In the wake of the Matildas' two friendly losses this past week, attention now turns to the lessons that new head coach Tony Gustavsson and his staff will learn as they help the national team prepare for July's Tokyo Olympics.
While many concerns emerged from Australia's 10-2 aggregate defeat by Germany and the Netherlands, there are some silver linings. One is that young, fringe and uncapped players who we did not expect to get much of a run -- Beattie Goad, Mary Fowler, Dylan Holmes, Indiah-Paige Riley, Emma Checker -- took their opportunities with both hands, sometimes even outshining established senior stars.
While it may be too little, too late for the upcoming Olympics, the real golden ticket lies two years down the road: the 2023 Women's World Cup on home soil. By that point, many young players currently emerging through the W-League will be approaching the peak-performance age bracket (between 22 and 31 years) as identified in Football Australia's performance gap report.
W-League-based players (for the most part) were not eligible for selection for the international window just passed, but Gustavsson noted before the two most recent friendlies that his squad was selected with one eye to the future.
In that spirit, then, which young W-League players (21 or younger) staked their claim this season for consideration in future Matildas camps and, possibly, a spot on that historic 2023 roster?
She may not have had much to do up until the final game, but Sydney FC goalkeeper Mathyssen-Whyman showed that she is more than capable of stepping up where and when it matters.
Before the W-League Grand Final, Mathyssen-Whyman had the highest save percentage across the league (77.6%), making 38 major saves and conceding just 11 goals all season. Her deserved Player of the Match performance against Melbourne Victory only complemented those stats, making five huge saves of six clear chances across 120 minutes.
The 21-year-old was already widely touted as one of the heirs to Lydia Williams, but that performance proved not only that Mathyssen-Whyman is a big-game player, but having returned to an elite level of football after two years struggling with injury, that she is also determined and resilient; qualities that all Matildas players may need as the world's eyes gradually focus upon us.
RB: Polly Doran -- Melbourne Victory
While there were many stand-outs for the Melbourne Victory side who hoisted the 2020-21 Championship trophy, one player who flew under the radar was Doran. Against Sydney in the final alone, Doran led her team in duels (18), duels won (10) and most tackles (6) across the game, while also sending in five crosses. They capped off a series of increasingly impressive performances towards the end of Victory's campaign, helping her side concede just five times in the last eight games and has cemented the 19-year-old as the club's first-choice right-back.
"Polly Doran, I thought, was amazing tonight," Hopkins said after the Grand Final win. "The last few weeks, she's stepped up to another level. To come into finals, you're never sure what a young player is going to give you. She just grabbed it with both hands.
"She's a player that wants to get better. She wants to learn. Every week, she's analysing her own performance and actually wants a lot of feedback as well. The area we've talked about over the last few weeks was becoming a little bit tougher, a little bit more intimidating as a full-back against a winger. I think she proved today and last week that she has got a tough side to her. Character-wise, she's really showing what she's about."
She was the youngest player in the W-League this season, but you wouldn't have guessed it from the way the Junior Matildas captain performed for Canberra alongside the vastly more experienced defenders in Kendall Fletcher and Lauren Keir.
Nash, 16, led her side in the percentage of duels won on the ground as well as in the air, while also registering the equal third-highest amount of ball recoveries. Given this was her first W-League season, it is remarkable that she played the second-highest number of minutes in the entire Canberra side, which includes professionals almost twice her age.
Already considered by many at the youth level to be a future senior captain, Nash has proved this season that she not only has the footballing abilities so widely regarded, but also the maturity and leadership qualities needed to usher through the next generation.
CB: Charlotte McLean -- Sydney FC
Although she played at right-back for much of the season, young Sky Blues defender McLean showed her versatility for a handful of games following the late-season injury-enforced absence of veteran centre-back Ellie Brush.
Given major competition squads are only 18 (Olympics) to 23 (World Cup) players long, flexibility and adaptability on the field are valuable. While it is revealing of the W-League's lack of young, dedicated centre-backs that a player who has excelled at right-back this season has been included in this position here, it is also a reality that the national team must address by recognising the potential that defenders in other positions may have to be transitioned into other roles over the next few years.
Like Nash, this is McLean's first W-League season and the 20-year-old has slotted into a Premiership-winning side with both maturity and ease. Her abilities at both centre-back and right-back were on display throughout the campaign, and if she continues on this steep trajectory, could offer a different kind of option for national teams moving forward.
LB: Jamilla Rankin -- Brisbane Roar
Undoubtedly the natural successor to Steph Catley, Roar full-back Rankin is already displaying the same athletic, creative and football-IQ qualities that made many sit up and pay attention to Ellie Carpenter just a few seasons ago.
Not only was Rankin in the top 10 players across the league for passes into the opposition half this season, the 17-year-old was also equal-10th for the most chances created (18 with three assists) due to her natural attacking instincts and set-piece abilities, particularly from corners, giving her the highest Expected Assists (xA) in the team (2.31 -- the fourth-highest in the league).
For a player in just her second W-League season, she played the fourth-highest number of minutes and had the second-highest number of touches across her side. In addition, she was in the top two players for the percentage of duels won (70.8%) and led Brisbane in aerial duel success rate (88.9%). If she continues to improve, Rankin will be, without question, a future senior Matilda.
DM: Laura Hughes -- Canberra United
One of the positions of most concern at senior Matildas level is defensive midfield, with Australia's two settled No. 6s -- Elise Kellond-Knight and Aivi Luik -- reaching the twilight of their careers. But Australia has a handful of talented players emerging through the ranks, including Canberra's 19-year-old midfielder Hughes.
Having been part of United's Academy and W-League set-up for a number of years, Hughes has become a mainstay in the side's midfield. With the highest pass completion rate across the field (82%) as well as into the final third (81.3%), the fourth-highest number of chances created, and the equal-third highest ball recoveries (86), Hughes stands out as one of the W-League's most promising young defensive-minded midfielders who also plays a role going forward, having created 15 chances and assisted twice this season.
Tenacious, fit, consistent and versatile, Hughes is able to transition between a No. 6 and a No. 8 in midfield, providing extra dimension and line-breaking threats in any side she's part of.
Honourable mention: Taylor Ray (Sydney FC, 19)
CM: Kyra Cooney-Cross -- Melbourne Victory
There is no player under the age of 21 in the W-League who is, you'd think, more certain of a future Matildas spot than Cooney-Cross. The teenager has been on the scene for a couple of years now, but her recent season with Melbourne Victory was undoubtedly her break-out one.
Statistically, Cooney-Cross, 19, is not just impressive for a young player; she is impressive for a W-League player, full-stop. She has played a pivotal role in Victory's success, scoring five goals, assisting four, taking the third-highest number of shots (43), has the second-highest pass completion rate in the opposition half (71.3%) and has created 36 major chances -- the highest of any player in the competition.
Her Championship-winning olimpico in the Grand Final against Sydney FC capped off what has been a stellar W-League campaign for any player, let alone one who is still so young.
"She's been definitely in our top two or three players this year," Hopkins said. "She just got better and better as the season's gone on. She can be anything. She's an amazing talent. She's the best talent in Australian football. It's scary how good she is."
CM: Hana Lowry -- Perth Glory
Perth's wooden spoon this season may have distracted some from the individual talents the club possesses, especially in young creative midfielder Lowry. While it was just her first W-League season, the 17-year-old played every available match and made some of the biggest statistical contributions to the team.
Lowry was in the top five players for her pass completion rate (74%), particularly in the final third (78.3%), as well as third for big chances created (9). She came second only behind winger Caitlin Doeglas for the number of shots (18), two of which turned into goals, making her the club's joint-Golden Boot winner for the season. Indeed, she had the second-highest Expected Goal number in her side, too (1.29).
Like Rankin and Cooney-Cross, Lowry is rated highly at the youth national team level, particularly for her full-field vision, her passing abilities, and her cannon of a left foot. With the shine of Emily van Egmond starting to wane somewhat, it is imperative that the Matildas foster the creative attacking talents of young midfielders like Lowry to ensure the side does not lose its lock-picking weapons.
LW: Princess Ibini -- Sydney FC
It's hard to believe that Ibini, who earned her first W-League contract in 2015, is still just 21 years old. She was born the same year Sydney hosted the Olympic Games, and if her current form is anything to go by, is now likely on the radar to represent Australia at the next edition.
While she has always showed flashes of brilliance, it wasn't until this season that the Sydney FC star has developed a consistency in her game that has made her one of the most exciting and effective wingers in the league. Although her name is missing from your usual statistical categories like assists and chances created, Ibini's talent was demonstrated in other ways including successful dribbles, penalty box entries, shots on target and tackle success rate, all in addition to her five goals.
The position of winger is likely one of the hardest to crack into in the current senior Matildas side with the likes of Caitlin Foord, Hayley Raso, Sam Kerr and Emily Gielnik all vying for starting spots, but if Ibini can add to her attacking repertoire and maintain consistency, there's no reason she can't be up there for consideration in 2023.
ST: Chelsie Dawber -- Adelaide United
When The Far Post -- ESPN's women's football podcast -- surveyed players from across the 2020-21 season's top four sides and asked them which team they found most difficult to play against, every one responded with Adelaide United, and young Dawber was a big reason why.
Despite playing fewer games than many other centre-forwards in the league, Dawber made her eight appearances for the club count after returning from injury. She ranked in the top five of the club for chances created (8) and equal-first for the number of shots taken (23), while also becoming the club's top scorer with five goals in addition to two assists.
Having already demolished South Australia's National Premier League in consecutive seasons, the pacey, clinical 21-year-old is the kind of player who requires a full-time club season to take her to the next level. And with opposition national teams now keeping a close eye on the Matildas' regular strikers, introducing alternatives like Dawber into the fold could add an element of unpredictability that might make or break future games.
RW: Teigan Collister -- Western Sydney Wanderers
Like Lowry, Collister has perhaps suffered from her club's circumstances and ladder position when it comes to being appreciated for her impact this season. In fact, Collister ranks up among more recognisable creative names like Emily Condon, Melina Ayres, and Mallory Weber for the attacking influence she had with the Wanderers, creating 15 big chances and assisting four goals -- the highest number in her side.
Having made the move from Newcastle Jets in the offseason, the lightning-quick Collister, 21, soon flourished in the 4-3-3 system used by Western Sydney that utilised her pace and clever off-shoulder runs, regularly angling in behind her full-backs to latch onto through-balls and nipping past covering defenders to make multiple penalty box entries.
Within the elite environment of the Wanderers, and as the W-League continues to grow, there is little doubt that Collister will continue to improve along the same lines and -- like Ibini -- potentially find herself in contention for a Matildas call-up just in time for 2023.