Samantha Lewis: The Westfield W-League’s Olympics bolters

It’s been the most gripping storyline of the 2020/21 Westfield W-League season: a brand-new cast of young Australian players stepping out from the shadow of their departed senior peers and placing themselves firmly centre-stage ahead of national team selection.

Just over a month into new WestfieldMatildas head coach Tony Gustavsson’s tenure, and with his first major test – the Tokyo Olympics – on the horizon, the Swede and his staff have been paying close attention to the players starring in the Westfield W-League.

With 18 roster spots to fill and just five months to fill them, there has perhaps never been a more important time for aspiring national team players to impress selectors and secure their ticket to Tokyo.

Beyond July’s Games, though, Gustavsson will also be looking to build a Westfield Matildas squad capable of winning the other international titles he will lead them through over the next four years: the 2022 Women’s Asian Cup, the 2023 Women’s World Cup, and the 2024 Paris Olympics.

So which young Wesfield W-League players are currently putting their names up in lights ahead of these major tournaments?

ROUND 8 PREVIEW: Sydney FC v Brisbane Roar
Round 8 PREVIEW: Adelaide United v Canberra United

Goalkeeper

Teagan Micah - Melbourne City

When 23-year old goalkeeper Teagan Micah debuted for Melbourne City this season, she made an immediate impact, winning Player of the Match after holding the attack-heavy Brisbane Roar to a 0-0 draw with seven crucial saves.

Since then, Micah has been a key figure in City’s attempt to reclaim the two Westfield W-League trophies on offer, often single-handedly keeping them in games. 

She currently leads the league in big chances saved (8) as well as saves overall (27), and with current Westfield Matildas' number one keeper Lydia Williams struggling for consistent game-time with Arsenal, Micah’s red-hot form could see her make a serious claim for being one of the two Australian goalkeepers headed to Japan later this year.

Honourable mention: Georgina Worth (Brisbane Roar)

SAVE: Micah keeps Emily Gielnik strike out with wonder save

Defenders

Left back: Jamilla Rankin - Brisbane Roar

Ongoing injuries to Arsenal left-back Steph Catley means the door to the Westfield Matildas’ starting left back position has been left slightly ajar. 17-year old Brisbane defender Jamilla Rankin shares many of Catley’s qualities including being naturally left-footed, containing a lethal crossing ability, being unforgivingly physical in tackles, and having an athletic engine that allows her to play a major role in attacking moves. Indeed, Rankin is in the top three for Westfield W-League players with the greatest number of passes in the opposition half. 

The fact that Brisbane have also conceded the second-fewest goals across the league (4) and have recorded the equal-highest number of clean sheets (3) so far suggests that Rankin maintains her defensive responsibilities, too. The Junior Matilda is widely regarded as the natural heir to Catley anyway, and the current confluence of circumstances could mean we see her step up sooner rather than later.

REPORT: Roar up to second thanks to Gielnik’s brace against Wanderers
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Centre back: Matilda McNamara - Adelaide United

When veteran Westfield Matildas centre-back Laura Brock pulled out of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, it caused a domino effect that reshuffled the team’s entire defensive system. The lack of depth at centre-back position has been a concern ever since, but several young Australians are proving that the talent pool is not as shallow as we feared.

This pool includes Adelaide’s Matilda McNamara who, despite only having a handful of Westfield W-League games under her belt, has been one of the season’s stand-out defenders. The 22-year old has started all six games so far, and leads the Reds in touches, attempted passes, aerial duel wins and is second for ball recoveries. She also has a 100% pass success rate into the final third and has created four major chances for her side, showing she also offers an alternative attacking outlet.

Matilda McNamara has impressed for the Reds
Matilda McNamara has impressed for the Reds

Centre back: Jessika Nash - Canberra United

Like McNamara, 17-year old Canberra defender Jessika Nash is only just starting out her Westfield W-League career, but what’s most noticeable about the Junior Westfield Matildas captain’s first six games in a professional set-up is how seamlessly she has slotted in alongside far more experienced players.

Don’t be fooled by her young age and slim frame; this is a player with a two-steps-ahead reading of the game, a calmness on the ball under pressure, an advanced sense of timing in tackles and a passing vision that has helped Canberra concede the third-fewest goals in the league so far. He leads her side in duel and aerial success rates, as well as the most ball recoveries for an out-and-out defender. Widely regarded as a future Westfield Matildas captain, Nash will likely emerge into the senior side in the next four-year cycle.

Right back: Charlotte Grant - Adelaide United

It’s difficult to imagine a like-for-like replacement for the eye-catching, dynamic Ellie Carpenter, but Adelaide right-back Charlotte Grant comes close. The 19-year old defender quickly rose up the ranks after winning Rising Star and Player of the Year awards in South Australia in 2018, making her Reds debut and being called up to the Future Westfield Matildas and Young Westfield Matildas programs soon afterwards.

Grant’s deadliest ability is her pace: she’s one of the quickest full-backs in the competition and her heat-maps show she’s also one of the fittest, regularly making her way up and down the right side of the field. Like Carpenter, Grant is filled with raw potential just waiting to be harnessed and sharpened, particularly in the attacking third. As she continues to prove, the more opportunities she’s given at higher levels, the better she becomes.

Honourable mentions: Winonah Heatley (Brisbane Roar), Natalie Tobin (Sydney FC), Angela Beard (Melbourne Victory), Tessa Tamplin (Newcastle Jets).

Midfielders

Defensive midfield: Taylor Ray  - Sydney FC 

Like the centre-back position, defensive midfield is another area of the senior Westfield Matildas where depth has become a concern. Both Elise Kellond-Knight and Aivi Luik – the two most experienced number sixes – are reaching the twilight of their careers, and few are certain who will replace them in the years ahead.

Sydney FC’s Taylor Ray is making one of her strongest claims yet to become the successor to this crucial midfield position. Not only does the 19-year old boast the kind of level-headedness, close ball control and reading of space required for a central pivot role, but the Young Matilda also demonstrates an off-field maturity and resilience – built up over the course of two major knee injuries – that international tournaments can often require. 

GOAL: Ray with a sharp finish for the Sky Blues

Central midfield: Emily Condon  - Adelaide United

22-year old Adelaide product Emily Condon earned her first (and only) senior national team cap back in 2018 but having struggled to cement herself in the Westfield Matildas ever since. However, the midfielder’s current form suggests she could soon turn that around – particularly in the absence of more established Westfield Matildas midfielders such as Katrina Gorry and Elise Kellond-Knight.

Condon is currently equal-second for assists, equal-fifth for most chances created and for crosses (including corners), and has the highest pass completion rate in the opposition third than any other player in the league. If she continues to play such a key role in Adelaide’s impressive 2020/21 campaign, Condon could easily replace more experienced players on the flight to Tokyo.

Central midfield: Alex Chidiac - Melbourne City

Westfield Matildas selectors may be glad that 23-year old Alex Chidiac returned to the Westfield W-League this season after an underwhelming stint in Spain that was interrupted by injuries and a subsequent lack of minutes. Despite playing a handful of games fewer than most of her fringe-Westfield Matildas peers, the Melbourne City midfielder has already scored twice and assisted a third, and has played a key role in stabilising City’s new-look midfield, becoming one of the most fouled players in the process due to the threat she poses.

Like Condon, Chidiac’s chances at cracking into the Westfield Matildas for Tokyo are heightened by the absences of more experienced midfielders, but the fact that she’s been involved at national team level for far longer than other contenders means her chances are perhaps higher than most in securing her ticket. 

Attacking midfield: Kyra Cooney-Cross - Melbourne Victory

Few other young players in Australia come with as big a wrap as Melbourne Victory’s Kyra Cooney-Cross. She was the second-youngest player to join the Westfield Matildas camp at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, signalling to many the talent that the attack-minded midfielder possesses. After a break-out season with Western Sydney in 2019/20, the 18-year old is now a regular starter for Victory and is already proving her worth.

While she’s only got two goals to her name, Cooney-Cross’ real threat comes in other statistical columns. She’s in the top ten for chances created, shots and crosses, while also ranking in some of the highest percentiles for successful tackles and ball recoveries. Admired for her footwork, bursts of pace, passing range and shooting accuracy, Cooney-Cross is a player highly regarded in national team circles and is certain to break into the senior team in the coming years.

Honourable mentions: Laura Hughes (Canberra United), Isobel Dalton (Brisbane Roar), Hollie Palmer (Melbourne City), Dylan Holmes (Adelaide United).

Cooney-Cross
Cooney-Cross has impressed throughout the opening rounds of the Westfield W-League campaign

Forwards

Princess Ibini-Isei - Sydney FC 

You’d be forgiven for thinking Princess Ibini-Isei was a Westfield W-League veteran given she started her tenure with Sydney FC in 2015, but it’s not until this season that the 21-year old is finally turning her previous flashes of brilliance into a more consistent string of eye-catching performances.

With the clearer air of fewer international players, Ibini-Isei has become Sydney’s regular starting winger and is now playing with a kind of freedom and confidence that has seen her become one of the stand-out attacking players in the competition’s stand-out attacking side.

Two goals, six chances, and one of the highest shots-on-target percentages in a team that has scored more goals than any other (15), the Young Matilda has taken her game to a new level this season and could easily be rewarded for it with a spot on the Tokyo roster.

Cortnee Vine - Sydney FC 

Arguably Sydney FC’s break-out star this season, 22-year old forward Cortnee Vine has found a new lease on life following stints with Brisbane, Newcastle and Western Sydney.

Now being utilised as a winger or wide centre-forward, Vine’s breathtaking speed has been responsible for several Sydney FC goals, including the three she herself has scored in the past six games.

And while the Westfield Matildas’ attacking line may be the most difficult for young players to crack into, having to compete with the likes of Hayley Raso, Emily Gielnik, Caitlin Foord and Sam Kerr, Vine’s growing versatility and increasing influence in build-up play (Vine is currently equal-first for assists and equal-third in chances created), in addition to her work-rate on and off the ball, makes her an easy replacement for the clinical, lightning-quick forwards that have come to define the Westfield Matildas’ attacking style.

Honourable mentions: Melina Ayres (Melbourne Victory), Remy Siemsen (Sydney FC)

GOAL: Vine on top form through the 2020/21 Westfield W-League campaign