W-League season preview: Melbourne City remains the team to beat
The W-League will kick off its ninth season on Saturday with the competition set to be bigger, better and closer than ever before.
After a stunning debut season which resulted in an undefeated Premiership/Championship double, Melbourne City are now the hunted.
The squad at City is set to lose a little of its shine. Missing will be Scottish star Kim Little, who will not be repeating her classy stint at the league's newest club, likewise Manchester City's Jen Beattie and Matildas co-captain Lisa De Vanna are not on the City team list this time round.
However, American Lauren Barnes makes a return Down Under after picking up the Defender of the Year Award for 2016 in the NWSL. She re-joins Seattle Reign teammate Jess Fishlock in City colours after two seasons alongside the Welsh star at Melbourne Victory in 2014-15.
Also set to defend the title, Steph Catley and Laura Alleway are back in town as is New Zealand international Rebekah Stott and midfielder Aivi Luik, whose performance last season was rewarded with a recall to the national side.
Golden Boot winner Larissa Crummer is also lining up for another tilt at silverware, while at the other end of the pitch Matildas custodian Lydia Williams has switched states to stand between the City sticks after Brianna Davey departed for the AFL.
While not boasting a lineup quite as frightening as their first campaign, City will still be a formidable challenge ahead of their second season.
Further north, fellow Grand Finalists Sydney FC will be seeking retribution. The Sky Blues boast the least-changed squad though the addition of W-League veteran, Servet Uzunlar plus the inclusion of former Newcastle Jet Georgia Yeoman-Dale, adds experience. Kyah Simon, Caitlin Foord and Alanna Kennedy are primed for action after their first Olympic Games, with the latter back on home soil after lifting the NWSL trophy with Western New York Flash.
Canberra United are always a handful and will be even trickier to break down this season as Japanese World Cup-winning defender Yukari Kinga flies in ahead of the side's first clash in week two of the competition (Canberra have a first round bye).
Two-time Golden Boot winner Michelle Heyman features once more in a side with plenty of firepower in the ranks. American Stephanie Ochs will be back in green this year as will Hayley Raso, along with foundation player Ashleigh Sykes. American pocket rocket Jasmyne Spencer moves to the capital this season and leaves coach Rae Dower with an intriguing selection challenge in front of goal.
Brisbane waited till their last hit out of season eight to produce the football synonymous with the champion of season's past. The only side to hold Melbourne City scoreless in regulation time the semifinal penalty shootout loss remains vivid in the memory.
New coach Melissa Andreatta has retained club stalwarts Clare Polkinghorne, Katrina Gorry, Tameka Butt and Amy Chapman, while keeper Mackenzie Arnold, plus Sunny Franco and Allira Toby, all return to the sunshine state. Young talent including Angela Beard will lineup alongside international signings in FC Rosengard defender Nina Frausing-Pedersen and Maddy Evans, who joins on loan from Orlando Pride.
Melbourne Victory also have a new coach, well, new to Melbourne anyway. Jeff Hopkins took Brisbane to two titles and four finals appearances in his time in charge of the Roar women. He is now hoping to bring the winning feeling back to the Victory.
After the squad was all but decimated prior to season eight, the Victory have done some rebuilding and the recruitment of goalkeeper Bianca Henninger from Houston Dash and Chicago Red Stars defender Samantha Johnson completes a strong spine which includes returning Washington Spirit midfielder Christine Nairn and English striker Natasha Dowie.
Still on international signings, Perth's Player of the Year and Golden Boot for 2015-16 was American Vanessa DiBernardo so it's no surprise Glory coach Bobby Despotovski was keen to have her back in the west. With Samantha Kerr fit and firing there could be goals galore for the Glory this year.
The midfield has been further bolstered with the signing of DiBernardo's Chicago Red Stars teammate Alyssa Mautz and Sky Blue FC's Nikki Stanton, while Mexican international Arianna Romero has been added to the back-line as Perth look to return to finals football.
The first Brazilian player will run out on the W-League pitches this year with Adelaide United announcing defender Monica Hickmann Alves will join their ranks.
Signed on loan from Orlando Pride, Monica brings big game experience to a side that once more has undergone a rebuild. Rookie W-League coach Hussein "Huss" Skenderovic, has also signed three Chicago Red Star players in Katie Naughton, Danielle Colaprico and Sofia Huerta.
Experienced W-League campaigner Racheal Quigley returns to the Lady Reds along with Alex Chidiac who lines up once more with her Young Matildas teammates Emily Condon and Grace Abbey as the side looks to break into the finals for the first time.
Two other sides with real hopes of improving their lot this year have also benefited from the large number of Americans keen to play in the W-League.
Jennifer Hoy and Arin Gilliland at the Newcastle Jets brings the number of Chicago Red Stars in the W-League to seven this season, while Washington Spirit goalkeeper Kelsey Wys has followed teammate Megan Oyster to the Hunter. Captain Gema Simon and Matilda Chloe Logarzo lead a local contingent retained by Craig Deans from his promising squad from last season.
If any of the American imports want to know about playing Down Under, they could do worse than ask Kendall Fletcher. Fletcher has made over 60 appearances in the league through stints with the Central Coast Mariners, Melbourne Victory and Canberra United. This year, she is headed to the Western Sydney Wanderers where she hopes her experience can lift the Red and Black to a new level. Washington Spirit striker Katie Stengel is another of an American quartet which also includes Paige Nielsen and Alex Arlitt.
Richard Byrne is the third coach to take the reins as the Wanderers enter their fifth year in the competition. If he can successfully blend local talent captain Caitlin Cooper, goalkeeper Casey Dumont and Matilda Ellie Carpenter with the incoming American signings, the Wanderers could just be looking at a first ever finals appearance.
They aren't alone in that quest however -- in a short season where only four teams make the cut, every point is crucial.
While City look to be early favourites to defend their title, the gap is closing. The newcomers set the bar very high last season, but this year every club has upped their game and for fans of the W-League that means the next the next four months are looking better than ever before.
ESPN Australia/New Zealand columnist Stephanie Brantz has spent the past 20 years excelling in the coverage of football and women's sport.