NCAA women's soccer stars finding success in Australia's W-League

On a personal level, Melbourne Victory's recruitment of former Providence College striker Catherine Zimmerman and University of Kansas defender Kayla Morrison for the 2020-21 W-League season represents a triumph of talent and perseverance.

After more than two years of hard and largely anonymous work on community pitches across Australia's lower leagues, the pair both starred in Australia's top women's competition on Sunday as the Victory handed crosstown rivals Melbourne City a comprehensive 6-0 defeat (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.), with Zimmerman getting on the scoresheet.

"It's my first professional goal -- first goal for the Victory and the W-League. It's a really good feeling," she told ESPN. "I think all the goals were team efforts, so that's the most pleasing thing.

"I've worked hard over the last ... not just the last couple of weeks, but the few years to get here. Jeff's [Hopkins, Victory's W-League coach] been really gracious in giving me an opportunity. It's a great group of girls to be playing with.

"I'm super happy."

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Of course, Americans starring in Australia is nothing new. Thanks to complimentary calendars and Australian clubs being happy to accommodate NWSL regulations surrounding player contracting and outbound loans, Americans have been a regular presence in the W-League since the competition's inception in 2008; with Abby Dahlkemper, Aubrey Bledsoe, Lynn Williams and even Megan Rapinoe at one stage, plying their trade Down Under.

Per FBRef, W-League sides had 23 players from the United States on their books in 2019-20, with the Victory fielding Portland Thorns' Emily Menges and Houston Dash's Haley Hanson amongst that number. A season prior to that, two-time USWNT representative Christine Nairn won a Julie Dolan Medal as the league's MVP with the Victory.

Yet despite both having standout collegiate careers -- Zimmerman earning All-Big East First Team honours during her senior year with the Friars and Morrison becoming the first-ever Jayhawk to win the Big 12 Player of the Year award during her senior campaign -- Victory's duo are much less high profile than the archetypal American import.

The extent of their NWSL experience consists of just six appearances for Sky Blue FC made by an undrafted Zimmerman in 2016 -- an injury-replacement contract that itself was cruelly cut short by a torn meniscus.

Instead, their opportunities have been earned off the strength of their play in Australia's National Premier League Women's (NPLW) competitions -- a series of state-based leagues which run in the W-League offseason and ostensibly comprise the nation's second-tier of women's football.

Leaving the United States in 2018, they signed with Calder United and FC Bulleen Lions respectively in the NPLW Victoria on arrival in Australia and promptly began dominating the competition.

"I had the mindset that I wanted to come for the W-League and when I first contacted Mark [Torcaso, Calder United's coach] that was the big thing, he thought it was the pathway to the W-League," Zimmerman said.

Across two campaigns (the 2020 season was cancelled due to the impact of COVID-19), the New Jersey-born attacker, now 26, scored 76 goals in 55 games, won two NPLW Victoria Gold Medals as the state's best player and was part of a historic Calder side that recorded a +110 goal difference as it won a quadruple of titles: the Football Victoria Community Shield, Nike FC Cup, NPLW Premiership and the NPLW.

"In the 15 years I have been involved in women's football, she is easily the best import to come to NPLW," Torcaso told ESPN. "She's done it all, won everything and had a great impact on Calder United's history and our future. We are excited to say she is ours."

Morrison, now 24, won an NPLW Victoria Media Player of the Year award and helped anchor Bulleen's first-ever NPLW Championship in 2018, before repeating as Media Player of the Year (sharing it with Zimmerman) a year later. In addition to scoring 13 goals across two seasons, Morrison marshalled a Lioness' defence that went from shipping 50 goals in 27 games in 2017 to just 18 in 2019.

However, under local rules, incentives for clubs to take a chance on players such as Zimmerman and Morrison were limited. W-League teams are restricted to just four international players on their rosters throughout a season, as well as one international guest player whose appearances are capped.

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In a 14-round competition where imports were frequently relied upon to push a side's title credentials over the top, it was invariably better to take a risk on a player with at least some record in a bigger league.

"When I first wanted to play post-college I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do with the NWSL, and I wasn't sure if I was going to be good enough to play in it," Morrison explained to ESPN. "I thought I'd go overseas, I'll travel and get those experiences and really go through that. I thought from Bulleen I'd try for the W-League after.

"But after my first season, I didn't get a sniff of a W-League team. I went back to Bulleen again and got to train on trials with some teams but then it kind of felt like "F---, I need to work harder or switch it up because it's not happening for me.'

"[This season] did kind of seem like there was a new opportunity. I'm really good friends with a lot of [former W-League stars] that are playing in England, and they shot me through some messages saying: 'This is your year, go for it, you need to try!'

"Rebekah Stott and Steph Catley said: 'You need to do it, this is the right chance for you and if you don't, you're going to regret it.'"

So what changed to suddenly make Zimmerman and Morrison, or the likes of Brisbane Roar's Brazilian NPLW QLD recruit Mariel Hecher and Western Sydney's Irish NPL NSW signing Julie-Ann Russell, viable signings?

Like most upheaval in sports these days, COVID-19 has something to do with it.

The same pandemic that prevented the pair from playing during the 2020 NPLW Victoria season -- the latter spent time with Swedish side Moron Bollklubb to keep her hopes of a W-League contract alive -- created a perfect storm of budgetary, border, safety, and scheduling impediments which meant W-League clubs, unlikely to fill their foreign slots otherwise, had little to lose by finally taking a chance on local, yet foreign, talents.

So dramatic has the demographic shift been that Zimmerman and Morrison now consist of 40% of the American presence in the W-League: joined only by City's Samantha Johnson, Canberra United defender Kendall Fletcher, and Adelaide United forward Mallory Weber.

"Jeff [Hopkins, Victory's W-League coach] reached out to me and said that the W-League was going forward [in 2020-21]," Zimmerman, who remained in Australia following the 2020 season's cancellation, remembered. "There was a lot up in the air about the logistics because of COVID, but he kind of verbally committed to me at that point and that convinced me to stick around and wait a few more months to start with preseason."

A former Fulham and Reading hardman and 16-time Wales international, Hopkins is an underappreciated fixture of the game in Australia and won his 100th W-League game as a coach in Victory's triumph on Sunday.

"[Zimmerman and Morrison] are definitely W-League standard," he told ESPN. "It's kind of just the realities of life that they're in another country, being classed as an overseas player and there's a limited amount of those players over here.

"But we were lucky enough, or smart enough, to contact them nice and early and make a connection with them and we managed to get them signed.

"I'd seen Kayla last year but we had Laura Brock, Emily Menges and Jenna McCormick as our three central defenders -- all international players with pedigree. But as soon as I knew these players weren't available then [Morrison] was definitely one that had taken my eye."

For now, there's no telling if the circumstances that gifted Zimmerman and Morrison their elusive opportunities will remain part of the W-League paradigm going forward.

The competition -- alongside its male, youth and e-sports stablemates -- was just unbundled from Football Australia and placed under the control of participatory clubs. Its identity and place in the rapidly evolving global women's football ecosystem alongside the NWSL, Europe and rising Asian leagues are still a matter of debate amongst its various stakeholders.

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But should Victory's American duo continued to see the field and begin to recreate their NPLW form, and trends of major NWSL players not featuring in the league continue, collegiate players that find NWSL pathways spent or simply desire a new experience may suddenly begin to realistically eye a move to NPLW competitions (which carry no language, fewer cultural barriers and a high standard of living away from the game) as an alternative pathway to a top league.

So too, could ambitious European, South American, Asian or African players.

While international player limits would need to be enshrined to ensure pathways for locals aren't swamped, high-quality foreigners seeking a place in the W-League via the NPLW would also serve to improve standards for Australia's next generation of stars. Suddenly, these young prospects in state leagues would find themselves competing against a cohort of internationals that, barring naturalisation, weren't a threat to a home-grown contract, but could still drive standards on the field and training track.

Additionally, the anticipated expansion of the W-League's teams -- and subsequent increase in roster spots needing to be filled -- would also only see an increase in opportunities.

"My advice to an American would be to play in the NWSL and then come into the W-League because they would look at you more," Morrison said. "But if you can't get the gig, go through the NPLW and see the NPLW."

"I would never, even if I didn't make W-League I would never look back on this life experience being in Australia because it's far exceeded my expectations already," Zimmermann agreed.

"Now this is now another dream come true for me. I'm happy."