Do you remember when the W-League kicked off in November? It seems so long ago now that it almost seems hypothetical. What did we care about then? The delayed release of the season schedule? The late player signings? Was it the invisible marketing campaign? The sporadic stadiums and the bizarre kickoff times? Maybe it was all of them to some degree. How quickly things can change.
Despite those early hiccups, the first few rounds of 2019-20 laid some promising groundwork for a memorable season: Western Sydney Wanderers looked better than they ever had, thanks to the club's bumper off-field investment. Some bright, young Australian players stood shoulder-to-shoulder with some senior international imports. Almost all the Matildas who appeared in July's Women's World Cup were back on home soil, basking in the glow of a brand-new equal pay deal. All the games were broadcast live with commentary for the first time. Things were looking up.
Well, the season just gone has certainly been a memorable one -- but not for the reasons we expected. Like all sports over the past few months, the 2019-20 W-League will be remembered not so much for what happened on the field as for what happened off it. It will go down in history as the season of disruption, of player migrations and bushfires, of distended Olympic qualifiers and terrifying global pandemics. Suddenly, a delayed season schedule doesn't seem all that bad a problem to have.
But if there is anything to take from the 2019-20 season overall, it's that football itself will survive. Women's football in particular is a testament to the passion that has always fuelled it (even if money and business have steered the wheel). The majority of these W-League players will drift off into other jobs now, supporting themselves while playing in competitions that pay next to nothing, all because they love the game.
Whether professional football will look the same when we come out of this moment is uncertain, but what we know is that there will always be women kicking a ball around on a patch of grass somewhere, stretching and running and urging each other forward, collapsing in joy and in defeat, and doing it all over again the next week.
Although the huge, glittering machine of football is falling apart before our eyes, the game itself will continue as it has always done. There is some hope and some comfort to be taken from that.
Here's how each W-League team's season wrapped up in 2019-20:
It took until round 8 for Adelaide to earn their first point of the season, but a cursory glance across their earlier results showed that they were no pushovers. In fact, until round 7, Adelaide hadn't lost a game by more than a goal. Wonderkid Mary Fowler was the story of the Reds' season -- "the next Sam Kerr" finally getting the national platform she needed to prove that she could live up to the hype -- but Adelaide's early season jelling issues meant Fowler wasn't maximised before her injury kept her sidelined, so we'll never know what could have been.
Adelaide grew into their campaign, though: A thrilling 3-2 win over Western Sydney in round 11 -- the nail in the Wanderers' top-two coffin -- was Adelaide's high point. Star import Mallory Weber and South Australian youngster Chelsie Dawber combined beautifully in a transition system that coach Ivan Karlovic might have regretted not implementing sooner. Weber has already signalled her intention to return to the league next season, so if Adelaide are able to plan around her and recruit many of the same players to ward off those early season jitters, the Reds could be back in the title conversation next season.
Despite having the same number of Matildas as Melbourne City, Brisbane's season didn't have the same chemistry that such experience would usually bring. Two early losses to Wanderers and Victory meant the Roar were playing catch-up from the start, and it wasn't until round 9 that they defeated a team above them on the ladder, with a 4-0 revenge win over Western Sydney. Although their inconsistency (culminating in a 4-2 loss to Perth) saw them miss out on finals for the first time since 2016-17, the return to form of Katrina Gorry was a bright spot of the Roar's season.
Similarly, the arrival of teen products Indiah-Paige Riley, Leah Davidson and Hollie Palmer to replace Hayley Raso and Allira Toby, who both departed the club early to pursue opportunities overseas, is encouraging. Indeed, it was Palmer and Riley who combined to prevent City from rewriting league history for the longest time between goals conceded, scoring against them with just two minutes to spare in the final game of the regular season. As more Matildas look to greener pastures in seasons ahead, we can rest easy knowing that there are young players willing and able to step up and fill their boots.
After three consecutive seasons missing finals, Canberra United enter the offseason with some serious soul-searching to do. Having opted not to renew coach Heather Garriock's contract, the club are entering the rebuilding phase they promised when she took over but have under-delivered on since. With one of the biggest roster turnovers of the league the past few seasons, Canberra rarely felt settled, which could be seen in the chopping and changing of lineups and tactics with no clear rationale.
Although they never managed to earn a point against a team above them on the ladder (the closest being 2-1 losses to City and Brisbane), Canberra's season wasn't a total write-off. Like Brisbane, the club have unearthed some promising, young players, including Hayley Taylor-Young and Laura Hughes, while new Matilda Karly Roestbakken remained one of their most consistent performers. Surprise packages in the form of 32-year-old Jessie Rasschaert and Portland Thorns winger Simone Charley brought some spark to a side that fizzled out in the second half of the season, but with the Canberra United Academy at their disposal and a reputation for fostering the next generation of national team players, the club is in the perfect position to kick-start a much-needed rebuild.
On paper, Melbourne City were the team to beat. On the field, they proved it with six Matildas, all in top form, surrounded by four internationals who were either dependable veterans (Rebekah Stott and Lauren Barnes) or unknown stars (Claire Emslie and Milica Mijatovic). Last season's fifth-place finish was a blip on an otherwise dominant competition history that has seen City earn their sixth trophy in five seasons. Going undefeated for the second time and winning their second double this past weekend -- and arguably against stronger opposition than when they did it in 2015-16 -- makes for a strong argument that this is the best team the W-League has ever seen.
City's two MVPs have been full-backs Steph Catley and Ellie Carpenter, two of the deadliest and most consistent attacking weapons for both club and country the past four months. It was neat that Catley, who was part of that history-making side, scored the deciding goal in the 1-0 Grand Final win over Sydney FC on Saturday to be part of history once again.
Of course, nobody is surprised that City ended up here, but their continued success marks an important turning point for women's professional domestic football in Australia. After the eye-opening Women's World Cup, leagues around the world are beginning to recognise the value of investing in female players, and City's off-field treatment of their W-League side has been reflected in their almost complete dominance on it. Now we wait and see if other clubs will follow suit.
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride: Melbourne Victory's search for their first championship trophy since 2013-14 continues after they were knocked out of their second consecutive semifinal this season. The reigning Premiers eventually recaptured some of the form and spirit that marked last season's premiership win, particularly as key imports Darian Jenkins, Haley Hanson and Natasha Dowie found their groove, which culminated in a 7-0 thumping of Newcastle in round 13 followed by a 3-1 defeat of Sydney FC.
It's tragically poetic that it was this same Sydney side -- albeit with one player changed -- that bundled Victory out of finals barely a week later. But considering where Victory were merely three years ago, having won back-to-back wooden spoons, their rise up the ranks since 2018 has injected some much-needed energy into the traditional Melbourne and Sydney rivalries, as well as into the league generally. The other notable element of Victory's second-place finish this season has been goalkeeper Casey Dumont, who kept her side in more than one contest and has a firm glove on the league's Goalkeeper of the Year award.
As the only club without an international player this season, there wasn't much doubt as to where Newcastle would end up. However, like Adelaide, Newcastle turned out to be a more difficult opponent than they seemed. The Jets were the only side to take points off of City in their 1-1 draw that opened the season, and they lost the majority of their games by a single goal.
The 7-0 loss to Victory blew out their goal difference considerably, but for a team whose most senior player was fringe Matilda Gema Simon, the squad of local youngsters -- particularly Clare Wheeler, Tessa Tamplin (remember that goal?) and Lauren Allan -- have shown that the club has just as much potential to develop the next generation of female footballers as your Canberras and your Brisbanes. After the departure of head coach Craig Deans, who was commandeered by the Jets' A-League side, his replacement, Ash Wilson, is the only female coach left in the W-League. That's gotta be worth something, too.
We all wondered how Perth would fill that giant, Kerr-sized hole in their squad this season, and as it turns out, they couldn't. But that didn't deter the Glory from working with what they had, and like Adelaide and Newcastle, the side began to turn things around after they were already out of finals contention. Their shock 4-2 win over Brisbane in round 12, which effectively ended the Roar's finals hopes, was the club's most complete performance ... until they churned out another 2-1 win over Sydney FC, who sat five spots above them on the ladder, the following week.
Central to Perth's late-season surge, and part of the reason they scored more than twice as many goals in the second half of their campaign as they did in the first, was American Morgan Andrews. After arriving late and taking several games to warm into Bobby Despotovski's system, Andrews surged up the Golden Boot rankings to take out the award alongside three other players (Dowie, Remy Siemsen and Kristen Hamilton) -- though Andrews' award is arguably the most impressive, considering that she's the only midfielder among them. Likewise, the leadership hole left by Kerr was more than amply filled by seasoned veteran Natasha Rigby, who led her team from left-back with inspirational aplomb.
Although they couldn't back up their 2018-19 championship win, Sydney FC have arguably been the side whose team was built with one eye to the future. After the departure of Matildas Caitlin Foord and Chloe Logarzo to Europe, head coach Ante Juric spoke repeatedly about never relying on star players to get the job done. The fact that Sydney qualified for their 12th straight finals series, as well as their second consecutive Grand Final, all while using eight players on rotation under the age of 23 (including four regular starters), is a feat in itself.
Anchored by the ever dependable Teresa Polias, who spoke movingly after losing the final about the importance of the bond the team formed, the side experienced a handful of troughs -- that 5-0 thrashing by Western Sydney and the 3-1 loss to Victory -- that they bounced back from admirably, defeating both sides in their next meetings.
Although the return of Veronica Latsko from injury was a refreshing replacement for Foord, Sydney's most impressive performers were their Aussies: striker Siemsen, midfielder Taylor Ray, full-back Angelique Hristodoulou and centre-back Ellie Brush. This mix of experienced internationals with talented local players struck the right balance for a competition still deciding what it wants to be and shows that development doesn't have to come at the cost of success.
Of all the team storylines this season, the Wanderers perhaps best encapsulate the unexpected twists and turns the W-League as a whole has taken. Expectations were tentatively high after the club announced the signing of North Carolina Courage trio Lynn Williams, Denise O'Sullivan and Hamilton, as well as USWNT under-23 player Sam Staab. But they lived up to the hype almost immediately. Their first Sydney Derby win at the brand-new Bankwest Stadium in Parramatta was arguably the club's high point, particularly so for Young Matildas starlet Kyra Cooney-Cross, the likely successor to Emily van Egmond in the senior Matildas, who scored her first professional brace and put herself on the standby list for Australia's Olympic qualifiers.
The Wanderers' first loss came more than halfway through the season against Brisbane in round 9, a game that marked a major turning point in their season, as they went on to lose two of their star internationals (Williams and O'Sullivan) as well as three of their next five games. But a heart-pounding final game against Perth, in which they snatched all three points, secured Western Sydney's first finals appearance (which they lost handsomely to City, but still!), which was their stated aim before the season kicked off.
As with Sydney, the Wanderers' misfortunes came with silver linings in the form of youngsters making names for themselves, Cooney-Cross, Cortnee Vine and Courtney Nevin among them. The stars might not have aligned for the Wanderers this season, but they did put the club on the radar as one to watch as the women's game continues to grow in Australia.