Updated: Oct 5, 2021
Following the double signing of Maria van der Meer and Meisha Westland on Friday, Melbourne City confirmed that it had completed its A-League Women’s squad for the 2021/22 season.
The final group of 18 players is a young and inexperienced outfit compared to recent seasons, with just six players aged over 21, so the chemistry and experience of seven returnees from the 2020/21 season is welcomed.
Unlike in previous seasons, City has been quick to get its recruitment finalised, with only Perth Glory and Sydney FC boasting larger squads at this stage of pre-season, with two months still to go until the league commences. Several Melbourne-based players are already in training, with the remainder of the squad set to arrive and begin pre-season soon as our first game against Canberra United on December 3 edges closer.
With so much recruitment happening over the past few weeks, we’ll recap the recent signings below before giving our final overview of the squad heading into the new season.
There were few surprises – though plenty of smiles – when the club announced the re-signing of stalwarts TJ Vlajnic and Melissa Barbieri for another season. The City veterans bring valuable experience to an extremely young squad and will absolutely be competing for starting spots as they push their teammates to higher levels. Vlajnic enters her seventh season with City, having been here since the club’s inaugural season in the women's competition, collecting two premierships and four championships in that time. Barbieri has five City appearances to her name and has served as an assistant coach since the 2017/18 season.
She may only have three top-flight appearances to her name, but 18-year-old Sally James looks set to be City’s new number one if the wording in the club’s statement on her signing is anything to go by. “In between the sticks this season will be Young Matildas goalkeeper Sally James, one of the brightest young shot-stoppers in the country”, the statement read. Her own quote later on in the release was also telling: “The coaching staff have shown a lot of faith in me, and I’ll give 100% of myself to repay that” – a strange thing to say if James was the second-choice keeper.
Regardless, James appears to be a fantastic acquisition by City; truly one of the most talented young goalkeepers in Australia, whose top-flight experience has only been limited by a significant injury sustained last campaign. In a recent The Far Post podcast episode, James was even touted as one of the leading candidates for a Matildas call-up in the absence of any of Australia’s usual goalkeeping trio of Lydia Williams, Teagan Micah and Mackenzie Arnold.
Another of City’s Kiwi contingent, Marisa van der Meer has recent experience with the New Zealand national team following her call-up for the Tokyo Olympics squad. Whilst she didn’t get to make her international debut, the 19-year-old remains one of her nation’s most highly-touted prospects. Despite being renowned for her versatility, an attribute that will make her an invaluable asset over the course of the season, van der Meer is best-suited to operating as a left full-back or wing-back given her pace and left-footedness. However, given the competition for this spot from Chelsea Blissett and TJ Vlajnic, van der Meer may instead slot into the left-sided central defensive role in our likely back three. Alongside the likes of Emma Checker and compatriot Rebekah Stott, City may boast one of the strongest defensive units in the league if van der Meer continues on her upward trajectory.
Set to be City’s most experienced midfielder in terms of top-flight games played, 19-year-old Leticia McKenna looks to be one of our smartest acquisitions of the pre-season, having played an integral part in Brisbane Roar’s impressive 2020/21 campaign. An attacking midfielder with marked technical ability when on the ball, Rado Vidosic has also described McKenna as “a hard-working player both in and out of possession”. We’ve little doubt that the former-Perth product will be one of the more integral members of City’s U21 brigade, with a starting spot in midfield looking likely for McKenna.
Meisha Westland joins the club from Lions FC in Queensland’s NPLW, where she operated primarily as a defensive midfielder. The 20-year-old utilises her deeper-lying position to play incisive, line-breaking passes through to advancing wide players and strikers and has been a top performer in the competition operating within this role. With Westland stating that “my goals this season are to make my debut and have an impact on the field”, it seems that a regular starting role seems unlikely even to her, but the youngster’s presence as a midfield option will prove valuable to the team as she grows into the season.
Part of a triple-signing announcement in late September, Darcey Malone is one of the few recent inclusions to the squad who already has experience in Australia’s top-flight. Having first featured for Sydney FC as an injury replacement two years ago, Malone has since plied her trade in state competitions, hoping her performances would attract a professional contract her way. As with many up-and-coming female footballers, Malone comes from a futsal background and has played at a representative level, training up a confidence and composure whilst on the ball that will be valuable in City’s midfield.
Alongside Malone, 15-year-old Caitlin Karic and 18-year-old Holly McNamara were also announced in late September, though the pair ultimately join the squad as young depth options who will hope to develop as footballers in a senior professional environment for the first time.
Familiar with the club through the Melbourne City College of Football program at Overnewton College since she was 10, versatile attacker Karic is described by The Inner Sanctum’s Kieran Yap as possessing “a venomous shot, creative impetus, and explosive acceleration.”
McNamara, on the other hand, is an out-and-out striker gifted with pace and technical proficiency on the ball. The former Young Matilda will hopefully acclimatise to her first W-League side with the aid of representative-level teammates Tori Tumeth and Kaitlyn Torpey.
Predicted Starting XI
Checker – Stott – van der Meer
Torpey – Davidson – McKenna – Blissett
Tumeth – Wilkinson – Vlajnic
Whilst Rado Vidosic has been known to favour a 3-5-2, we can’t possibly envision who would join Wilkinson in that attacking two, so a 3-4-3 it remains for now.
On face value, Rado Vidosic’s 2021/22 squad still feels severely incomplete.
For the second year running, City will boast excessive defensive stocks – as many as eight starting-quality players will compete for a likely five defensive positions – but are extremely stretched in attacking positions.
The most glaring issues from our early pre-season overview still remain; whilst Sally James looks to be a great fit in goals, the side still lacks recognised wingers and the midfield depth we sought now looks to comprise entirely of youngsters with minimal experience at the level.
Fans hoping for at least one high-profile attacking player to occupy either wing or the attacking midfield position would have been sorely disappointed by the announcement of the squad’s completion on Friday.
Accordingly, success this season will be dependent on individual players emphatically answering some tough questions. Can Rebekah Stott recapture her best form having spent so long out of the game? How quickly can Chelsea Blissett progress her development following her ACL injury? Will the likes of Leticia McKenna and Kaitlyn Torpey – crucial cogs in a high-performing Brisbane Roar outfit – be able to replicate that form for City?
Without a stacked squad to simply outplay other teams, so much of this season’s fortunes will come down to Vidosic’s managerial performance and how he guides players to address those aforementioned concerns. Can he lead the team to a successful outcome in 2021/22? Given City flirted with a wooden spoon finish last season despite having a stronger squad on paper than this year, significant improvement will be needed in order to do so.
If there is one major positive from our recruitment so far, it’s that – for what feels like the first time – the club will have several promising talents already locked in for future campaigns. Youngsters McKenna, Tumeth, Chinnama, Davidson, McNamara and Malone have all signed on for Season 2022/23, whilst the returning Chelsea Blissett will also be around for 2023/24. Most encouraging, Emma Checker has also signed a multi-year contract, now set to trail only Steph Catley as City’s longest-serving female captain if she sees out the two-year deal.
It feels a little defeatist, but perhaps this season City fans’ attentions shouldn’t be on on-field success but on off-field development.
For the first time in the six-season history of our women’s team, City can finally build towards a longer-term identity, with a host of promising youngsters and a loyal captain at the forefront of this new chapter in our history.