W-League review: Jenkins shines for Victory; Jets struggle again
The W-League weekend in 280 characters or less
Adelaide win the battle to avoid the wooden spoon with 2-1 win over Newcastle; Melbourne Victory secure second spot after defeating Sydney 3-1; Wanderers make their first finals with 3-2 win over Perth; and City complete their second season undefeated with 3-1 win over Brisbane.
We can divide the 2019-20 season into two groups: teams that started well and then stumbled towards the finish line, and teams that were slow out of the blocks only to pick up speed in the home stretch.
Melbourne Victory's game against Sydney FC illustrated these two groups perfectly, with the Sky Blues falling to their second consecutive loss against a team below them on the ladder, while Victory kept their foot on the pedal to secure their second straight win and a home semifinal.
One player who's been at the heart of Victory's late surge has been Reign FC loanee Darian Jenkins, who scored her second brace in two games against the defending champions on Saturday. Like the team she plays in, the pacey winger took about half the season to find her feet, but when she did ... boy, did she!
Jenkins has been Victory's most dangerous attacking threat since she broke her goal scoring drought in round eight, growing in confidence and fitness while also adding defensive responsibilities to her game. Her second goal against Sydney epitomised this: having tracked back to help defend, Jenkins poached an uncontrolled pass before driving forward down the right, slaloming around two players and smashing the ball in at the front post.
Having scored 10 goals in the past two games, Victory are absolutely flying into finals and they largely have the improved form of Jenkins -- as well as that of busy Houston Dash midfielder Hayley Hanson -- to thank for it.
Western Sydney Wanderers
What's the lesson we learn from every Disney film? Never give up, even when everything seems to be going against you. Western Sydney's fairytale story was headed towards an early conclusion after a series of poorly-timed losses saw them fall two spots on the ladder and enter into the final regular-season round just two points away from possibly being bundled out of the top four altogether. But as Disney protagonists tend to do, they rallied; their first-half performance against an in-form Perth Glory on Saturday night was their best 45 minutes since the reverse meeting of these two sides in round 10, with the visitors scoring three unanswered goals from a series of set-pieces before Perth had broken a sweat.
Teen star Kyra Cooney-Cross, who looked lost over the past three games, was at the heart of two of the goals, while fellow midfielder Ella Mastrantonio floated a perfect ball in for Kristen Hamilton to notch the team's third within the first half hour. Mastrantonio and Hamilton looked particularly enthusiastic -- both players having sat out of their side's loss to City last week thanks to card suspensions -- with Hamilton scoring her second brace of the 2019-20 season and putting herself in equal-first position to win the Golden Boot (along with three other players).
Credit must also go to Perth Glory, though, who came into the second half with a renewed vigour and pulled two goals back to force the visitors to scramble and maintain their lead. But the Wanderers were able to weather the late-game storm and secure fourth spot, qualifying for their first finals appearance in the process: a just reward for a club that has moved the dial for professionalism in the W-League both on and off the field.
It's one of the more depressing stats of the season that Adelaide and Newcastle came into their final match-up to see which of the two teams would earn the most wooden spoons in W-League history. That honour (if you can call it that) has fallen to Newcastle after losing 2-1 to the Reds in the final round. Both teams therefore finish the season having won and lost once to each other -- one of just two wins each side has tallied. They both end their respective campaigns with seven points, with Newcastle's 7-0 demolishing at the hands of Victory last week the deciding factor, finishing just below Adelaide on goal difference.
This is Newcastle's sixth wooden spoon in 12 seasons and given the lack of international experience in their line-up compared to that of other sides, it was not a complete surprise. Newcastle's season was further disrupted by the loss of head coach Craig Deans half way through after he was poached by the A-League side on an interim basis and then simply never came back.
The club's off-field issues have affected both senior sides this season and, if one looks at the teams in the top four in both leagues, it's clear that stability and investment behind the scenes pays off. Let's hope the Jets' hierarchy can position themselves more strategically next season so that they can stop making history for all the wrong reasons.
There must be something in the Sydney waters lately that has made both clubs lose a lot of their early-season spark. Western Sydney's fall has been well documented by this column already, but Sydney FC are also showing some concerning signs as they head into their 12th consecutive finals series.
The Sky Blues were one of the teams who were impacted by the mid-season player exodus, losing Caitlin Foord and Chloe Logarzo to England, though after their recruitment of Canada international Lindsay Agnew and the return of Veronica Latsko from injury, it seemed like the cracks wouldn't be too severe. But following their promising re-start -- that 3-0 win over the Wanderers -- the team seems to have run out of ideas, particularly when coming up against in-form sides. Their loss against Perth last week was a preview of their 3-1 loss to Victory this past Saturday: struggling to assert themselves in midfield and lacking clarity and direction in attack.
Despite dominating possession in both games, Sydney looked mostly ponderous and unimaginative going forward, and found it practically impossible to break down both side's compact defences. Odd selection choices by Ante Juric certainly didn't help their cause in Saturday's Big Blue as Golden Boot leader Remy Siemsen was benched while captain and midfield motor Teresa Polias was take off early. It wasn't until the final five minutes of regular time that the Sky Blues looked more enthusiastic and determined -- scoring their only goal of the game through a Natalie Tobin worldie -- but there are question marks hanging over the side as they head into the semifinals on the back foot.
Young player to watch
Brisbane Roar's teens
Coming into the final game of the 2019-20 regular season, Brisbane Roar knew that they were out of finals. Western Sydney's win over Perth a day earlier meant the Roar mathematically couldn't jump into the top four even if they managed an emphatic win against Melbourne City. So the Roar did what most teams out of finals contention have done this season: they chucked the kids on.
Four of the players who lined up on Sunday afternoon against World Cup winners and senior Matildas were under the age of 20: Leah Davidson, Indiah-Paige Riley, Kaitlyn Torpey and Jamilla Rankin. The latter, at just 16 years old, made her W-League debut at left-back after American Carson Pickett was sidelined with injury. Two more young players -- Winonah Heatley and Hollie Palmer -- were subbed on after half-time.
Despite the cavernous disparity in age difference between the two sides, Brisbane were surprisingly able to hold their own. In fact, it was a teen combo that ended City's run of 729 minutes without conceding a goal after Riley and Palmer combined on a breakaway to make it 1-1 just after the break. And despite some early nerves, none of these players looked especially out of place. Rankin was particularly impressive considering the circumstances of having Kyah Simon and Ellie Carpenter running at her all game, while Davidson, Riley and Palmer continued to show the sparks that earned them appearances earlier in the season.
In fact, Brisbane's teens were so good that they drew special mention from Fox Sports commentator and Melbourne Victory striker Natasha Dowie: "I'm smiling away looking at some of these younger Brisbane players; they're so confident on the ball and it's just great to see," she said. "It must be something they're obviously coaching these kids to [be], because I tell you what, if I was a 16-year-old kid coming up against [Yukari] Kinga who's got over 100 caps for Japan and [is] a World Cup winner, I don't know if I'd be doing some of the things these younger Brisbane players are doing. It's really great to see, and credit to Brisbane."
While the W-League faces some wider anxieties about the loss of top players to other leagues overseas, the silver lining is that the next generation of Australia's top talent are being given the opportunity to shine. Brisbane's performance showed how much we have to look forward to.
Is there a gif of that?
We were already spoilt for choice with Goal of the Season contenders coming into round 14 but Jenkins decided to thrown her hat into the ring with this stellar solo effort against Sydney FC. It's the kind driving, Lionel Messi-like dribble and shot that's choreographed to look amazing on TV but that you know rarely happens in real life, so when it does, you need to take a couple of seconds to pinch yourself. Western Sydney might want to literally glue a defender onto her come the semifinals in two weeks' time.