Westfield W-League 2020-21 season preview: Your comprehensive, team-by-team guide

Westfield W-League 2020-21 season preview: Your comprehensive, team-by-team guide

Welcome to our annual preview for the Westfield W-League 2020-21 regular season—the league’s 13th campaign. The season kicks off on Tuesday, Dec. 29 (12:30am ET in North America, live on ESPN+) with Brisbane Roar hosting Melbourne City FC in a doubleheader with the men’s team. The season will kick off a few days later than planned due to modified COVID-19 restrictions in Australia.

The Westfield W-League is now running a late December through April schedule — deviating from its traditional late October/early November through February plan — as it is now dovetailing its start with the men’s A-League, which will continue through July. The Equalizer will feature weekly roundups of news and highlights, just like previous seasons.

Although there had been discussions and hopes that the W-League would expand the number of games that each team plays, it will again comprise a 12-game regular season schedule. The league’s new schedule will effectively lock out National Women’s Soccer League loanees as well as some imports from European leagues, who in the past were able to spend the winter in a competitive off-season league.

The NWSL is planning to start its training camps on Feb. 1, 2021 ahead of their second Challenge Cup tournament and then stage the regular season and playoffs to follow. Even though NWSL loanees won’t continue this season, there still will be imports in the W-League, as well as some Americans that are not tied to NWSL clubs. There has also been some significant player movement within the W-League ahead of the 2020/21 campaign, with some teams loading up on Australians still in the country after the mass departure of the senior Matildas to clubs abroad.

Last month, it looked like the Wellington Phoenix, the New Zealand-based club in the A-League, would add a women’s league team for this 2020/21 season and, because of COVID-19, be housed in Wollongong in New South Wales. This effort fell apart a few weeks ago, primarily because the New Zealand Football Federation wanted to have New Zealanders considered as Australians for the purpose of the league as is currently done in the A-League on the men’s side, rather than as imports (four per team are currently allowed in the W-League).

Tom Sermanni — who led Australia’s Matildas on two occasions, was instrumental in the launch of the W-League and now is the Football Ferns’ head coach — was going to lead the Phoenix side in the league and was unhappy with the decision, particularly the idea that a Phoenix team in the W-League would be detrimental to Australian football and the development of their young players. Sermanni was adamant in his disappointment when speaking to ESPN in Australia:

“Rather than condemning a team who is willing to invest significantly to bring a team into the league, the benefits should be looked at. It would even up the number of teams in the league [to 10], which in turn could make it logistically easier to increase the number of rounds. Also, Wellington Phoenix would bring a strong competitive team into the league which would help, not hinder the development of young Australian players and, like the Phoenix men’s team that currently contains three Olyroos [men’s Australian Olympic Team members], the Wellington Phoenix women’s team would also provide opportunities for Australian players.

“If you look at professional leagues around the world, the Australian league would be the youngest by quite a decent margin, so young Australian players in the W-League [would] probably get more opportunities than young players in any other domestic league in the world. When we bring good international players into the league it’s seen as a move that helps develop young players, so surely by that logic a strong team from N.Z., containing a number of experienced international players, would only benefit the league and give the young Australian players the competition they are looking for.”

That news aside, here’s a team-by-team look at the nine squads competing in the 2020-21 Westfield W-League season, in alphabetical order (with regular-season record — W-D-L — from last season).

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Adelaide United (2-1-9, 7 points — Tied for Eighth)

Former assistant coach Adrian Stenta was promoted to head coach for 2020-21, replacing Ivan Karlovic, who was promoted into a women’s football directorial role at the club. Australian U-17 and U-20 international goalkeeper Annalee Grove (19) was acquired for the 2020-21 season. She played last season at Canberra United. She will compete with Scottish-born Sian Fryer-McLaren (29) for time in goal. Last year’s starter, Sarah Willacy, went to the Western Sydney Wanderers in the offseason.

Returnees include Chelsea Dawber (20) at forward, who scored 33 goals in 14 matches for Adelaide City of the WNPL in the offseason as well as two goals and two assists for Adelaide United last season in the W-League. She joined the club in the 2017-18 season. Center back Matilda McNamara is also back, scoring two goals with City in the offseason; she played in four of United’s matches last year. Australian U-20 international Charolotte Grant (19) is back, as is Reds veteran Emily Condon for her seventh season. Midfielder Dylan Holmes was born in Brazil and played with Fulham in England in 2016 and spent some time at Colgate University in the U.S. in 2015. Isabel Hodgson is back for her sixth year with the club after playing for East Tennessee State University.

American loanees Amber Brooks (now OL Reign) and Mallory Weber (Utah Royals) are huge losses for the side, as was Mary Fowler, who debuted for the club at 16, went to France with the Matildas for the 2019 World Cup and now plays with Montpellier in France. The Reds are still looking for their first ever playoff berth.

Brisbane Roar (5-2-5, 17 points — Fifth)

Hayley Raso is a big loss for Brisbane (Photo: FFA)

Brisbane Roar missed the playoffs last season for only the third time in their history.

Matildas midfielder Tameka (Butt) Yallop is back for her 13th season in the W-League, all with the Roar except for one season with Melbourne City in 2018-19. Yallop, who has made 118 appearances for the club, is the all-time Roar leading scorer with 48 goals and won two Grand Finals in Brisbane; she spent the offseason training with a men’s side in New Zealand.

Matildas midfielder Katrina Gorry (78 caps) returns for her ninth season with the Roar and is hugely influential in dictating the pace of the game. Clare Polkinghorne is back for her 13th season with the Roar and has won two Julie Dolan Medals as player of the year in the W-League and been a part of four Matildas’ Women’s World Cup sides. The former Portland Thorns and Houston Dash defender over three seasons played with Avaldsnes in Norway this year; the club finished third on the table and ‘Polks’ had one goal in 16 matches while teammate Gorry had three tallies in 13 games.

An important new addition is Emily Gielnik, who scored four goals with Melbourne Victory in 2018-19 before joining Bayern Munich after the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. Released by Bayern, she signed with Vittsjo GFK in the Swedish Damallsvenskan this past summer and helped the team finish fifth, after capturing third in 2019. Gielnik finished the Damallsvenskan season with eight goals in 16 games, second on the side to long-time Vittsjo midfielder/forward Clara Markstedt, who had nine in 19 games. Gielnik’s goal-scoring form should help the Roar replace fellow international and ex-Portland Thorns forward Hayley Raso’s production of four goals in eight games in 2019-20; she left Brisbane during the season for Everton in England’s WSL.

Other signings from within the league include veteran forward Rosie Sutton (30) from Melbourne Victory. This will be Sutton’s fifth W-League club in seven seasons, with 23 league goals in total. Defender Kim Carroll, a veteran Matilda with 58 caps, returns to the Roar after five seasons at Perth Glory. This will be her 11th season in the league. Also joining are U-20 Australian internationals Morgan Aquino in goal and midfielder Leticia McKenna. Aquino backed-up Perth starting keeper Eliza Campbell and won two games in relief duty last year.

Goalkeeper MacKenzie Arnold left the club after four seasons with the Roar in the Matildas exodus to Europe, joining West Ham United in the WSL. NWSL loanees Carson Pickett (Orlando Pride) and Celeste Bourielle (Portland Thorns) are big losses in defense and defensive midfielder, respectively, after they both had three consecutive years with the Roar. Other departures were young talents Hollie Palmer and Leah Davidson, who both moved to join the champions, Melbourne City, while Isobel Dalton (ex-University of Colorado) left before the last game of the season to join powerhouse Glasgow City in Scotland and now is in Italy with Napoli, although the club has struggled, and her time has been limited.

American forward Rylee Baisden also left to try out with the Houston Dash in preseason camp and finished the 2020 season with the North Carolina Courage, though she was released in late October and is a free agent; Baisden scored three goals last season after moving up from the Queensland state league in Australia.

Canberra United (4-1-7, 13 points — Sixth)

Canberra United, which has missed the playoffs the last three seasons — a streak that cost ex-Matildas international Heather Garriock, who played with the Chicago Red Stars in the WPS in 2009, her job at the end of 2019-20 — has appointed Vicki Linton to lead the club this season. Linton has been a FIFA Football Instructor in Asia, took Melbourne Victory to two consecutive playoff spots in 2010-11 and 2011-12 for the first time in the franchise’s history, and has coached in the U.S. with former USL W-League clubs Bay Area Breeze and the Boston Renegades. Linton spent the past three years with the U.S. Soccer Federation’s Development Academy.

United went back to their past to sign legendary goal-scorer Michele Heyman for the 2020-21 season. She had been working in commentary for Australian TV’s league matches. This will be her ninth season for United (with two championship titles) and has played 89 games (51 goals) for the Greens, with 115 matches in the league in total (63 goals — second all-time behind Sam Kerr’s 70). She also played nine games after the 2015 Women’s World Cup with the Western New York Flash in the NWSL, scoring once and adding one assist.

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A new signing this season is New Zealand international Paige Satchell, who played in Germany with SC Sand. She has 18 caps for the Football Ferns and played in one U-17 World Cups and two U-20 editions. Forward Demi Koulizakis is another new signing for Canberra United. She spent the last four years at Texas Tech University. She previously played for Western Sydney in 2014-15 and 2015-16 and had one goal in 13 games.

Losses for this season include Australia international Karly Roestbakken, who went to Norway to join Lillestrom LSK Kvinner after four seasons with the Greens. American loanees midfielder Kaleigh Kurtz (North Carolina Courage) and forwards Simone Charley (Portland Thorns) and Katie Stengel (now Houston Dash) from last year’s teams will be sorely missed

The club is high on new signing Jessika Nash, who is 16, from the New South Wales state league (Football NSW Institute). She captained the Junior Matildas at the 2019 U-16 Women’s Championship in Thailand. Nash’s signing shows that, no matter the structural permutations of the W-League, that over 13 years this is a league that always has young players coming through and is committed to their development.

Melbourne City (11-1-0, 34 points — First)

Steph Catley, an important part of Melbourne City, is now at Arsenal. (Photo: FFA)

Head Coach Rado Vidosic will try to defend his side’s Premiership and Grand Finals titles from last season without an experienced core of internationals who have joined the FAWSL in the offseason: Matildas defender Steph Catley (Arsenal), goalkeeper Lydia Williams (Arsenal) and New Zealand international midfielder Rebekah Stott (Brighton & Hove Albion). They will be hugely missed from a side that surrendered only four goals last year.

To replace Williams, City signed goalkeeper Teagan Micah for the 2020-21 season. She started 12 games for Arna-Bjornar this season in Norway (who finished in eighth place out of 10 teams) before returning home in October. She went to France as the third goalkeeper for the 2019 Women’s World Cup after playing with UCLA and being capped at the youth level. She has previously played in the W-League with Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney Wanderers before signing with Melbourne Victory last winter, backing up Casey Dumont, who was stellar for Victory, and did not appear in any Victory games.

City’s back line also was boosted by the signing of Matildas international Jenna McCormick from a short stint with Real Betis in Spain. In 2019-20, McCormick was with Melbourne Victory and debuted last winter with the full national team, after putting her dual football career with the AFL Adelaide Crows (Aussie Rules football code) on hold to concentrate on soccer.

American defender Sam Johnson has come out of retirement to play with City this season. Johnson, 29, played six seasons in the NWSL, mostly for the Chicago Red Stars as well as for the Utah Royals in late 2018 and 2019, totaling 91 games in the league. Her decision was based more than about just missing football.

“Making the decision to return to football came from my agent helping me realize how to align my purpose off the pitch with on the pitch,” she said. “I want to help underprivileged kids… I felt like the investment I was making in the sport wasn’t giving me that much of a return as I wasn’t aligning those two things but now that I know how to do that, I’m more mentally at ease and more excited about playing.”

Johnson made 13 appearances for Sydney FC (2014-15) and 23 appearances for Melbourne Victory (2016-17 and 2018-19).

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Melbourne City has also recruited within the league, signing Brisbane Roar’s U-20 international defenders Hollie Palmer and Leah Davidson, who are both impressive young talents developed by the Roar’s academy system.

City back-up defender Tyla-Jay Vlajnic became a full international for Serbia during the Women’s EURO qualifying play this year. She has been a member of City every year of the club’s existence and has four Grand Finals winners’ medals.

Melbourne Victory (7-2-3, 23 points — Second)

Melbourne Victory has a lot of talent to replace from last season as former English international Natasha Dowie signed with AC Milan in Italy, McCormick went to crosstown rivals Melbourne City, and Matildas defender Laura Brock (Alleway) is now with Guingamp in France.

Kyra Cooney-Cross is an important signing from Western Sydney Wanderers. The 18-year-old youth international scored four goals and provided three assists in 13 games for the Wanderers last season, including a stunning long-range goal in their 2-1 opening match over Adelaide United right at the end of the match, which started the club on their path to a historic first playoff season as they added four more wins and a tie in the first half of the campaign. Cooney-Cross made her Westfield W-League debut with Victory as a 15-year-old in 2017 and won a Premiership (regular-season title) in 2018-19. She has been capped at the youth level.

Another important addition is forward Lisa De Vanna, who leads the Matildas in all-time goal scoring with 47 in 150 games, including participation in four World Cups. De Vanna played last season in Italy with Fiorentina, scoring five times in 14 games in the COVID-19-shortened season. She is in her third stint with Victory and has played for seven W-League teams since debuting in the inaugural season of 2008-09. She played for four clubs in three seasons in the NWSL (2013, 2014 and 2016).  She won a league title with Victory in 2013-14 and has won four W-League crowns in total.

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Angie Beard’s return will help solidify the Victory defense; she spent the summer playing for KR Reykjavik in Iceland’s top tier. At KR, Beard made 10 appearances and scored once for the club that finished bottom of the table and was relegated. Beard first arrived at Victory ahead of the 2017-18 Westfield W-League season and has played 37 games for the club over three seasons in the league and 66 over six league seasons, including her first three with Brisbane.

Though we don’t expect to see any NWSL loanees this season, that doesn’t mean that we won’t see Americans in the league as Kayla Morrison signed for 2020/21 with Victory, coming over from Swedish club Morön Bollklubb, which finished third last season in the second-tier Elitettan, with five goals in 24 matches. Morrison played 83 consecutive matches for the University of Kansas Jayhawks and was named the Big 12 conference co-Defender of the Year in 2017.

Another American who joined the Victory via the state leagues in Australia is Catherine Zimmerman, who had two strong seasons in the WNPL with powerhouse Calder United SC of Melbourne. Zimmerman scored 78 goals in her 56 outings for Calder, earning back-to-back WNPL Golden Boots in 2018 and 2019. Prior to arriving in Australia in 2018, the 26-year-old played for Sky Blue FC in the NWSL, appearing in five games in 2016 after finishing at Providence College. Victory head coach Jeff Hopkins said about his new signing, “It’s wonderful to have Catherine sign on for the season ahead. Catherine has been the standout striker in the NPLW for the previous two seasons; she’s got plenty of pace, is dynamic and is a proven goal scorer, as her record shows.”

Another new import for the season is young New Zealand international Claudia Bunge, who crosses the Tasman Sea for the first time to play abroad. The central defender was the captain at Northern Lights in New Zealand’s National Women’s League. Bunge was also recently named Football New Zealand’s 2020 Female Young Player of the Year.

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Some important Victory re-signings are New Zealand international midfielder Annalie Longo, who scored twice in 13 games for Victory last season and has played 123 times for the Football Ferns.

Amy Jackson, who scored the goal of the season last year, has re-signed as well for her second consecutive season with the Victory, after four years in an early stint with the club. The former Florida International University player won three league titles at Melbourne City from 2015-16 thru 2017-18.

With the news that 2019-20 standout Casey Dumont will miss the season because of an injury, the club signed Argentinian international goalkeeper Gaby Garton. Garton was raised in Florida and played at the University of South Florida and Rice University in Texas. She has played professionally in Argentina for River Plate, Sol de Mayo and UAI Urquiza. She has also represented Argentina on the international stage and was part of their 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup squad. Melisa Maizels adds further depth to the backstop position (she was on the side last season but did not play). She has 22 appearances in the league across five seasons, including time with Perth and Canberra.

Newcastle Jets (2-1-9, 7 points — Tied for Eighth)

Jenna Kingsley (28) has retired from the game. She started in the W-League in the inaugural season of 2008-09 and played with Central Coast Mariners and Western Sydney before joining the Newcastle in 2015. She scored 14 goals in 87 total W-League appearances and earned one cap with Australia.

Nicki Flannery (Canberra United) and Libby Copus-Brown (WSW) joined other clubs and, once more, Newcastle will likely struggle. They didn’t sign any imports last season for budgetary reasons and the Jets’ A-League parent is having financial difficulties as well, so this is not a good story, despite the talent that they have grown at home such as midfielder Teigan Collister and defender Tessa Tamplin. It was only three years ago that they made the playoffs for the second time ever, utilizing NWSL imports Katie Stengel’s 10 goals and Britt Eckerstrom’s stellar work in goal

The Jets’ new head coach is well-respected Ash Wilson, who was an interim head coach for Craig Deans last season as Deans was pulled in to help with the men’s team, which he is now in charge of on an interim basis. Wilson has been at the Jets for five years, including with the women’s (U-19) academy side.

Perth Glory (3-2-7, 11 points — Seventh)

Morgan Andrews was Perth’s leading scorer last season. (Photo: FFA)

Perth Glory has named Alexander Epakis as head coach of their W-League side for 2020-21. He led Sydney University to three consecutive NPL Premiership titles (2018-2020) in the state league and had been an assistant coach at Canberra United. Epakis replaces Bobby Despotovski, who led the side since 2015, including two Westfield W-League Grand Final appearances.

A key returnee is Perth Glory defender Natasha Rigby, who captained the side last season and has 51 appearances for the club. Rigby is in her fifth season with the Western Australia side. Caitlin Doeglas also is back, after scoring three goals in 12 appearances in 2019-20; she is in her fifth season with the Glory. Youth international defender Sarah Carroll returns for her ninth season, first playing for the side in 2011-12. Fellow defender Jamie-Lee Gale is back for her third season with the club while Patricia Charalambous played for the Glory for two seasons (2016-17 and 2017-18) and then last season with Canberra. She has played in Europe with Cypriot side Apollon Limassol.

Perth will be a young side, with teenagers Alexia Moreno, Abbey Green, Isabella Wallhead and Hanna Lowry all returning. Lowry scored last season against Newcastle Jets in one of her three appearances.

Morgan Andrews (OL Reign), who tied for the Golden Boot last season with seven goals, is a big loss from the NWSL for the purple-clad side.

Sydney FC (7-1-4, 22 points — Tied for Third)

Sydney FC celebrating a 2019 title.

Sydney FC’s longtime captain and midfielder Teresa Polias is back for the 2020-21 season and she leads a contingent of 10 returnees from last season’s Grand Final runners-up, while the club added three players from cross-town rivals Western Sydney Wanderers. With this stable core, Sydney should be well-positioned to make their third consecutive Grand Final and fourth in five years. Polias leads the league with 144 all-time appearances. She has played in every W-League season 10 for Sydney FC after starting out with the now-defunct Central Coast Mariners for two seasons.

Forward Remy Siemsen, an Australian U-20 youth international who shared the Golden Boot with three other players last season, also returns. She was the 2016-17 Young Footballer of the Year in the W-League when she scored six goals for Sydney in her debut season. She scored nine goals in eight games with the California Storm of the WPSL in 2018 and returns for her fifth W-League season. She has been discussed by clubs in Europe about a possible move abroad in the near future.

Defender Ellie Brush is back for her second season in Sydney; she played 30 games in 2015 and 2016 for the Houston Dash. She just retired this past August from the Aussie Rules AFL, where she began in the league for its inaugural season in 2017 with Greater Western Sydney. Full and youth international forward Princess Ibini, who has nine goals in five seasons, is also back, as is midfielder Natalie Tobin for her seventh season, and defender Elizabeth Ralston for her eighth. Tobin and Ralston are former Australian U-17 and U-20 internationals.

From the Wanderers, Sydney FC inked Young Matildas goalkeeper Jada Whyman, who spent five years with the Wanderers, forward Cortnee Vine, who is joining her fourth W-League team in six years after time with Brisbane and Newcastle, and youth and senior international forward Rachel Lowe, who played for the Wanderers for three seasons with two goals in 27 games and spent time at UCLA. Former Australian U-20 international and midfielder Clare Wheeler came from Newcastle Jets, where she played for seven seasons.

Head Coach Ante Juric is a very experienced coach and will hope to take the team to the Grand Final for the third consecutive year after winning in 2018-19 and then losing to Melbourne City last season in front of just family and friends as COVID-19 restrictions had just kicked in. Last season’s Grand Final appearance was particularly impressive given that, towards the end of the season, Caitlin Foord and Chloe Logarzo left for England.

Audrey Bledsoe (Washington Spirit) and Sofia Huerta (OL Reign) were so instrumental to the team’s success the last two years but will not be back given the early start of the NWSL 2021 season. American Veronica Latsko (Houston Dash), who joined last season after scoring nine goals in 12 games for Adelaide United in 2018-19, is also a loss; she scored two goals last season as she recovered from an ACL injury suffered with the Dash in 2019.

Western Sydney Wanderers (7-1-4, 22 points — Tied for Third)

Western Sydney had a record-breaking 2019-20 season (Photo: FFA)

Western Sydney Wanderers had a club record-breaking season in 2019-20 in so many ways — wins (seven), points (22), goals for (24), unbeaten run (six games), wins in a row (three) and league table position (fourth) — as they made their first ever semifinals. A return to the postseason will be the goal for head coach Dean Heffernan, though the team will look very different in 2020-21.

The Wanderers will be severely impacted with the loss of their NWSL loanees from last season, including the trio from the North Carolina Courage of forward Kristen Hamilton (who was joint Golden Boot winner in the W-League), fellow national team forward Lynn Williams and Irish international midfielder Denise O’Sullivan, who went on loan to Brighton and Hove Albion in the Super League this fall. Sam Stabb (Washington Spirit) and goalkeeper Abby Smith (Utah Royals) were also instrumental in their strong season. The Wanderers also lost Amy Harrison to PSV in the Netherlands — after a season with the Washington Spirit — and Ella Mastrantonio to Bristol City in the FAWSL. Kyra Cooney-Cross moved back to her first club, Melbourne Victory, after such an impressive season in the Harbor City suburbs. The Wanderers have tried to replace these losses by recruiting within the W-League.

Defender Nikola Orgill has joined from Newcastle Jets and spent this fall with Norwegian Toppserien side Kolbotn, playing in 12 matches for the ninth-place finisher, who avoided relegation to the second tier for 2021. Nikola played with Western Sydney in 2016-17.

Other new signings include Libby Copus-Brown, who spent six seasons with the Newcastle Jets, and Leena Khamis, who played 12 matches last season with Canberra United and scored two goals. She played with Western Sydney in 2018-19. Since 2008, Khamis has been a prominent part of Westfield W-League history, having scored the competition’s very first goal. She won two Premierships and a Grand Final in eight seasons with Sydney FC. Midfielder Olivia Price, a former U-17 and U-20 international, also moved from Canberra. She played 55 W-League games and spent the 201-/18 season with Wanderers after three seasons with Sydney FC.

In goal, Sarah Willacy, comes over from Adelaide United where she had 38 appearances over six seasons. She was brought into the Matildas side for an international friendly against Chile last season but did not play. Her backup is expected to be Courtney Newbon, a native of Tasmania, who played five times last season for the Wanderers.


Tim Grainey is a contributor to The Equalizer. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham