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W-League Grand Final Preview

W-League Rd 1 - Sydney v Brisbane Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

So it’s come to this: some of the top international talent in the world going up against a mix of W-League veterans and young Matildas. Melbourne City, two-time consecutive W-League champions, against Sydney FC, a team that have been in the playoffs in every single W-League season but have not won the championship since 2011. New money—a City organization that are raising the standards of the women’s game in Australia, paying record wages—against Sydney, a W-League institution.

Eight of the 15 players in Ann Odong’s W-League team of the decade will likely be taking the field.

What more could you want from a Grand Final? Well, maybe more Thorns. When the semifinals began, there was the possibility of seeing up to four Thorns play in the Grand Final. Unfortunately, injury and results have deprived us of the privilege of seeing more than one Thorn perform this weekend. City knocked out Hayley Raso and Celeste Boureille’s Brisbane Roar in the semifinals, and the injury Caitlin Foord sustained in Sydney’s win means we won’t see her—not only this weekend, but probably for another few months. Sydney’s stalwart midfielder and captain Theresa Polias said, “come Sunday we are not just playing for the game, we are playing for so many things and Caitlin will be one of them.”

Foord will be a big miss for Sydney. W-League broadcaster and former Matilda Amy Duggan thinks that Foord’s absence will be decisive. In the semifinal against the Newcastle Jets, Sydney lost focus once Foord went off the field, letting Newcastle climb back from 2-0 down with only 10 men. Without Foord, Sydney will have to configure their attack differently from the start, but they are more than capable of playing in a different way.

Remy Siemsen, a U-20 Matilda who had been starting games for Sydney before Foord’s arrival from Japan, is expected to return to the starting XI. Siemsen scored the winner against City in Sydney’s only other meeting with them, so she will be confident of making a contribution. Emily Sonnett, the last Thorn standing, will play a key role in a Sydney defense in the midst of some unfortunately-timed reshuffling. One-time Matildas depth defender Caitlin Cooper was switched to left back against Newcastle, and Elizabeth Ralston, a former U-20 Matilda who at 22 is a 6-year veteran of the W-League, came into central defense. They performed well, but the defense’s failure to clear a loose ball in stoppage time, which let Newcastle back into the game, will be preying on their minds.

The trouble with Melbourne City is that on paper they just look too good, and they’re clicking at the right time. Other than Aivi Luik and Japanese international Yukari Kinga, every single starter on the team are NWSL starters as well. In last week’s preview I wrote about their midfield, but their backline—Steph Catley, Lauren Barnes, Alanna Kennedy and Rebekah Stott—is not only probably the best in the W-League, but would be playoff quality in the NWSL.

Their front three are arguably even scarier: with Kyah Simon, Jodie Taylor and NWSL Rookie of the Year Ashley Hatch up front, City have a creative and powerful front line. Larissa Crummer, a senior Australian international, couldn’t even make the bench in the semi-final. It will be especially entertaining to see Sonnett matched up against Lydia Williams on corners—as good a season as she’s been having, Sonnett has yet to score a header in the W-League.

This isn’t just Sydney versus City. It’s not just Sonnett versus Reign. This game is a test of how far Australia has come in women’s soccer. If Sydney’s players, most of whom (other than Sonnett, Aubrey Bledsoe in goal and Lisa De Vanna) have never had any NWSL experience, most of whom (other than De Vanna) are not and have never been regular international starters, can match up to or even beat City’s NWSL-seasoned riches on Australia’s biggest stage, a place where they have never lost, the world will have to sit up and take notice. It will mean that the W-League, and Australian soccer, are making progress much faster than everyone thinks. It will mean that USWNT fans should be very afraid indeed.

What: W-League Grand Final, Sydney FC vs. Melbourne City

Where: Allianz Stadium, Sydney

When: Saturday, February 17, 10pm PST