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Is United's season over before it has begun?

Manton St Tales

Even before the Redlands debacle, Paul Marcuccitti argues, there were clear warning signs that United’s championship defence could be in serious trouble.

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The thing about upsets in knockout competitions like the FFA Cup is we all love them… as long as they don’t happen to the teams we support.

Last week was undoubtedly a great one for the competition. Just as I was expressing concern that the gap between A-League teams and semi-professional clubs might be too big to keep the competition interesting, we saw Central Coast Mariners (officially an A-League outfit despite increasing evidence to the contrary) fall to Victoria’s Green Gully thanks to a sensational last minute winner.

And if we didn’t laugh we reflected on how far the Mariners have fallen. Such an admired club until the last couple of seasons which have seen alarming decline – both on the field and off it.

The following evening was never likely to give us a similar upset because its only match between an A-League team and a club from a state competition pitted Adelaide United, 2015-16 Premiers and Champions, against Queensland’s Redlands United.

For context, Redlands sits fifth in its league and had just been defeated by Far North Queensland (which is second). In its round of 32 FFA Cup match, FNQ fell 0-3 – in Cairns – to Edgeworth, a team from Newcastle.

Those matches might not provide a big sample size but others from the FFA Cup’s short history suggest that Victoria’s league (which includes Green Gully) is the strongest state competition; Queensland’s certainly isn’t.

So Redlands’ triumph is as similar to Green Gully’s as a tidal wave is to a ripple.

The small number of players on United’s list is the problem that threatens to derail the season, and it may be too late to fix

It’s easy to list reasons why Adelaide United fell to such an embarrassing defeat but most of them have no bearing on the coming A-League season.

Eugene Galekovic making a mistake that gifted Redlands its equaliser? No big deal – he will continue to be the number one goalkeeper and make far more game-winning and game-saving blocks than errors.

Not capitalising on chances created? A normal occurrence. And given that it took United several rounds to click into gear in last season’s A-League, it’s not the sort of thing you worry about two months before it begins.

Having a makeshift lineup because you have injuries? What sporting team has that never happened to?

But the small number of players on United’s list is the problem that threatens to derail the 2016-17 season and it may be too late, even now, to fix that in a way that gives the club a genuine shot at defending its title.

A year before the loss to Redlands (almost to the day) Adelaide United played Darwin Olympic in the FFA Cup’s round of 32. Of the 16 players in the Reds’ squad for that match, 13 were in the squad for the A-League Grand Final nine months later.

The only changes? From the team that travelled to the NT, Osama Malik and Jimmy Jeggo would leave in the mid-season transfer window, and Eli Babalj’s campaign would be ruined by injury. Two of the three players who were in the grand final squad, but didn’t play in Darwin, were already at the club: Jordan Elsey and Bruce Kamau. The other was Stefan Mauk who was brought in from Melbourne City (in exchange for Malik).

So barring Mauk, the squad that would win the Reds the championship was in place at this time last year. Moreover, while we (rightly) marvelled at the way United claimed the title after a winless opening eight games, most of the players were part of the team that was good enough to finish third in the previous season’s A-League.

Six senior players have left Adelaide United since the 2015/16 season ended and, though four have joined, the senior squad was already small.

I pointed this out in February when the club decided to rest players for a match against Sydney FC before an Asian Champions League playoff against Shandong Luneng. At the time United could only name 16 players (for the ACL) with more than 90 minutes of A-League experience; not enough to sustain a challenge for both the A-League championship and Asia.

It also meant that the Reds would have needed to recruit players for 2016/17 even if there were no departures – and along with the domestic season, they’ll definitely be in the ACL’s group stage early next year.

The risk now is that too many potentially good signings have already been snapped up by rival A-League clubs.

Perth Glory, for example, began getting ready for this campaign halfway through last season’s. And while that squad will enjoy a decent preparation for 2016-17, the number of fit United players is barely in double figures.

Even if the Reds sign up five or six chaps this week, they’re running out of time to integrate them. And the FFA Cup exit means they won’t have any more competitive games before the A-League begins.

Paul Marcuccitti is a co-presenter of 5RTI’s Soccer on 531 program which can be heard from 10am on Saturdays.

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