their 3-0 loss to Sydney on Wednesday afternoon was nowhere near as disastrous as it could have been given the massive roster turn-over, a shortened pre-season, and inconvenient COVID-19 outbreaks, but more than that, it seems like the club haven't found the players to fill the gaps last season's stand-out players left behind.
Indeed, Western Sydney are facing the same problem as Melbourne City this season. We saw glimpses of it last season as key players -- Denise O'Sullivan, Lynn Williams, Erica Halloway -- departed early. Having so heavily relied on a small crop of players for their successes, the club is now facing the consequences of not giving their squaddies a more regular run when they could afford to do so.
Now, several of those same players have been thrown in the deep end, and while it's too soon to draw conclusions, there is certainly a lack of chemistry and understanding among many of the players who started at Bankwest Stadium. Their season will hinge on how quickly they can develop it.
It's never easy to start a new season with a loss, but Western Sydney can perhaps look forward to what awaits them given that all teams are much closer to each other on paper than they have been in campaigns past. A respectable 3-0 loss against perennial top-four finishers Sydney FC -- the club that many have tipped to win one of the trophies on offer this season -- might not be such a bad start after all.
My heart health
There was a moment during the Sydney Derby when Sky Blues midfielder Taylor Ray was clattered to the ground by former teammate, Leena Khamis. Ray rolled onto her back and clutched at her right knee, wincing. For those of us familiar with Ray's injury history, the sight (and sound) of her screaming out for former Sydney teammate Amy Harrison when she tore her ACL a few seasons ago was unforgettable.
That flashed through my mind again in the several seconds Ray was on the ground, but luckily it wasn't as serious as initially feared it was and she eased herself back into the game not long afterwards. Please, universe, let Taylor Ray have an injury-free season: Sydney FC fans and my heart will be forever grateful.
Special shout-out to the final four minutes of Canberra vs. Adelaide. It was 2-2 when the clock ticked into the 90th minute, and the game finished 4-3. The absolute chaos of stoppage time -- peak W-League, if there ever was -- needs its own highlights reel.
Here's the tea
Is this the season we finally see what Princess Ibini can do?
She's just 20 years old, but it feels like Princess Ibini has been around forever. That's because, in some ways, she has. Her W-League debut was five seasons ago, making 13 appearances for Sydney FC as a 15-year old. The younger sister of former Sky Blues winger Bernie Ibini, who now plays for the Wanderers, it has been an on-running question among fans about whether either of the two Ibinis can live up to the potential that they've shown in flashes across their surprisingly long careers in Australia's professional leagues.
Princess, arguably, has much more to offer than her older brother -- at both domestic and international level. After a breakout season in 2017-18, the Young Matilda followed it up with her most prolific campaign with Sydney FC yet, scoring four goals in 13 games in 2018-19.
She was, though, largely used as a super-sub that season, regularly coming on to replace Lisa De Vanna after the veteran Matilda had run her defender into the ground, making Ibini's job a little easier once she was on the park.
But Princess doesn't have international imports or senior Matildas to crowd her out of the starting XI now. Like dozens of other young Australian players, the clearer air of this W-League season presents Ibini with her best opportunity yet to live up to the expectations that have always hummed around her.
Her brace against the Wanderers on Wednesday in Parramatta -- including a typical Ibini-esque rocket into the top corner -- certainly suggested she's ready and willing to work for it. Sydney FC head coach Ante Juric said as much afterwards, too.
"I've spoken to [Princess] a little bit and she needs to deliver," he said. "I think she realises she's not 17, 18 anymore -- she needs to be the person that steps up to the Matildas. If she plays well for us, she'll go to the Matildas, and potentially to World Cups and Olympics.
"She knows what's at stake for her, but she stood up today and was mature, did the right things, worked hard defensively, so I can't be happier.
"Sometimes when you have personalities like hers -- when you have dominant players from overseas or Matildas -- she's a shy kind of character. So now they're not here, she needs to step up. And she did today. I hope that continues. I wish it does for her."
So do we, Ante. So do we.
Is there a GIF of that?
Princess Ibini's screamer
Because we couldn't turn the last five minutes of Canberra vs. Adelaide into a single gif, we thought we'd highlight the next most insane moment of round 1: Princess Ibini's incredible strike to help Sydney FC to their first three points of the season. The reverse angle is... [chef's kiss emoji].