W-League review: Carpenter stars for Melbourne City to set up Grand Final vs. Sydney FC
The W-League weekend in 280 characters or less
Sydney FC qualify for their third consecutive Grand Final after defeating Melbourne Victory 1-0, while Melbourne City continue their unbeaten run and make their fourth Grand Final in five seasons with a 5-1 win over Western Sydney Wanderers.
To watch Ellie Carpenter's performance against Western Sydney on Sunday afternoon was to be transported back in time to the days when Sam Kerr ran rampant through W-League defences, the space opening up around her like the parting of some biblical sea. Nervous players would hesitate before making decisions, but by the time they had, she'd be gone and the crowd would already be cheering. Carpenter's 2019-20 season with Melbourne City has been storming; the first in which she has played in a team and a system that has maximised her attacking talents, which has translated into her stand-out performances for the Matildas.
This is Carpenter's fifth season in the W-League -- the same amount of time that City have existed in the competition -- but the first in which she has reached a Grand Final. Having started her league career with the team she helped wallop this past weekend, she made a name for herself at Canberra United with back-to-back Young Player of the Year awards and her first national team selections. NWSL fans will know her for becoming the youngest player to make their debut in the league aged just 18 before also becoming its youngest goalscorer with Portland Thorns in 2018.
Now, still a teen, she has emerged as one of the best attacking full-backs Australia has ever produced and is shaping up to not only retain her YPOTY title but also to potentially hoist her second major team trophy for club or country. Few players deserve to win the double for their single-season performances as much as Carpenter does.
This weekend's first semifinal between Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC on Saturday afternoon was rife with revenge stories. The Sky Blues lost their home semifinal advantage after Victory defeated them in the final round of the season, while Melbourne were aiming to get one up over their long-time Big Blue rivals -- the one club that has defeated them more times than any other in finals football.
But the one revenge story that stood out was that of Sydney full-back Ally Green. A product of the state-based National Premier Leagues club Manly United, Green has had a tough third season with her hometown side. After getting left in the dust by former Western Sydney striker Lynn Williams during the first Sydney Derby back in round six -- to the point where she was hooked at half-time -- Green didn't make another appearance in the league until Saturday's semifinal, missing almost every game hosted in her own backyard of Cromer Park in the process. But coming into Saturday, with young star Angelique Hristodoulou on the bench and more experienced defender Liz Ralston injured, Green finally had her opportunity to make up for her derby disaster.
And she did. Not only was Green responsible for the inch-perfect cross that Veronica Latsko buried for the only goal of the game, but she also put on one of her best defensive performances against two other red-hot attacking talents: Angela Beard and Darian Jenkins. While still rough around the edges in terms of technique and fitness, Green showed the kind of grit that allowed Sydney to withstand a second-half Victory onslaught. She now heads into her third consecutive Grand Final with the club that gave her the first taste of professional football, and at just 22 years old, it's easy to see the potential for bigger and better things to come.
And so the Grand Final drought continues. While the past two seasons have been a remarkable change of fortune for Melbourne Victory -- winning the Premiership after a seventh-placed finish and two wooden spoons -- their surprise loss to a resolute Sydney side saw them knocked out of their third semifinal in five seasons. The last time they made the big dance was 2013-14, but the only player they've carried over since that season was third-choice goalkeeper Melissa Maizels, who wasn't even on the bench for the team this weekend after being curiously replaced by former Canberra shot-stopper Sham Khamis.
It was a disappointing end to Victory's season given their late surge, winning six of their last seven games (including a 2-1 win over Sydney in the season finale), but it's a particularly tough pill to swallow for striker, captain, and joint-Golden Boot winner Natasha Dowie, who hasn't made a Grand Final in her entire tenure at the club. There are undoubtedly some silver linings to Victory's season, though, including the rising form of young wing-backs Beard and Jenkins, as well as a campaign worthy of a Goalkeeper of the Year award by Casey Dumont. If coach Jeff Hopkins is able to learn from his side's slow start as they turned over international players and come into next season flying, there's little doubt Victory will find themselves with another shot at the trophy in 2021.
Western Sydney Wanderers
There is something to be said for Western Sydney's mental resilience these past few weeks. Coming into their must-win final game of the season after three consecutive losses, and having conceded 10 goals in the process -- including shipping four to Melbourne City, who lifted the Premiership plate on the Wanderers' home turf -- the team had to find a way through an in-form Perth Glory to retain their spot in the top four. Despite a late-game scare, the side were able to make club history and make finals for the first time.
Perhaps, given recent results, they accepted that they'd achieved enough. Nobody would blame them if they had, especially not considering the off-field hits they took in losing star striker Williams to Olympic duty, goalkeeper Abby Smith and captain Erica Halloway to injury, and a handful of players to suspension at a crucial moment in their run into finals. And while they came into Sunday's semifinal with their strongest possible lineup, it was clear how much of a toll these late-season shuffles and distractions had taken.
Nonetheless, the Wanderers' season unearthed some valuable lessons that should form the foundation of future campaigns: the importance of season-long group chemistry, the potential of young local stars such as Courtney Nevin, Kyra Cooney-Cross, and Cortnee Vine (who scored their only goal against City and had several other chances), and the value of providing women footballers whose lives are dedicated to the sport the professional training environments they deserve. While this season may have sputtered to a close, it is the first of what could be a new powerhouse in the W-League ... so long as they learn from it.
Here's The Tea
Who actually will be the next Kerr? It's a question that was asked somewhat half-heartedly as the 2019-20 season kicked off, but as we head into the Grand Final (which might not go ahead), we have an opportunity to look back across these past few months and ask it a little more seriously.
Last week, FFA statistician Andrew Howe published some graphs that showed the "proportion of all goals scored by imported players in 2019-20 regular season [was] at an all-time high of 43.7%, with 30.5% of all goals scored by US imports." This is despite the fact that fewer imports overall made starting appearances this season, suggesting the players that are here are having a much greater impact in the final third of the field than in years past.
Indeed, three of the four joint-Golden Boot winners this season were imports: Melbourne Victory's Dowie (England), Western Sydney's Kristen Hamilton (USA) and Perth Glory's Morgan Andrews (USA). Sydney striker Remy Siemsen was the only Aussie among them.
After the departure of teenager Mary Fowler -- whom many pundits had labelled "the next Sam Kerr" -- from Adelaide to France, and with questions surrounding her future national team commitments, the W-league and Matildas could find themselves with a future striker problem. At the end of the 2019-20 campaign, Siemsen is the only out-and-out Australian centre-forward under the age of 25 who scored more than three goals all season (Perth's Caitlin Doeglas and Fowler both scored three).
This is part of a larger emerging trend of the W-League's top clubs -- those that can invest the most and provide the best facilities and resources for their players are moving away from developing young, local players if they can afford to do so. Kerr, at 26, has one, maybe two, more World Cups in her, meaning Australian football must unearth and develop the player who is going to step into her indescribably big shoes within the next decade. You would hope -- given Kerr's own meteoric rise since 2016 -- that there is a diamond waiting in the rough somewhere around the country. The challenge now is to find and polish them.
While the immediate future of the W-League (and of club and international football generally) is up in the air amidst the coronavirus outbreak, there remain some longer-term issues facing Australian women's football that need to be addressed and talked through now, too. Perhaps the global pause button that's just been hit is the perfect opportunity to do so.
Is there a GIF of that?
Ally Green's delicious cross
So much has been made of the international imports this season that it has tended to overshadow what are some really exciting local players. As explained above, Green has shown glimpses of quality when given the chance, and her assist for Latsko's goal was one of them.