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Getting into the black could still leave United red-faced

Manton St Tales

Success in Asia is important for Adelaide United’s bottom line, but there’s no question that fans would prefer an A-League championship, argues Paul Marcuccitti.

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I may have to apologise to Ange Postecoglou again.

Only a month ago, the Socceroos coach said: “It’s easier to read a balance sheet or … a web poll or see what the crowd is and talk about that for a week than it is to read a football game, but that’s what we should be talking about. Ultimately, that’s what supporters want to talk about.”

And I try, boss. I try so hard to talk about happenings on the field rather than off it. And I agree – that’s what supporters want.

But as this weekend has shown, in a few different ways, the on field and off field sometimes collide.

When Adelaide United faces China’s Shandong Luneng tomorrow night, there is far more at stake than a place in the group stage of this year’s Asian Champions League.

And that’s something United really needs: cash.

As revealed by Tom Richardson in InDaily, the club will receive $100,000 in State Government sponsorship if it qualifies for the ACL’s next phase (on top of $15,000 for tomorrow night’s game).

But there could be more flowing into the club’s accounts if it can overcome the powerful team from South Australia’s sister state in China.

For every win in the group stage (in which each team plays six times), a club receives US$40,000; each draw earns US$20,000; and, for every away game, a travel subsidy of US$34,200 is provided. Half of the win and draw bonuses go to players.

More cash awaits clubs that finish in the top two of their groups and reach the 16-team knockout phase. Win the thing and there’s a cool US$3 million coming your way.

There isn’t likely to be enough depth for the Reds to succeed in both competitions.

Two years ago, in a column that quoted an economic impact statement commissioned by Adelaide United (and prepared by the South Australian Centre for Economic Studies), the Australian Financial Review’s John Stensholt revealed that the club “loses about $1 million annually”.

There’s no requirement for A-League clubs to provide their financial statements publicly, but that figure isn’t likely to have changed much.

Shaun Mooney, who wrote A-League: The Inside Story of the Tumultuous First Decade with Stensholt, certainly believes that’s the case.

“There are only two clubs which, hand on your heart, you can say make money and they are Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney Wanderers,” says Mooney, who is the founder of leopoldmethod.com.au and a well-respected follower of A-League finances.

The desperation to win tomorrow night’s match meant that, for Friday’s game against Sydney FC, United’s starting 11 was missing four regular members, who will surely return for the Asian playoff.

And did the gamble pay off?

Some have argued that the 2-2 draw against Sydney FC, which is one point above the Reds on the A-League ladder, is a good result. Particularly as it stretches United’s unbeaten run to 10 games.

But it’s an opportunity missed. Sydney was under pressure after losing its previous two matches. Moreover, the Sky Blues have struggled at Hindmarsh in recent seasons.

A win would have catapulted the Reds into third – remarkable given their horrible start to this campaign. Instead, United remains sixth with a resurgent Perth now just five points behind.

And at the end of the season, the Reds may rue not gaining the extra two points a win over Sydney would have given them – the higher a team finishes, the kinder the finals system is to it.

Friday night’s selection tactics also raise an important question about the rest of the season: if United reaches the lucrative ACL group stage, will it continue to omit first team players from domestic games that precede matches against Asian clubs? Four rounds of the tournament will be played before the A-League’s home and away season ends, and a fifth is scheduled during finals.

The first match day in the ACL group stage will be on 23 February and, if they get past Shandong, the Reds will be travelling to Japan to face Sanfrecce Hiroshima. The A-League game before that is away to Melbourne Victory, a fixture that normally ends in disaster. A weakened team that night?

How about 5 April? That’d be in South Korea against FC Seoul. The preceding A-League match is away to Sydney FC and it will be the domestic competition’s penultimate round. A weakened team that night?

Marcelo Carrusca of United (L) celebrates his goal with George Mells during the round 17 A-League match between the Adelaide United and Newcastle Jets at Coopers Stadium in Adelaide, on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016. (AAP Image/David Mariuz) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Marcelo Carrusca (left) celebrates a goal with George Mells. Carrusca was left out of the starting eleven on Friday night. Photo: David Mariuz, AAP.

United has named a squad of just 23 players for the ACL and seven of them haven’t played more than 90 minutes in the A-League. While it’s great to see some youth in the mix, there isn’t likely to be enough depth for the Reds to succeed in both competitions.

And this will frustrate many fans. We all remember the superb run to the ACL final in 2008 and Western Sydney Wanderers’ extraordinary triumph in 2014.

But repeating achievements like that is becoming even more difficult. The clubs in South Korea and Japan are already stronger than ours and China has made another giant leap in the last few weeks with its clubs outspending the English Premier League in the recent transfer window.

What Adelaide fans want more than anything is seeing their players parading the A-League Championship trophy after the 1 May grand final.

United remains the only A-League founding club that has never been national champion. Five of the other six have won the grand final at least once and Perth, the other team that hasn’t, won the National Soccer League twice.

And sure, the Reds could finish this year as champions of Asia and Australia. But how likely is that? Well, if you bet on that double success now and it happens, you’ll be able to retire.

I’m not suggesting the club shouldn’t try its hardest in the ACL but don’t jeopardise A-League success.

Because as improbable as it seemed just a few weeks ago, United has given itself another chance of finally winning that elusive title.

Paul Marcuccitti’s soccer column is published in InDaily on Mondays. He is a co-presenter of 5RTI’s Soccer on 531 program which can be heard from 10am on Saturdays.

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