Opinion

What the Matildas are really up against

(L-R) Emily Van Egmond, Lydia Williams, Sam Kerr, Alanna Kennedy Source: Getty Images

Let’s be honest, the Matildas have not been labelled 'underdogs' for quite some years now. They have grown as footballers, professionals and as a brand.

They relinquished the ‘underdog’ status well and truly before the footballing world started to take notice.

The Matildas were playing week in and out with/against some of the best players in the world. They no longer felt the gulf between them when they fought internationally against their rivals, adversaries and now, friends.

This was never more evident than in a game against Brazil in July last year in which the likes of Marta was screaming and looking aggressive only to be helped up with a wink and smile from Kyah Simon. Marta could only reply with a nod and smile in return.

Our players are well respected. No doubt.

They have earnt that respect from their counterparts the world over.

Melissa Barbieri Marta
Brazil forward Marta gets a hug from Australia forward Kyah Simon after a foul on Simon on July 28, 2018.
Icon Sportswire

But respect can only take you so far.

Could we find ourselves in a position this year where a lack of team preparation, a new coach and disadvantages at club level send us backwards?

It's less than a month before the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup kicks off in France, and pre-tournament camps and warm up matches for our Matildas have been few and far between.

Several of our Matildas ply their trade in the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) in the US because the league timings work well with our W–League, allowing them to play full seasons in both competitions.

In fact, aside from Canada, Australia top the list of foreign players in the US alongside Mexico.

Unfortunately, the untimely sacking of Alen Stajcic has meant the rapport and goodwill he'd built in negotiating good terms for our Matildas with the NWSL clubs has been lost.

It’s hard not to notice the difference in preparation time the US women's national team seem to be having in comparison to other countries.

They were recently in camp, with all their players unavailable to their club sides in the NWSL.

Meanwhile, players in the league with impending World Cup campaigns for other countries are, for lack of a better word, forced to continue playing for their clubs at this critical time in the lead up to France.

To give themselves the best shot at defending their World Cup title, all US women's national team players were asked to sign only NWSL contracts to ensure they could control their preparations for France 2019.

It is evident they have manipulated the system to benefit those players. Well of course, it’s their league. They can run it how they see fit, right?

But while this may not seem a big deal, the NWSL is a hub of Matildas. Could it disadvantage them enough to have them be underdogs once more?

It is hard to see how Ante Milicic, a new coach with little experience in the women’s game, can have ample opportunity to see how his players are working together as a team prior to selecting the 23-strong squad that will travel to France for next month’s showpiece.

Milicic has had a very limited window of opportunity to not only view his players but to allow the fringe players opportunity to impress.

With the squad being announced next Tuesday there are countless question marks he will have to contend with. Albeit he is using various brains within the football community to come to conclusions.

First of all, depth in defence. For many years every Matildas squad has been announced with very little volume in defence. Stajcic always cited the fact we had so many versatile players and therefore could plug up any hole needed with various attacking players.

Our players can adapt but even the best players need time to adjust. Every percent lacking is felt at the pinnacle of the sport. Just ask any player, it’s a game of inches. Has Milicic been able to scour the country to find ample cover?

Second, is the quality of game time. While some are getting enough with their clubs other seem to be suspiciously restricted on the pitch.

We have seen the likes of Caitlin Foord, Sam Kerr and Alanna Kennedy grace headlines for scoring in the NWSL. But at the other end of the pitch Kennedy has had the tough task of controlling the back line at an underperforming Orlando, having conceded 10 goals in five matches. This cannot bode well for her confidence. The upside in Orlando is that Emily Van Egmond has had ample playing time.

Seattle Reign has hosted a few Matildas, but it almost seems they are being paid to halt Matildas progress with Elise Kellond-Knight only seeing 103 minutes this season, coming off the bench in three out of four matches.

Also worrying is the fact that shot stopper Lydia Williams has only seen 90 minutes of football in four matches for them.

Steph Catley has also not seen a single minute of play for Seattle but that is due to a muscle strain after a pre-season match that meant she also missed the last opportunity to play with the national team. The decision now is do you get Catley some game time or rest her till the World Cup?

Washington have helped Aussie pairing Amy Harrison and Chloe Logarzo get some game time, but they too have been limited. Just 103 minutes for Harrison off two starts and Logarzo debuted last weekend after returning from injury with 24 minutes.

Houston Dash and Portland Thorns have been the most generous with field time for Matildas. Clare Polkinghorne has played every minute of Dash’s season so far and is one of highest ranked defenders in the NWSL stats accumulator.

High in rankings is also Kyah Simon. A fantastic return from injury, scoring within 13 minutes. She has shown great strength of character throughout this injury phase.

Foord and Ellie Carpenter have been industrious for the Thorns. They have both started all three matches so far this season. Foord outstanding with both goals and assists. The troubling part is we haven’t seen Hayley Raso at all this season - she has been stranded at home due to VISA issues.

Sam Kerr is doing Sam Kerr things and lighting up NWSL with her performances for Chicago. It does help Kerr knowing that she is backing up last year’s form with strong performances early on. She may be asked to unlock defences numerous times this World Cup.

But while the Matildas have gradually become more and more professional over the years, their preparations for this year's World Cup seem to be going in the opposite direction.

Prior to the 2015 World Cup in Canada, where they achieved their greatest finish at the quarter-finals, players actually forewent professional contracts just so they could train together five days a week pre-tournament. They spent six weeks straight training together in Italy as full time athletes (albeit on part time wages).

This year, in comparison, they will have spent a fragmented six weeks in total together in the lead up to France. Surely this has to be another worry. How can a team gel prior to a major tournament with so little time spent together?

All men’s national teams are given complete FIFA windows prior to the tournament to spend time together and all players are in full time training environments outside of those FIFA windows. Our girls are stretched between USA, Norway and Spain, the remainder left in Australia with no dedicated FIFA windows to come together ahead of the World Cup.

It will be interesting to see who makes Milicic's final squad for France. Very few would feel they are guaranteed a position.

The only way we can move forward through this challenging time is to keep pushing for our players to be signed to full time, professional contracts. Work with clubs to better ensure our preparations are equal with that of other countries.

Maybe also keep an eye on the lengths the NWSL will go to to ensure its US Women's National Team players are given every advantage over players from rival countries.