What to make of the A-League's dismal Champions League results

Australian football has it's A-League fixture for 2020-21, while its federation will soon have a new name. That, plus young player minutes, the Asian Champions League, and more is on tap for a bumper ESPN Australian and New Zealand Football wrap!

A Message from the Emperor

Arriving with preparations that could, at best, be described as chaotic, Australian clubs have struggled in the Asian Champions League: Sydney FC, Perth Glory and Melbourne Victory all failing to record a win so far. It's almost inevitable that, for the third year in a row, Australia won't have a representative in the knockout stages of the tournament.

Of course, there's no fremdschamen here. None of the three have been outright embarrassed in any of their contests and Perth and Sydney could have easily beaten Ulsan and Jeonbuk. But, you know, horseshoes and hand grenades.

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Ultimately, declaring a moratorium on ACL analysis given the difficulties present in 2020 would be easy, but also unhelpful. When examining Asian competition, and where Australian clubs fit in it, it's possible to acknowledge that multiple things can be true at once.

It's true that the 2020 campaign is largely a write off for the competing A-League clubs -- odds of success so remote that they're best approached as preseason games. It's also true, when the total output is examined, that Australian clubs have been able to punch above their weight in Asia over their decade plus competing. Yet, it's also true that in recent years, even if one was to throw out 2020, there's been a level of stagnation in Australian results compared to Asian nations. Being good enough in a 10, 11 or now 12-team closed league in which 50% of sides play finals masks shortcomings that are increasingly ruthlessly exposed by Asia's best.

As is often floated, the removal of the salary cap and the cash flow injection brought about by A-League independence and a domestic transfer market will undoubtedly help address top-level gaps that exist between Australian clubs and Asian heavyweights, but said solution isn't a cure all. Even with an upgrade of a Reliant Robin to a Maclaren, one remains the same driver they were before and, while the bells and whistles may obscure some limitations, the added power can also present new opportunities to crash and burn in spectacular ways.

For real, sustained success in Asia, Australian clubs will likely need to re-examine the way they measure what it means to consistently play good football. It should not just be measured against their domestic foes, but also their continental rivals. Is it it good enough to win in Asia? Or just the A-League?

The New Advocate

Previously only possessing a start date, football fans were finally able to begin their preparations for the 2020-21 season properly on Tuesday with the release of the A-League fixture. Western Sydney's women will meet Melbourne Victory before their men face A-League debutants Macarthur FC to kick things off on Dec. 27. The full W-League fixture is expected to be released on Monday.

Allowances have been made for Sydney, Perth and the Victory if they progress to the knockout stages of the ACL (unlikely), and league officials confirmed to ESPN that the fixture was agile enough to meet the requirements of 2021 ACL entrants Sydney, Melbourne City and Brisbane Roar. Reducing one level of complication, current plans for the FFA Cup -- now likely to be rebranded as the Australia Cup -- won't have any A-League sides scheduled to compete during the league window.

At the time of writing, neither Football Australia (FA) or Professional Footballers Australia have developed policies surrounding how potential COVID vaccines will be incorporated into the season, but players will be expected to observe league-wide COVID-safe protocols and self-monitor for symptoms throughout the season.

These requirements have been lessened from the strict protocols that accompanied the end of the 2019-20 season; with players able to travel the day prior to, rather than the day of, games and allowed go out to restaurants, cafes, bars and so on as long as said venues follow their own COVID-safe plans. In good news for City captain Scott Jamieson, golf and other recreational activities are also still allowed.

After switching agencies during the offseason, the leagues are set to roll out a new marketing campaign for the new season a couple of weeks into December.

Absent-minded Window-gazing

As reported by ESPN, the details of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement to cover the 2020-21 season were seemingly all but completed in early October, with just last minute wrangling over its verbiage remaining before it could be formally ratified. Since then, however, there have been few official updates on its progress from the APFCA, PFA or FA (who as part of the league unbundling process, acted as a regulator during the bitter negotiation process).

Cogently, the A-League fixture being released, a W-League version imminent, and no public sniping between the two parties would indicate that a pact has been sealed. Why the radio silence exists, then, and who benefits from that is anybody's guess; especially when its announcement would serve as an easy PR win and display of unity.

The Next Village

One of the storylines likely to define the coming A-League season is the increasing opportunities that will be on offer to young Australian players; upheaval of playing rosters throughout the league seemingly set to force a number of clubs, particularly the more miserly ones, to play youngsters whether they want to or not.

Whether a focus on developing new talent is a direction that the Australian Professional Football Clubs Association (APFCA), who will run the competition following its unbundling from the league, wish to take the competition, though, is not known. Former Premier League boss Richard Scudamore, who was previously employed by clubs as a consultant, has declared that"... the holy grail is the local boy made good."

However, rumours have also swirled around possible increases in the number of foreign slots available to clubs, and around marquee strategies to boost league interest.

"Everyone [needs to] take a deep breath and look at the reality side of things -- it's all about our identity as what we want to be known as and seen as as a footballing nation," Socceroos boss Graham Arnold, making his preferences very clear, said on Thursday. "I think years ago, the mentality was your identity was about development and bringing money into the game. We haven't brought money into the game through transfer sales for many, many years. Last year we brought in about $1 million into the game.

"[Money] will filter down into the system with a domestic transfer system, but also a good transfer system selling players overseas. The development identity is crucial for the game if that is where we're at. The Dutch have been doing it for years.

"Once that happens, and the development side happens, and the brand of the A-League is great and people are getting to see great young Australian players, that benefits the national team hugely. Because we're getting players playing, going to a higher level in the A-League and going overseas and playing overseas and then coming back to play for their country, which makes the national team stronger."

But with youngsters coming to the fore for a season that will dovetail almost immediately into the Tokyo Olympics, Arnold is optimistic about the coming A-League campaign.

"I think there will be a lot of good names that the fans won't know that will come through, and they could be household names by the end of the A-League season."

The Cares of a Family Man

Earlier this offseason, the challenges faced by players in the modern game -- especially young players raised in an online world -- were laid bare by former Melbourne Victory midfielder Josh Hope's announcement that, following persistent social media abuse, he was stepping away from football. Regrettably, abuse on social media is an all too common feature of football, and life, in the modern age; acknowledgement or objection of the denigration often gleefully seized upon as a perverse justification for its continuation by perpetrators.

As part of a distinct population with unique needs, young players are already at an increased risk of mental health problems and, with their numbers in the league likely swelling in the months ahead, Arnold said it was important that clubs and coaches ensured they were doing what they could to protect their players on and off the park.

"It's so sad that Josh Hope semi-retired, I expect he will come back in time," said Arnold. "It's something that the coaches need to speak to the players about and the clubs need to take more on board. It's the individual dealing with social media. When I was at Sydney FC I worked so hard, and I still do with the Socceroos boys, about getting off social media. Not looking at it and not listening to it and not letting it affect your life and not being in a position where you're listening to people you don't even know. Because it can affect your confidence, it can affect your form, it can affect everything.

"It's something that the coaches need to look at, not only tactics and training sessions, there is a personal side of what the individual goes through at home. I will always, as a coach, want to have an idea of what a player's personal life is like and what type of environment he comes from."

Citing Tom Heward-Belle as an example, the youngster having played just two competitive senior fixtures in 2020 prior to his calamitous red card in the ACL, Arnold also explained that mistakes will be inevitable as young and inexperienced players find their feet at A-league level but, as long as they're stuck with and continue to see the field, error volume will shrink.

"With a great preseason behind them, and plenty of games in preseason and being able to play with the flexibility of registrations, then the kids will make less and less mistakes," he said. "It's understandable that they may make some, but older players make mistakes and coaches make many, many mistakes. It's about learning from the mistakes."

The Metamorphosis

In a devastating blow for abbreviation fans everywhere, Football Federation Australia (FFA) will soon be no more, the Australian federation on Wednesday unanimously moving to change the organisation's name to Football Australia.

Having already replaced the Whole of Football plan with the XI principles, the move is yet another example of CEO James Johnson making his mark -- the executive declaring at the recent Football Writers Festival that it was his intention to change the game, not manage it.

Ultimately, if the game experiences a renaissance in coming years then this moment will no doubt come to serve as a symbolic one -- where the game turned a new page. But that's a long time from now, and should it take a different turn it could just as easily come to be seen as a hubristic rearranging of the deck chairs as the ship sank. Cie la vie.

A Report to an Academy

This past week, 23 players descended on Canberra for a four-day Matildas training camp under the watchful eye of assistant coach Mel Andreatta. In a marked change, though, just a single player, defender Ellie Brush, possessed a senior international cap while two, Cassidy Davis and Natasha Rigby (the former unfortunately having to withdraw after just a single day due to a quadriceps injury), had never been involved in the international setup at any age level.

The make-up of the camp, while in some way a necessity given that most first choice Matildas are now in Europe, is also designed to meet a real need in the Australian game. First detailed in the Guardian, a coming report by the FA on pathways in the women's game -- the men's equivalent which has already been released -- has exposed serious developmental problems in that space. Even though their foundations differ, the report found that as was the case in the men's game, there exists a distinct lack of opportunities to log valuable competitive minutes for young girls -- placing a handbrake on development and shrinking the player pool.

A lack of games in the W-League for those women and girls that can't strike out overseas is one huge factor in the gap. At just 14 rounds, the competition lacks a proper home and away fixture and fields just nine teams -- limiting contracts available and minutes. Furthermore, the Matildas growth hasn't been accompanied by success at a junior international level: a lack of funding available to support a wide-range of junior programs beyond the current two sides.

Ultimately, the report shows that the success of the Matildas can't be taken for granted as strengthening the ecosystem below them and that, in some cases, their success has allowed administrators to paper over cracks in their own domains.