- Australians playing in the elite NWSL hits double figures for first time
- Matildas enjoy benefit of USA experience ahead of France 2019 qualifiers
- Five tickets to France on offer for AFC nations next month
“The Aussie players are quite sought after now, and you wouldn’t have imagined that even five years ago.” Those were the words of Tom Sermanni, current Orlando Pride coach, and former manager of both USA and Australia.
The latest edition of the NWSL kicks-off on Saturday, where the opening-round highlights include Sermanni’s strongly-supported Pride welcoming Utah Royals for their debut in USA’s elite competition.
This season Australians will once again comprise the biggest contingent of international players, leaving aside Canadians of whom a certain number are mandated to be contracted.
Indeed, Australia - with ten current players in the NWSL - are well clear of Brazil with the next best representation of seven. Two decades ago, the likes of former Matildas’ stars Cheryl Salisbury and Julie Murray were very much considered exceptions during their respective stints Stateside, rather than the beginning of a trend.
Australia’s fortunes have been on an upward trend over the past decade, in a period where Sermanni led the side to two FIFA Women’s World Cup™ quarter-final appearances.
But the past year has seen the Matildas reach an even higher echelon, with an eight-match winning streak featuring an extraordinary list of scalps. Victories over reigning world champions USA, and former Women’s World Cup Finalists Japan, Brazil, China PR and Norway helped pushed the Aussies to a new high of fourth on the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking.
Sermanni says he has sensed a difference in how Australian players are viewed in recent times. “I think until the last year or so people have underestimated the quality of football the Aussies bring,” Sermanni told FIFA.com. “That is until they actually start to work with them.
“The Aussie players bring a certain x-factor. It’s a physical, fast and competitive league, and yes they bring a mix of that, but a point of difference is that the Aussie players bring a real quality footballing ability.”
Australians have long enjoyed a solid presence in the NWSL, and the number of players between 2014 and last season was unchanged. But what has differed is the impact of the Australian players. The likes of Steph Catley, Alanna Kennedy, Hayley Raso and Sam Kerr played virtually every match for their respective clubs throughout last season. Kerr’s achievement of becoming just the second foreigner to win the league’s best player award further underlines the impact of the Australian players Stateside.
Australia co-captain Clare Polkinghorne says there have been a few factors behind the team’s growth in the past few years, citing the natural maturing of players and experience gained by playing international matches, as well as the benefit of playing in USA.
“My experience at Portland was of a very professional club,” Polkinghorne told FIFA.com. “The support and set-up they have means you can focus totally on playing football, and being the best player you can be.”
World stage beckons
NWSL clubs will be without their Aussie contingent for the opening rounds of the season, with Australia competing in qualifiers for the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. After finishing runners-up at the 2014 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, the Matildas will be looking to go one better in Jordan come the tournament finale on 20 April.
The most pressing prize, however, is qualification to France 2019. Five tickets are on offer for the eight-team field, with Australia grouped alongside Japan, Korea Republic and Vietnam.
Four years ago, just two Australians earned 20 appearances or more for an NWSL side, with a just a handful of the national team boasting overseas club experience. Fast forward to the present day and virtually the entire squad is plying their trade for the best part of 12 months of the year. That even includes 17-year-old Matildas’ fullback Ellie Carpenter, who could prove to be the youngest player in this year’s NWSL after recently joining reigning champions Portland Thorns.
So, what sets apart the NWSL from other club competitions?
“It is a high level league and involves playing 24 high-level and highly competitive games,” Sermanni said. “Training is tough and intense and there is no going through the motions, so that helps acclimatise you to being a professional player.
“The extra element of the NWSL is there are no easy games. You can’t say that about many of the leagues, where the gap between the top and bottom is significant.”