Dumont, Ayres, Bolden prove you need X-factor to win A-League Women finals

Casey Dumont's incredible penalty shootout record (1:41)

The Far Post dissect the Central Coast Mariners' win over Melbourne Victory and Casey Dumont's insane record in penalty shootouts. (1:41)

The first week of A-League Women's finals dished up two games at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Down one end, we had the crash, boom, bang of the Newcastle Jets' 4-2 extra-time win over Western United. There was a penalty each, a goal rubbed out for a foul in the build-up, individual brilliance, and unbelievable resilience. Western United's new home ground even got in on the chaos, descending into darkness with the floodlights going out and adding a 20-minute delay to an already tumultuous evening.

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Down the other end was the Central Coast Mariners' tense penalty shootout win over Melbourne Victory.

This match was dramatic in its own way. The action didn't come so much via golden opportunities but rather hard, physical play. Sitters were missed and, as the match progressed, penalties felt like an inevitability.

Even though these two games were vastly different in the way they panned out, both were ultimately decided by the very same thing: In a season, typified by its fluctuations, its ebbs and flows, it has been an X-factor -- hard to capture but easy to quantify -- which has been the deciding component on numerous occasions, so too in these elimination finals.

Mariners custodian Casey Dumont has always been a good goalkeeper, but her work in penalty shootouts -- already the stuff of A-League Women legend -- has now ascended to a higher plane.

"I knew we had it from the minute we went to penalties," Dumont told AAP postgame. It's a thought many watching on would have shared.

In the A-League Women's proud 16-year history, there have been eight penalty shootouts to decide finals matches. Dumont has now been in five. She's won all of them.

This isn't recent history either. Dumont's heroics span decades from the inaugural season when, as a 16-year-old, she stepped up for the then-Queensland Roar, making saves and slotting a penalty of her own, to last season, where a clip of her cooly converting her spot-kick and then saving the very next penalty went viral.

On that occasion, she was Melbourne Victory's hero. But on Sunday -- wearing the colours of the Mariners after an acrimonious split with Victory following her decision to pursue an AFLW career -- she was their penalty undoing. Dumont reminded her former club, not that they needed reminding, of just how good she is in shootouts.

In fact, it was evident that Victory's intensity seemingly notched up a gear in the second half of extra-time. They played like a team desperate to avoid penalties and the brick wall they would have to face in goal. Dumont's shootout genius is an X-factor that is rarely seen but, arguably, all the more special for its scarcity.

Because of this hard to find, innate quality, X-factor is usually associated with strikers. And this first week of finals had that too.

Long known as a player who only scored bangers and worldies but struggled to put away a striker's bread-and-butter chances, Melina Ayres' development and transformation into a complete striker has been a sight to behold for fans and fear for defenders. A move to the Newcastle Jets hasn't slowed her down or dampened her killer instincts, either. It is a mystery that Ayres has not featured in Matildas calculations yet. When she plays, she is one of the most natural strikers in the competition. But therein lies the problem: when she plays.

After a breakout season in 2020-21 where she found the back of the net eight times in 14 games, two of which were finals, injuries began to play their hand. Ayres managed only four games the following season, three of which were Victory's run to the title, with a recurring hamstring complaint hampering her. Her hamstring was again the issue in 2022-23, forcing her to miss seven games in a row and ultimately playing a little over half a season.

Hopes were high for what she could bring to the Jets, but she has only played 12 of the Jets' 23 games so far this season. Luckily, the 25-year-old appears to be finding fitness at just the right time; Ayres is a finals footballer. In fact, 25% of all her A-League Women goals have come in finals. The bright lights and high stakes don't intimidate her, they bring out the best in her.

Her insatiable form in finals propelled the Newcastle Jets to their first finals win in three attempts. It's a story made all the more remarkable by the background threat of extinction the club currently faces.

And while Newcastle would have loved to have her fit for the whole campaign, two things have worked in their favour: Ayres' impact upon her return has been nothing short of immediate and she hasn't been the sole goal-scoring outlet the Jets rely on.

Sarina Bolden is another of those X-factor players who has stamped her authority on this A-League Women season. Signed by the Jets five games into the campaign, fans have watched on in awe, many asking the same question: how had no one already signed the Philippines international?

Bolden, much like Ayres and Dumont, is the kind of player you want on your side. With a season on the line and a spark needed, these are the players you turn to to come up big.

Those X-factors ensure that while the fifth-placed Mariners and sixth-placed Jets will take on second-placed Sydney FC and first-placed Melbourne City respectively, writing them off should be at your own peril.