With Patrick Kisnorbo's side performing so well in the Men's competition, Rado Vidosic's curation of a promising A-League Women's squad has perhaps gone under the radar in recent months.
The long-serving head coach surprised many in 2021/22 when he took a youthful, 'early-stages rebuild' squad to a second-place finish and a Preliminary Final, and will look to build on that this season with a largely similar group of players that has a sprinkling of exciting new recruits mixed in.
A strong foundation
A topic that received its own dedicated article in preseason, City had already boasted a promising spine even before Director of Football Michael Petrillo penned a single new contract in 2022, with eight players having signed on multi-year deals last season. With Chelsea Blissett, Emma Checker, Naomi Chinnama, Tori Tumeth, Leah Davidson, Leticia McKenna and Holly McNamara already signed on for the new campaign, the City squad was stabilised further by the successful re-signings of goalkeepers Melissa Barbieri and Sally James, defender Kaitlyn Torpey, youngsters Isabella Accardo and Caitlyn Karic, and the particularly big fish of Rhianna Pollicina and Hannah Wilkinson.
To reemphasise the contention of that August article, this approach of securing players (especially youngsters) on multi-season contracts is the direction we'll want to be heading in to build a more sustainably competitive Women's department, especially as the ALW itself transitions to a more developmental model amidst the rise of European leagues.
This squad retention has perhaps been the best element of our off-season business; 71% of the 2021/22 squad has been secured for another season, surplus-to-requirement players Marisa van der Meer, Meisha Westland, and Coco Majstorovic have been moved on, and our only big losses were Rebekah Stott (an inevitable departure), Winonah Heatley and TJ Vlajnic - all of whom have been adequately replaced.
New recruits replace big losses, add versatility and depth
It's been pleasing to see that our two biggest off-season departures, Stott and Heatley, have been replaced more than adequately.
86-capped New Zealand international Katie Bowen will come in to fill the void left by club legend Stott, even boasting the same versatility as her compatriot that will see her operate as both a central defender or #6 throughout the season, depending on Vidosic's requirements. The 28-year-old has spent the past six years playing at a competitive level in the NWSL, but ahead of the 2023 Women's World Cup, arrives at City in search of greater playing time after being on the outer at North Carolina Courage, making just two appearances last campaign.
Vidosic has also found a like-for-like replacement - perhaps even an upgrade - for Heatley, bringing in promising but established defender Karly Roestbakken. The 21-year-old joins City with more ALW and Matildas appearances than Heatley did at the same time last year. Roestbakken brings even more versatility to the squad, capable of playing right across the back four, and arrives following a stint in the Norwegian top tier.
Our other significant loss over the off-season was club veteran TJ Vlajnic, with the Serbian international calling time on her six years with City to join league newcomers Western United. Though Vidosic already had a ready-made replacement in Blissett, who made several starts in that left wing-back position in 2021/22, the signing of American winger Julia Grosso has only added to the competition for that position. Other than the fact that she joins directly from the US college system, it's difficult to find information on Grosso's playing style given the higher profile of the Canadian international of the same name who dominates the Google search results.
Finally, after consecutive seasons of lamenting City's attacking depth, our 2022/23 squad appears far better equipped to deal with injury or out-of-form players. When fit, Pollicina, McNamara and Wilkinson are almost certainly our preferred front three, but the trio will face competition for these positions from returning players Karic, McKenna and Accardo, as well as new acquisitions Bryleeh Henry, Daniela Galic and Emina Ekic.
With 21 appearances and three goals to her name for Western Sydney Wanderers, as well as a 2022 Matildas debut, Henry seems - on paper - the most likely to trouble that established front three, and is our tip to start the season in attack whilst McNamara continues her ACL rehabilitation. The 19-year-old plays with the same dynamism and exuberance as the aforementioned McNamara, and should prove an effective foil to target player Wilkinson. Henry is another example of City's revitalised approach to youth development, joining on a two-year deal and growing our 2023/24 squad to two players, with Blissett also locked in for next season.
She may be just 15 years old, but midfielder Galic could very well be the signing that Vidosic was luckiest to pull off. The teenager is very highly-rated, and recently starred in Australia's recent U20 World Cup campaign in which she competed against players several years her senior. It was a series of performances that had tails wagging back in the ALW, with a club source telling Talking City that almost every team in the league was chasing Galic's signature. Following her player of the match performance against Costa Rica, Galic drew this glowing description from former Matilda Grace Gill: "I liken her to Chloe Logarzo, super athletic, fit, a great technician with the ball at her feet." Galic has told club media that she has a place in Vidosic's starting lineup in her sights, and this mightn't be totally out of the question - if Bowen is used in defence, a place in our best XI would open up in midfield between Davidson and Pollicina, with a hard-working individual like Galic potentially a good foil for that pairing.
Finally, there's American attacker Emina Ekic, who joins on a short-term loan from Racing Louisville FC. Though the 23-year-old arrives with a respectable pedigree given her NWSL roots, the nature of the quotes used in the club's announcement article seems to indicate that she will fulfill more of an impact sub role. Ekic has three goals in 34 NWSL appearances, and played as a left-footed left-winger for Racing. Quite the diminutive attacker at 5'4", expect Ekic to arrive with the usual athleticism of American arrivals to the ALW, with the winger noted for her pace and agility.
Scored this banger of a free-kick, though...
Goalkeepers: Melissa Barbieri, Sally James
Defenders: Katie Bowen, Chelsea Blissett, Emma Checker, Naomi Chinnama, Julia Grosso, Karly Roestbakken, Kaitlyn Torpey, Tori Tumeth*
Midfielders: Isabella Accardo, Leah Davidson, Daniela Galic, Darcey Malone, Leticia McKenna, Rhianna Pollicina
Forwards: Emina Ekic, Bryleeh Henry, Caitlyn Karic, Holly McNamara*, Hannah Wilkinson
*Recovering from ACL injuries
Proposed best XI:
Roestbakken - Checker - Chinnama*
Torpey - Bowen - Davidson - Blissett
Wilkinson - Henry*
*Replace these names with Tumeth and McNamara once fit.
Alternatively, Bowen might be moved into the back three alongside Checker and Roestbakken if Vidosic feels he can achieve a sufficient midfield balance with Davidson as our deepest, Pollicina as our most advanced, and a player who compensates for the defensive discrepancy between Bowen and Davidson as the #6 whilst still contributing to our build-up play.
For casual ALW fans, our 2022-23 arrivals mightn't seem huge, and there mightn't even be perceived improvement from last season's squad, but that's not necessarily how the league is won anymore. Gone are the days, for the most part, where fans are treated to a gluttony of big-name international acquisitions or top-tier Matildas who cycle through the league on a season-by-season basis; the competition is now won by teams who commit to developing players and refining their style of play over several years. For that approach, Sydney FC remains the benchmark.
Looking inward, however, this off-season has ostensibly been a successful one. It is often quoted that in football, if a team is standing still (regarding squad improvement), it's actually moving backwards, but the acquisitions made by Petrillo and Vidosic have edged us forward just enough that we'll be competitive again this season.
We've covered for the biggest losses from last season's squad with the signings of Bowen and Roestbakken in particular, and have actually patched up one of our weaknesses from 2021/22 by ensuring plenty of quality attacking depth.
You'd also have to award another big tick for our transition to youth development, with Henry acquired on a two-year deal and City beating all others to the punch to tie down Galic for at least this season.
As has been the case ever since our last Premiership-Championship double in 2019/20, don't come into this season expecting City to be the league's dominant force. Instead, support this young and developing team to compete for a Finals place and to push the likes of Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory for the Premiers Plate.
We mightn't be enjoying the tangible highs of 2015-2020, but in some ways, this feels like just as exciting a period as ever for our Melbourne City Women's team.