There is a view, held by some local soccer fans, that Adelaide United hasn’t shown much improvement on the pitch in 2018/19. But that can only hold if your sole interest is the A-League team.
While the club’s W-League team was defeated by Canberra yesterday, they are one of the stories of the season.
To understand why, it’s necessary to look back before we can look forward.
Not only did the club fail to reach the W-League’s end-of-season playoffs in its first seven seasons, it never finished outside the bottom three. And in the 76 matches played in those campaigns, there were 56 losses and just 11 wins.
In 2015-16 – season eight of the W-League – United looked to be in with a chance of reaching the finals for the first time.
Jamie Harnwell, the only person to have won an honour as coach of Perth Glory Women, took the reins and built a good squad.
To do this, he brought in several interstate players. Combined with four foreign players, that meant his starting elevens often had only three or four South Australians.
But the team was competitive and, had it not been for a poor run of results in the middle of the season, it would have finished in the top four.
Adelaide United could have still reached the finals in the last round but to do that it had to defeat rampant Canberra United and see a favourable result in another game.
Few gave the team in red a chance against the side from the nation’s capital but a decent crowd, which included Matildas coach Alen Stajcic, crammed into West Beach Parks Football Centre to see if history would be made.
That match remains one of the most memorable I’ve seen. All seemed lost midway through the first half when Adelaide United’s Kiwi captain, Liz Milne, conceded a penalty. But Abby Dahlkemper would score a tremendous equaliser before half time.
Dahlkemper is now a regular in the mighty US women’s national team’s defence. She’d started the season in United’s back four but as it wore on Harnwell realised she could be a threat at the other end and moved her into midfield.
The second half would see the game lift a gear. And even though Canberra had lost only twice all season, it was the Adelaide team looking more threatening. There were heroes all over the park for the Reds and, though small, the contingent of locals played a huge role.
One of them, Lauren Steer, suffered a heavy ankle injury but soldiered on. Her courageous defensive performance – complete with having to run with a limp – was something to see.
Another South Australian – Port Pirie’s Emily Condon – was so nearly the match-winner. In the dying minutes, she unleashed a powerful shot which beat Matildas goalkeeper Lydia Williams but cannoned back off the inside of the post. The final whistle that followed left Adelaide United fifth on the ladder – its best achievement to date but one place outside the finals.
Those building blocks weren’t retained for the following season. In 2016, Adelaide United – the club – retook control of the W-League team which had been run by Football Federation South Australia for the previous five years.
Jamie Harnwell wasn’t re-appointed and the interstate players he brought in disappeared too. Among them were forwards Rosie Sutton, who returned to Perth Glory, and Allira Toby, now a star at Brisbane Roar.
A chaotic pre-season saw Mark Jones appointed coach but he would be gone before a ball was kicked in anger as he was offered the A-League job with Newcastle.
Jones would be replaced by Huss Skenderovic and, after a rushed selection process, the large squad would include some surprising inclusions and omissions.
The season would end with three consecutive wins in which United scored a total of 17 goals. But they were also the only wins of that campaign. By the time the first arrived – a remarkable 10-2 thumping of Western Sydney – the Reds were already out of finals contention.
The 2017/18 season would see another coaching change, with Ivan Karlovic jumping into the hot seat. The squad with which he began the season was smaller – just 18 players but 12 were South Australians.
It wasn’t a bad side but it would finish bottom because, on four occasions, United turned wins into draws or draws into losses by conceding late goals.
During last year’s long off season, the club made a strategic decision to redouble its efforts in its women’s program. Some stability was provided with Karlovic’s retention and a lot of work was put into player identification to decide how the four permissible foreign spots would be filled and which locals would join them.
Again, only two players were brought in from interstate but one of them would be a true W-League and Matildas great: Michelle Heyman.
Given that fans are always questioning the type of financial commitments that the people in charge of their clubs make, it’s worth noting that, irrespective of its merits, United’s W-League program costs a lot to run. I understand the figure is around the $500,000 mark and that the team’s revenue is only about half that.
The recruitment of Heyman was supported by Ian Smith, chair of the club’s advisory board, who sponsored the signing through his business, Bespoke Approach.
Like Heyman, three of the four overseas players brought to the club are experienced: Icelandic duo Fanndís Friðriksdóttir and Gunni Jónsdóttir, and American defender Amber Brooks.
Brooks’ teammate at Houston Dash, Veronica Latsko, is the youngest of the quartet and has been one of the league’s goal-scoring stars this season with eight in nine games.
They’ve blended well with the local players – a talented group but several are up-and-comers who are benefitting from the influence of the team’s on-field leaders.
Piet van der Pol, Nathan Kosmina, Ante Kovacevic and Aurelio Vidmar all at #ADLvMVC tonight. The club has put a serious effort in to @AUFCWomen this season and it shows. #WLeague https://t.co/hMevmlibHR
— Paul Marcuccitti (@P_M_73) December 21, 2018
The result has been a season that has already broken club records. While the team sits fifth, it’s just four points behind leaders Melbourne Victory in what has been one of the W-League’s tightest ever races.
And even though four wins, three draws and two losses might not sound exceptional, with three games to go, United already has its highest-ever points tally. The W-League Reds had never won more than three times in a season. Until now.
Can they push on and finally reach the end-of-season playoffs?
There is certainly reason for optimism. Thanks to the competition’s odd fixturing, the Reds have already played their six away games and their last three will be at home. The team’s destiny is in its hands.
Those matches will be played at Marden over the next three weekends: this Saturday against Western Sydney; Friday 25 January against Newcastle; and Friday 1 February against Brisbane Roar.
I wouldn’t miss them.
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