Sturridge, City slickers and a race for the spoon: your A-League Men guide

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Adelaide United

Coach: Carl Veart
Major ins: Nick Ansell, George Blackwood, Isaias
Major outs: Tomi Juric, Jordan Elsey, Ryan Strain
Player to watch: Striker Kusini Yengi is the type of player the Reds want to develop, but is battling league-wide trends against deploying young attackers
Predicted finish: 5th
Fun fact: Adelaide United’s first competitive win was in round five of the 2003-04 NSL season – a 1-0 win over Brisbane Strikers

Related: Josh Cavallo: the world’s only openly gay top-tier men’s footballer

Based on stockpiling young South Australian talent – as well as choice cuts under-valued elsewhere such as James Delianov and Josh Cavallo – that can contribute to the first team and eventually turn into potential transfer bait, Adelaide’s strong culture saw them over-achieve in 2020-21 as they reached the semi-finals. Ostensibly, simple linear progression would tell us the Reds should get better almost by default this campaign as their young cohort improves with experience.

However, the mid-season return of Craig Goodwin in 2020-21 and the signing of Isaias this off-season suggest Veart may be hesitant to go all in on his youngsters. Finding the right balance between the exuberance of youth and wisdom of experience – something A-League Men clubs have traditionally overshot in favour of the latter – could be key to their finals hopes.

Brisbane Roar

Coach: Warren Moon
Major ins: Nikola Mileusnić, Matti Steinmann, Luke Ivanovic
Major outs: Dylan Wenzel-Halls, Riku Danzaki, Jamie Young
Player to watch: A born-and-bred Queenslander, Alex Parsons received significant hype during a breakout 2020-21, but the encore is always harder
Predicted finish: 4th
Fun fact: Arriving in Australia as a five-year-old refugee, Roar utility Rahmat Akbari is eligible to represent Afghanistan at senior international level

Young striker Alex Parsons is on his way up.
Young striker Alex Parsons is on his way up. Photograph: Albert Perez/Getty Images

It hasn’t received as much attention as Adelaide’s efforts, but Roar coach Warren Moon is instigating his own, Sunshine State-flavoured reformation in Brisbane. Formerly the coach of Peninsula Power and Lions FC in the NPL Queensland, Moon has made a concerted effort to bring in players with local connections during his tenure and supplemented this with the shrewd recruitment of figures such as Matti Steinmann and Luke Ivanovic. Combined with his flexibility in approach and tactical aptitude, it is clear the Roar are building something sustainable and potentially special at Moreton Daily Stadium.

Unfortunately, a lack of top-end talent may limit what they can achieve in 2021-22; Macklin Freke facing a big task in replacing long-time custodian Jamie Young and the creativity and verve of Riku Danzaki leaving a massive void to fill up front. Keep an eye on a potential breakout season from Rahmat Akbari.

Central Coast Mariners

Coach: Nick Montgomery
Major ins: Nicolai Muller, Cy Goddard, Storm Roux
Major outs: Daniel De Silva, Alou Kuol, Gianni Stensness
Player to watch: Josh Nisbet is already a cult figure due to his tenacious play and diminutive stature but, with departures elsewhere in the Mariners midfield, his role will increase this season
Predicted finish: 12th
Fun fact: The Mariners use Tom Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down’ as a club anthem.

She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die; And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh, Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips

The Mariners experienced a season for the ages under Alen Stajcic in 2020-21, shrugging off more than half a decade of abject misery to shock Australian football by storming – at least until Melbourne City woke up – to the top of the A-League Men table, eventually finishing third and playing finals football for the first time since 2013-14.

Alas for the Gosford faithful, all rhyme and reason suggests it was a (magical) one-off. His counter-attacking style had already began to lose its lustre by season’s end, when Stajcic departed. Also out the door went creative fulcrum Daniel De Silva, midfield rock Gianni Stensness, and the swag and game-breaking ability of Alou Kuol. Still up for sale by owner Mike Charlesworth, their battle appears less one for finals and more one to avoid the spoon.

Also, apologies to John Keats.

Macarthur FC

Coach: Ante Miličić
Major ins: Ulises Davila, Daniel De Silva, Craig Noone, Al Hassan Toure
Major outs: Denis Genreau, Mark Milligan, Matt Derbyshire
Player to watch: Young striker Al Hassan Toure moved to the Bulls from Adelaide this off-season in search of more game time and, with Tomi Juric rarely sighted in pre-season, may just get it
Predicted finish: 6th
Fun fact: The three stars on the Bulls’ logo don’t represent titles but “links with the grassroots football community, the National Premier League and the A-League”

Former Socceroos captain Mark Milligan abruptly left Macarthur months after taking up an assistant coaching role under Ante Miličić.
Former Socceroos captain Mark Milligan abruptly left Macarthur months after taking up an assistant coaching role under Ante Miličić. Photograph: Jason McCawley/Getty Images

The Bulls are a tough side to predict. On the one hand, their off-season recruiting splurge has loaded up their squad with a bevy of tried-and-true attacking threats, including reigning Johnny Warren medallist Ulises Davila. How Miličić fits all these players into his high possession-based style, however, remains a significant question mark, as does whether they have enough stockpiled on the defensive front to keep sides at bay up the other end – the now-retired Adam Federici helped the club ship 10 goals less than their expected goals conceded last season.

Persistent rumours of the club being in a state of crisis throughout the offseason won’t go away either, highlighted by the shock departure of Mark Milligan just months after he retired as a player and took up an assistant coaching role. The Bulls have the potential to collapse, but just have so much talent that it’s difficult to completely write them off.

Melbourne City

Coach: Patrick Kisnorbo
Major ins: Mathew Leckie, Manuel Pucciarelli
Major outs: Craig Noone, Adrian Luna
Player to watch: The attacking triumvirate of Jamie Maclaren, Mathew Leckie, and Andrew Nabbout get the headlines, but central defender Curtis Good is primed to challenge for a World Cup pace and, perhaps, secure a European move
Predicted finish: 1st – champions
Fun fact: Maclaren, Leckie and Nabbout are all born-and-bred Melburnians; Maclaren a Green Gully junior, Leckie a Bulleen Lions youth and Nabbout a former Brunswick City Spartan

When examining a competition on the eve of its commencement, it’s always tempting to try to convince yourself this is the year of the underdog; the year when the plucky upstart shocks the world and defies the odds. And that would be great, because nobody wants to read the story of how the Empire crushed the Rebellion.

But alas for the romantics, that is what might very well happen. Darth Kisnorbo and his defending champions have retained almost every key contributor to last year’s premiership and championship double-winning side and have even added Socceroos captain Leckie to their frontline. Combine this with a fearsome aerobic capacity born of one of the most hellacious pre-seasons this league has seen and they can run you off the park as well.

In short, anything less than another double for City’s fully armed and operational battle station would be a disappointment.

Melbourne City signing Mat Leckie is among several Australian internationals playing domestically.
Melbourne City signing Mat Leckie is among several Australian internationals playing domestically. Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Melbourne Victory

Coach: Tony Popovic
Major ins: Chris Ikonomidis, Jason Davidson, Josh Brillante
Major outs: Rudy Gestede, Callum McManaman, Elvis Kamsoba
Player to watch: Joining from Serie B side A.C. ChievoVerona, Francesco Margiotta will be relied upon to provide the lethal edge the club has lacked since Ola Toivonen
Predicted finish: 3rd
Fun Fact: WWE NXT wrestler Indi Hartwell grew up a Victory fan and even served as a ball kid for a game

The only way is up for Victory, literally. After finishing second-bottom in 2019-20, the fallen A-League giants went one better (worse) in 2020-21, crashing to a first wooden spoon in club history and suffering two abject humiliations against City. The second cost club legend Grant Brebner – who had arguably been handed a Sisyphean task – his job. In a way it is lucky there were Covid-enforced crowd limits; the simmering unrest within the club’s large fanbase could have exploded to a greater extent than the banner and pyro show that doubled as a training-ground protest.

Tony Popovic is embarking on his third A-League Men head coaching stint with Melbourne Victory.
Tony Popovic is embarking on his third A-League Men head coaching stint with Melbourne Victory. Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Now, Popovic and his history of success is in, as well as Joe Palatsides in the club’s academy to turn on the talent pipeline and supplement the strong off-season recruitment. Finals should be expected, but don’t be surprised if strong early season form leads to a blowout in aspirations.

Newcastle Jets

Coach: Arthur Papas
Major ins: Matthew Jurman, Daniel dos Santos Penha, Beka Mikeltadze
Major outs: Nigel Boogaard, Roy O’Donovan, Matt Millar
Player to watch: Christened the ‘Port Macquarie Pele’ by Jets fans, midfielder Angus Thurgate has more than 70 senior games under his belt at just 21 and looms as a key contributor
Predicted finish:
Fun fact: The Jets took their moniker from the Royal Australian Air Force base located at Williamtown, 25km from their home ground McDonald Jones Stadium

It has been a time of significant change in the Hunter, with the club overhauling its roster as it seeks to turn around a depressing trudge of mediocrity, ownership chaos and player departures. And given the significant off-season upheaval, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the club once again head towards the bottom of the table. Yet simultaneously, based on some – admittedly nascent – pre-season signs, it would also be unsurprising for them to come good and challenge or even qualifying for finals.

It is apparent that Papas and his staff are undertaking a project in the Hunter that will require a few seasons to properly kick into gear, one which will only be boosted when the club, which is currently administered by a consortium of fellow A-Leagues clubs, finds stable ownership – perhaps even with a component for fans to share a stake.

Daniel Sturridge walked straight out of hotel quarantine and into training with new club Perth Glory.
Daniel Sturridge walked straight out of hotel quarantine and into training with new club Perth Glory. Photograph: Paul Kane/Getty Images

Perth Glory

Coach: Richard Garcia
Major ins: Daniel Sturridge, Brandon O’Neill, Brad Jones
Major outs: Diego Castro, Neil Kilkenny, Chris Ikonomidis
Player to watch: Sturridge is going to monopolise coverage but striker Bruno Fornaroli is no slouch and could thrive with the Englishman drawing defenders off him
Predicted finish: 7th
Fun fact: Glory faces the Phoenix every year in the ‘distance derby’ celebrating the 5,255km between the two clubs

The fate of Glory’s campaign likely rests on two factors – both of which are impossible to truly predict until the season commences.

The first is how the club will cope with the extended time on the road thanks to Western Australia’s stringent border controls: eight games in the east sandwiched by their season-opening game against Adelaide and round 10 fixture against Wellington Phoenix.

Having faced similar challenges last season, Garcia and his staff should have some idea of how to look after the physical and mental wellbeing of players but, as seen in Western United’s unceremonious collapse at the back end of 2020-21, living out of a suitcase always has the potential to tear down a season quickly.

The second factor is the health and form of Sturridge. The Englishman’s profile will deliver the A-Leagues a sugar hit, but his injury history and lack of recent football loom over his potential impact on the field.

Sydney FC

Coach: Steve Corica
Major ins: Max Burgess, James Donachie, Elvis Kamsoba
Major outs: Ryan McGowan, Alexander Baumjohann
Player to watch: Adam Le Fondre scored four goals in just seven games after a mid-season return from India in 2020-21, and will have Jamie Maclaren’s golden boot firmly in sight
Predicted finish: 2nd
Fun fact: Sydney are the only five-time champions in A-League Men history, eclipsing the four won by Hakoah Sydney City, South Melbourne, Marconi Stallions, and Melbourne Victory.

Last season’s grand final defeat to City had all the hallmarks of a changing of the guard as the Citizens supplanted the Sky Blues as the kings of the castle, and Corica’s side could yet be replaced by a new dynasty.

That is not to paint the Harboursiders as the sick men of the A-League. However, as their trademark continuity in culture, personnel and approach ensures they will once again be right in the thick of it come the pointy end of the season. And if Max Burgess can rediscover the form he showed at the end of 2019-20 and the unfairly maligned Elvis Kamsoba can fire off the bench, they potentially have made two of the best off-season signings.

Indeed, the rest of the league may appear to have closed the gap on Sydney but underestimate them at your peril, lest the keepers of the Arnieball make you live to regret it.

Alex Wilkinson and Miloš Ninković have been key to Sydney FC’s long rule but now face the challenge of prising the trophy back from Melbourne City.
Alex Wilkinson and Miloš Ninković have been key to Sydney FC’s long rule but now face the challenge of prising the trophy back from Melbourne City. Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Wellington Phoenix

Coach: Ufuk Talay
Major ins: Gary Hooper, Callan Elliot, Luka Pršo
Major outs: Tomer Hemed, Ulises Davila, Cameron Devlin
Player to watch: Reno Piscopo
Predicted finish: 11th
Fun fact: Ross Aloisi was the Phoenix’s inaugural captain in 2007–08, just a few years after serving as Adelaide United’s skipper in their first A-League Men season

First with Mark Rudan and then under Talay, the Phoenix have made a habit of making the naysayers look like fools in recent years, overcoming numerous obstacles to consistently ask questions of rivals and challenge for finals. Nevertheless, the sheer weight of the challenges has to show up in results eventually.

Though the New Zealand-based side will return home at some point in the new year, they will be forced once again to play early home games out of Wollongong’s WIN Stadium. There is also a significant drain in talent, including the shock retirement of Steve Taylor just days after he was named captain.

Though Kiwi fans will be quick to produce screenshots should this prediction turn out wrong, this may be the year that the ‘Nix experience the unwanted nostalgia of a season mired near the foot of the table. At least the A-Leagues independence means they won’t have to suffer through another round of calls for their expulsion from the competition.

Western Sydney Wanderers

Coach: Carl Robinson
Major ins: Dimi Petratos, Terry Antonis, Rhys Williams
Major outs: Bruce Kamau, Dylan McGowan, Nicolai Muller
Player to watch: New captain Rhys Williams will be relied upon to provide leadership, a pillar of strength in the centre of defence and shore up a porous set-piece defence
Predicted finish: 8th
Fun fact: During the expansion process, Wanderers was one of five possible names put to a public vote, alongside Athletic, Strikers, Wolves and Rangers

It is fair to say Carl Robinson’s first season in charge at Wanderland did not quite go the way he – or club management – envisioned. Lured down from Newcastle only months before the season started, the Welshman was given significant backing and licence to recruit upon his arrival in Sydney’s west but, despite the influx of talent, could not prevent the late-season swoon and omission from finals for a fourth straight year.

Robinson has again recruited strongly, bringing in proven performers with a link to Sydney’s west such as Terry Antonis and Dimi Petratos. Perhaps on paper, he has assembled the second-strongest list in the league, and potentially its best midfield in Antonis and Steven Ugarkovic.

How those individuals are deployed and function as a collective will make or break their championship credentials.

John Aloisi is the new man with Western United’s clipboard but no home ground.
John Aloisi is the new man with Western United’s clipboard but no home ground. Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Western United

Coach: John Aloisi
Major ins: Leo Lacroix, Aleksandar Prijovic, Neil Kilkenny
Major outs: Andrew Durante, Besart Berisha, Tomislav Uskok
Player to watch: He doesn’t get much credit but Tomoki Imai has quietly become one of the league’s best and most versatile defenders
Predicted finish: 9th
Fun fact: Very early on, club officials floated the prospect of pursuing Arsenal legend Arsène Wenger as their foundation coach

No side generates the same hostility that Western United does but, unfortunately for their attempts to build an identity and fanbase, it is not down to envy of the club’s on-field exploits.

The rancour, instead, is almost entirely linked to the ongoing saga surrounding the lack of action on the construction of a stadium those behind the club’s bid promised during the expansion process. This, in turn, has necessitated its use of multiple home grounds, a shrinking number of which are actually within their supposed turf in Melbourne’s west. This resulted in an unedifying situation in September, when they announced Lakeside Stadium as a home ground for 2021-22 – only to promptly be blocked by existing tenants and vanquished expansion rival South Melbourne.

Under new coach John Aloisi, the club has loaded up on veteran talent in an attempt to return to finals and also boasts some good youngsters, but it might all be for moot if there is no tangible progress on proposed construction site in Tarneit.

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