The Bolden the beautiful: Sarina on the Jets, the Philippines, and the growth of the game

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)

Sarina Bolden is on the verge of one of the all-time great A-League Women seasons.

The Newcastle Jets striker has 14 goals and a league-leading nine assists in 18 games, and it was her brace that gave the Jets the lead twice in their elimination final against Western United, which they won 4-2 after extra-time.

Newcastle had not previously won a finals game, and had only made the finals only twice before. But with Bolden leading the line, a wealth of other attacking options, a solid defence, and a fierce determination and perseverance forged over a season filled with twists and turns, there is a belief that Newcastle will not be out of place when they take on the premiers, Melbourne City, in a two-legged semifinal.

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The thing is it all could have been so different for both Bolden and the Jets.

After making her league debut in 2022-23 with Western Sydney, scoring one goal in 10 games but making an obvious impact on the team, she was not re-signed. An historic, unbelievable World Cup followed, in which Bolden scored the first goal for the Philippines in their first win at their first World Cup.

There was a fair assumption, from fans and Bolden alike, that she would find another club sooner rather than later.

"I'm just as shocked as everyone else that I didn't really get picked up sooner," Bolden told ESPN.

"A-League was definitely on my mind. But I think a little bit of it does have to do that I am really doing this on my own. I don't have an actual agent, especially during that time.

"I didn't really have someone going and seeking teams especially in the Australian market. It was kind of hard to do that investigating on my own. It's a whole other job in and of itself to go and reach out to teams and to be like, 'hi, yes, I like your team'."

There was a hope that Bolden's football, especially at the World Cup, could do the talking for her, and teams would reach out. That wasn't how it panned out. So as leagues around the world started, Bolden was still waiting for an opportunity.

With hindsight, that break couldn't have been better timed.

"Honestly, I see it as a blessing because I really gave a lot of myself to the World Cup preparation. So like the two years leading up to that, and I genuinely think my body, my mind, my soul needed a break, I needed those five weeks."

Those five weeks being the opening five rounds of the ALW season. During that time, Newcastle Jets head coach Gary van Egmond reached out to Bolden, and asked if she were still looking for a team; by Round 6, she was into the starting lineup for the Jets' clash against Canberra United.

She scored five minutes into the game, finished with a brace, and helped to steer the team to a 4-3 win.

Now heading into the semifinals, Bolden is looking at the break even more favourably.

"I didn't get to play in the first five games, but I get to play in hopefully the last four really, really important ones, and that's kind of the way I've been thinking about it."

That the Jets are playing in the semifinals, and could potentially make a grand final, is even more remarkable when you look at the tumult the team has gone through on and off the field.

A midseason coaching change, some unfortunate injuries, and a tiny guest stint have all contributed to the rollercoaster on the field.

All of this occurred while off-field issues simmered in the background. The Jets have been searching for a new owner for years, and the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) is no longer able to prop the club up.

Playing football under these circumstances, when the very future of your club's existence let alone your employment isn't guaranteed, isn't something that can be swept under the rug. For Bolden, she is proud of the way the players conducted themselves and learned to roll with the punches on the field, but especially off it.

"We've just leant on each other and been like stay focused, stick to what we've been doing and if you need help, reach out. We're all here for each other. We're all working towards that common goal of making history and hopefully going deep in this thing."

"We can only control the things we can control, and staying as positive as we can. Is it difficult? Is it hard? Is it challenging? Does it affect the football to some degree? Yes, but we dictate whether it's going to affect us. And I think we've been doing a really good job of coping with things."

While the team battles to stay alive, Bolden has nothing but good things to say about the city of Newcastle itself.

Australia seems to agree with the Philippines striker, and the city is more than proud to adopt her as one of its own -- something that becomes evident when Bolden goes out for coffee or runs errands and has people coming up to her congratulating her on the game or thanking her for what she's done for the team.

It's something she hasn't experienced elsewhere in club football, and she has traveled around a fair bit.

Her story began in the Bay Area of California with her Filipino mother and African-American father. While her parents were sporty, football wasn't their main choice. But as they and their friends settled down and had children, sending their kids to play soccer was the done thing.

And that's where Bolden's love affair with the game began. She played through high school then spent four years at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, playing college soccer and earning a business degree because "soccer's not always a guarantee."

But by the end of her college career, her mind was made up. Her business degree would be her backup plan and she was going to pursue playing professionally. That led her to Sweden and a trial run with third-division club Sandvikens. She spent time in Taiwan and back in the U.S. before landing in Japan to take part in the WE League.

While she didn't see out her second year with Elfen Saitama, Bolden was grateful for her time in Japan and loved so many things about the experience. But the language barrier had begun to weigh on her. After feeling a little bit isolated, and unable to connect with her team as deeply as she would have liked, her move to Western Sydney was "like a breath of fresh air."

"I was able to be myself and I have a lot of gratitude to Wanderers because it really helped me get my footing back into football and then that was around the time when the World Cup was coming."

Her World Cup was history making for the Philippines, and it is obvious when you talk to Bolden that she loves the team deeply.

While she is American-born and raised, Bolen had the opportunity to play for the Philippines through her mother. It's a common theme in the Philippines squad, with former head coach Alen Stajcic tapping into the large Filipino diaspora, especially in the U.S., to expand the playing pool.

If there were any doubts about diaspora players' love for their team, and how much it meant to them to pull on the jersey, they were sorely misplaced.

"It's been an honor of my life, honestly, because it's given back to my own personal life in ways that I never could have imagined," Bolden said to ESPN.

"Being able to be a part of the Philippine national team, I've learned another side to my Philippine roots. I don't think I would have really learned had I not joined the team. Or maybe I wouldn't have experienced it now; maybe it would have taken longer for me to connect with this side.

"I'm glad I've been able to learn my Philippine heritage with my teammates... born and raised in the Philippines have taught me so much, and even just kind of learning the national anthem.

"The pride that Filipinos have, I've learned while playing for the team. It's not just enjoyable for us as a team, but like the whole country is just so proud of us and so happy for us."

Bolden and her teammates are stopped when they return to the Philippines, with people thanking them for what they did at the World Cup. People share stories of those they have inspired to get into football.

"It's so heartwarming, I've been able to reconnect with the Philippines in a way that I couldn't have imagined. I just don't have words. I don't think I could ever thank the national team enough for that."

When it comes to national teams tapping into their diaspora, or players' digging through their ancestry to see all their options, Bolden looks at it as only a positive thing. And when it comes to the Philippines specifically, it is unsurprising.

"We [Filipinos] are quite literally everywhere. And that's one thing that I learned in being on the national team. We are literally everywhere. I think it makes us very different to the rest of the world.

"Does that pose challenges, does it pose criticism, does it pose these maybe negative things in a way? I think for us it poses positivity, and we have a big diaspora; we have a big pot to pick from. We don't have to just look at this pool in the Philippines. And we're definitely not the only ones doing it.

"I think it's something that we should invite. Maybe it's the way the world is going. There are a lot of 'mixed kids' like me out there. And it's a privilege to even be able to choose between countries, if you get that opportunity."

The Philippines, after failing to qualify for the Olympics, are looking to rebuild and grown even bigger. The end goal is very clear, though.

"We have less than four years until the next World Cup and I have every intention to be a part of, of that World Cup. But it's going to take time, it's gonna take rebuilding, It's going to take regrowth."

Allowing coach Mark Torcaso to put his spin on things while keeping the best of what Stajcic created will be key.

Bolden wants to keep growing at club level, too, and has lofty ambitions.

First, she hopes for a successful run in this ALW finals series with the Jets. Beyond this season, a return to the U.S. and a stint in the NWSL is a long-held dream. Getting to play in England in the WSL is another prospect that excites her.

The inclusion of Bay FC in the NWSL means Bolden has a hometown team in her "home" league.

"They're on my list, obviously. And there's been a bit of a pressure because my parents have already bought season tickets. They're already supporting the team, and I think that's because they have hopes in the back of their mind that hey, we're just getting ready.

"My dad's just kind of crazy. If he could talk to Brandi Chastain and the other founders and stuff, he would I think."

"He's like just trying to do word of mouth and just be like: 'Hey, Sarina Bolden, my daughter. She's in the A-League, she's doing pretty good. Can you guys just give her a sniff?'"

But regardless of where she ends up, one thing is clear. The world is there for the taking for Bolden. And the privilege of being a woman in football at this time in history is not lost on her.

"I think I just got really lucky because I think building up as a kid, women's soccer wasn't where it is right now. It was getting there. And in my head, I didn't know if it was going to be my generation or the next generation.

"But towards the end of my college year, and when I started to play in Japan, I was like, wow, this is really going off and I think I get to be a part of something really special. And I'm just grateful that we're not even at the peak of soccer yet, and I'm kind of in the midst of it all. And that's something that I've always dreamed of, being, I don't know, relevant and making a name for myself. I didn't know if that would ever happen for me and I'm so grateful that I do get to work my way into that ladder."