Australia have been climbing the high heights of world soccer in recent years. The Matildas, Australia’s women’s national team, climbed to fourth in the FIFA rankings last year, beat Brazil three times, and beat the USA for the first time ever in the 2017 Tournament of Nations. Despite all this, there’s still a sense that the Matildas aren’t accorded the recognition they deserve. Sam Kerr failed to make the three-woman shortlist for FIFA player of the year after scoring 17 goals and having an all-time great NWSL season. When asked about the snub, Kerr wasn’t as unhappy about the personal aspect as she was about “people [not] respecting the Australian football culture.”
There were six Australian players in the NWSL last season; with all the offseason additions—as well as one departure—there are now ten. Australians take up more international spots than any other nationality (Canadians technically outnumber them, but Canadian players are considered allocated). Many of the Australian players returning this year were former NWSL bit-part players who return to the league as some of the best players in their position, keen to impose themselves against top competition in the run-up to the 2019 World Cup. The 2018 NWSL season could end up being an Australian renaissance.
You already know about Sam Kerr, the all-time top scorer in the NWSL. Here are five more Aussies to watch in 2018.
It’s fair to say that Katrina Gorry wasn’t fully appreciated the last time she was in the NWSL. As a 21-year-old, Gorry played ten games—mostly as a substitute—in a hectic 2014 season for Kansas City. She came on in stoppage time against the Portland Thorns in the NWSL semifinal. The very same year she couldn’t break into the team at Kansas, she went on to win the Asian Player of the Year for her performances for her country.
The 25-year old (who stands at just 5’1″) has 59 appearances for her country and is an integral part of a high-energy Australian midfield that’s capable of squeezing the life out of other top international teams. Australia announced their midfield dominance back in 2016 Olympic qualifying when they outplayed a very technical Japanese team to earn their first-ever victory against Japan, in Japan.
At Brisbane Roar, her Australian club, she’s given license to run games the way she wants to. She’s a workhorse, coming deep to collect the ball and make tackles and moving forward to play decisive passes. At the Utah Royals, Gorry is an essential part of Laura Harvey’s attempt to shape the Royals midfield into the hard-charging, high-pressing midfield she likes to coach. Gorry isn’t exactly like Jess Fishlock, the player Laura Harvey built Seattle around; where Fishlock prefers to make forward runs, Gorry is much more of a playmaker, though she is capable of scoring the odd screamer.
At her height, the biases of the development system make it hard to imagine Gorry being played in a US youth team at anywhere other than as a winger, if she made it on the field at all. If Gorry gets the opportunity to light up the league like she’s capable of doing, she could completely change the way a lot of Americans think about soccer.
Emily Van Egmond
Part of the lack of FIFA recognition for Australian players is down to the fact that Australians almost never play in Europe. The only games Australia plays on the old continent most years are in the Algarve Cup, and though it’s not uncommon for Australians to play in Norway, very few ever play in England, France, Sweden or Germany.
Van Egmond is one the players who have made that jump. After a 2013 season in Seattle where she did not get many starts, and a decent season in Chicago, she made the switch to Germany, playing for Frankfurt for one season before switching to Wolfsburg. She struggled to get minutes at Wolfsburg, and subsequently broke her contract in late 2017 in order to return to the W-League, where she captained Newcastle Jets into the playoffs for the first time since their very first season ten years ago. She returns to the NWSL under her former international head coach Tom Sermanni at the Orlando Pride.
Van Egmond is an imposing deep-lying midfielder who is capable defensively and creatively. She sits as the deepest midfielder in the national team, cleaning up loose balls and directing play, but she has the stamina and speed to get forward occasionally, where she has a good scoring record. On her day she can completely dictate the flow of the game. Her presence in Orlando’s midfield will probably allow Matildas teammate Alanna Kennedy to drop into the back line again, which will go a long way toward stabilizing Orlando’s defense.
Despite 68 appearances for her national team, Van Egmond has never been a regular starter at any club she has played at outside Australia. Orlando will offer her an opportunity to run the engine room of a team with some of the best attacking players in the world. If she frees up Alex Morgan and Marta to score at will, she might not get the credit, but she will deserve it.
Can one of the best left backs in the world be underrated? She’s been on the cover of FIFA in Australia and is a cult hero for close NWSL watchers, but in a game that at times doesn’t fully respect fullbacks, her work doesn’t often get top billing. Playing in a slow and occasionally patchwork Orlando defense last year, Catley didn’t get a huge amount of praise, yet still made NWSL Second XI honors. Catley is every bit a modern fullback: brilliant going forward, capable defensively, and athletic enough to get up and down the field to do both. Her crosses are consistently some of the best in the league—better than a lot of attackers are capable of—and she can deliver them from all ranges. Not a few times she’s put 60 yard cross-field passes onto strikers against any team that dared to play a high line against her.
Catley joining Seattle adds a significant dimension to their attack. With her bombing down the left, Seattle has two of the best left-sided crossers in the game, and Megan Rapinoe will be free to do what she does best: wander around and make things happen. Catley keeps threatening to leave the NWSL for Europe, so Seattle should appreciate her while they can.
Yes, the way she was taken in the Boston Breakers dispersal draft was kind of silly and seemed to indicate that Houston’s staff did not know how drafts worked. Still, when Vera Pauw said that Kyah Simon was the second-best player available, she wasn’t wrong. Simon is part of the Matildas’ stable of wide playmakers along with Caitlin Foord (joining Portland in 2018 but projected to be injured for much of the season) and veteran Lisa De Vanna. When they combine at the international level, it’s a devastating front line, with Simon particularly noted for her ability to score bombs from distance.
It’s unfortunate for Simon that after struggling with injury at a poor Boston Breakers side she will again be expected to carry another incomplete team, but she has the ability to knit a so-far incoherent offense together. If Christen Press sticks around, they have the potential to combine beautifully as two creative and quick forwards.
Carpenter is the only Aussie joining the league this year who has never played in it before, and for good reason: she will be turning 18 in late April, and players cannot be transferred between countries before their 18th birthday per FIFA rules. With 13 caps and one goal for her country already, Carpenter has been marked for greatness for a while, and it’s hard to imagine a better place than Portland for her to develop.
In a league bereft of right backs, Carpenter will be no less experienced in her position than many: indeed, as someone with experience marking Megan Rapinoe and Marta at international level, Carpenter is arguably one of the most seasoned right backs in the league already. Her defending isn’t perfectly polished, as could be expected from a 17-year old, but she has a knack for making smart interceptions and will be helped out by an experienced and vocal Portland backline.
Where her impact will really be felt is in overlapping runs and on the counter-attack. A former track star, Carpenter has the speed to rip teams apart if they give her space, and even if they don’t, she’s strong with the ball at her feet. She can regularly dribble through players at W-League level, where she plays as an attacking midfielder. Combining with her Matildas teammate Hayley Raso on Portland’s right side could land her on one or two highlight reels this season.