Questions raised over Tony Gustavsson's Matildas squad selection

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The latest Matildas squad announcement should have been a celebration. After 778 days and one beautiful baby, Katrina Gorry would make her national team return.

The new mum had spent the A-League Women season with Brisbane Roar, working her way back to full fitness and game readiness, showing exactly the kind of form that has earned her 78 Australian caps.

It's a phenomenal story, and one that is becoming more common as more women athletes feel they have the support in place to hit pause on their sporting careers rather than stop when it comes to starting a family.

But Gorry's return wasn't the main story. Instead, the focus was shifted and it wasn't entirely unwarranted.

Both the squad announcement and Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson's press conference came with two major questions.

Firstly, where was Alex Chidiac's name in this 23-player squad? Fresh off an ALW championship with Melbourne Victory as well as player's player and player-of-the-year gongs at Victory's awards night, Chidiac was not selected for these games against New Zealand.

In January this year, it appeared as though ALW form would be rewarded when Remy Siemsen, Cortnee Vine and Holly McNamara were called into the Matildas' Asian Cup squad after their bright starts in various shades of light blue. Siemsen and Vine have retained their spots and you'd imagine McNamara would also still be there if she were fit.

Chidiac's snub didn't fit the brief, but Gustavsson explained that, unlike 2021, the next year would not see as many new faces brought into camps, or as many debuts. The decision last year to blood players was made, he said, out of necessity to bring them up to speed and account for the extraordinary circumstances that COVID created.

While that doesn't mean the door is shut on new or fringe Matildas, he said, fans should not get used to that amount of new players.

But on Chidiac specifically, who has 17 caps and has been in excellent form of late, Gustavsson offered this explanation at the squad announcement press conference: "First of all, I'm really happy for Chids that she's found the love of the game again, and she's had a couple of tough years.

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"We had a long conversation back in Sweden before the Olympics when she wasn't selected to the roster, in terms of her focus points and playing with more intensity and so forth. We've always known that she has a magical left foot, her visionary attack is unique. But she needed to find her love for the game again and find her form and have confidence.

"And her next step now is to keep this form and play consistently at as high a level as possible. Now when the A-League is finished, to find a platform where she keeps enjoying playing and playing as high up as possible."

The inference here speaks louder than the actual words. At the moment, Chidiac does not have an immediate club move announced -- at least not publicly.

While this still doesn't entirely explain why Chidiac was not selected to face New Zealand, it explains something much bigger than her. Of the five ALW players in this most recent squad, only Vine hasn't made the move abroad. Coincidentally, the other four players will be heading to Sweden: Gorry to Vittsjo to link with Clare Polkinghorne; Courtney Nevin and Kyra Cooney-Cross to Hammarby; Remy Siemsen to AIK.

The ALW's short season is a bugbear for fans, players, media, coaches and staff. And it appears that a player's decision -- or apparent decision -- to remain in Australia beyond the ALW season is detrimental to their national team aspirations.

Gustavsson said: "I do think for the ones that haven't signed somewhere else yet, meaning it's the end of the ALW season now that hasn't signed, is going to have to ask themselves: 'What do I need to do to play at the highest level possible and to reach my full potential?'

"Because if they are stuck here from now up until the next A-League season, what kind of development environment are they going to be in? Are they going to be challenged to come up to the next level? Are they going to be able to challenge for a spot in the senior Matildas?"

One way to solve this has been adorned on homemade banners hung over the fences at ALW games across the country: Extend the season.

Gustavsson noted that the ALW plays one of the shortest seasons among top leagues globally, and players and fans this season have become even more vocal on the topic. So, too, have coaches.

Sydney FC coach Ante Juric was particularly open and honest on the topic in an emotional post-Grand Final press conference on Sunday evening.

"That's a bit of a concern for me," Juric said. "When you've built something you want to keep it selfishly, but these girls need to go. If I lose four or five, we'll have to find other players and restart because some will go. And that's the sad thing because if we were professional here and they got paid well, they'd be here for another four years because you'd be successful, they'd get paid well, you can stay, but they need to find greener pastures and get better."

While Juric and Gustavsson are coming at the same problem from different angles, the fact remains the same: The benefits of an extended, fully professional women's league are plenty; not only for the national team but for the clubs, coaches, and players themselves.

The second question about the Matildas squad had to do with the relative lack of surprise in the names beyond Chidiac's absence. Yes, questions were raised by Aivi Luik's continued un-retirement but the door was never shut on her return beyond the Asian Cup.

In fact, this 23-player squad has only one difference from that which travelled to India earlier in the year: Gorry in for the injured McNamara.

It's a squad that backs Gustavsson's statement that blooding new players is no longer a main objective.

And the opponent for these friendlies shows that Australia is no longer in the thick of a testing phase against top-10 ranked nations.

The Women's World Cup is a little under 18 months away, which means there is no obvious short-term goal in front of the team -- whether that be in the form of immediate preparation for a tournament, or a tournament itself.

It therefore begs the question: What is the main objective of these friendlies? Is it as simple as winning some matches, not just because of the Asian Cup exit but to slightly improve the overall morale of the footballing public?

"I think if you asked me that question 10 years ago, I would say, 'yes, these are two extremely important games, we have to win, we have to regain the trust from you [media], from the fans and, and all these things'," Gustavsson said. "But at this point, to be honest, I don't look at it that way.

"We've done a really in-depth review of our performance throughout the last 12 months, we have identified where we think we are in the process and where we need to improve. And for me, this is just, sorry to use that word, this is just the first camp on the journey to the World Cup. And we need to do what we need to do to be where we think we need to be in the World Cup 23. That's how we need to treat these games."

Every opportunity for a national team to get together is important, with camps few and far between, so on the surface level these friendlies are obviously important. Gustavsson has emphasised consistency and the benefits it will have on the players and, ideally, the play.

Those who have muscled their way into the squad will continue to gain valuable minutes; seven players have 20 or fewer caps. Games against New Zealand are always special, and Townsville and Canberra will revel in getting to see the Matildas in the flesh.

But where exactly Gustavsson and the Matildas are in this journey to 2023 doesn't feel obvious. Wins against the Kiwis won't reveal much that wasn't already known from the last time the teams met at the Olympics. Draws or losses will push Australian football further down the catastrophising rabbit hole.

By Gustavsson's admission, load management will play a role in selection, with players jetting in from across the globe, some landing as late as Wednesday for a Friday night kick off.

But not focusing on wins while also bringing a full-strength team together -- travel caveats aside -- feels like a recipe to invite even further scrutiny.

All will hopefully be revealed on April 8 and 12.