Australian W-League forms plans to dovetail with American NWSL
Change is coming to the W-League as league chiefs consider a raft of reforms aimed at bolstering Australia's women's domestic competition and the national team.
The biggest impact for fans could be the missing stars -- led by Australian skipper and striker Sam Kerr -- who is likely to test her talents for Chelsea in England's Women's Super League.
Both head office and Perth Glory have privately given up hope of keeping Kerr for the W-League's 11th season.
"It looks unlikely that she'll return to play in the W-League this year, but Sam has not or her management hasn't informed us of where she might play," FFA head of leagues Greg O'Rourke told AAP.
Kerr is finishing up her season with the Chicago Red Stars along with a raft of other Matildas in the United States' National Women's Soccer League (NWSL).
With another golden boot-winning campaign, Kerr has taken the Red Stars to the playoffs where she'll be joined by six other Australians. Lydia Williams and Steph Catley play for Reign FC, who will take on the North Carolina Courage in Sunday's first semifinal, while Kerr and teammate Mackenzie Arnold will go head-to-head with Hayley Raso, Caitlin Foord and Ellie Carpenter of the Portland Thorns later that day (Australian viewers can catch both semifinals LIVE on ESPN2 on Monday morning).
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The longstanding alignment between the NWSL and W-League has kept senior Matildas in action for the whole calendar year, serving Australian talent well.
But it's being firmly re-considered as the FFA, with a watchful eye to growing European leagues, ensures the W-League is one of the "top five leagues in the world."
Others could also head to the increasingly professional European leagues.
While that means Australian fans will miss out on seeing Matildas stars, players union chief John Didulica said their moves should be applauded.
"[We're] about increasing the options and opportunities for players," he told AAP. "This might necessarily lead to some of our world class players ending up at the world's largest football institutions, but that is a great thing for the game and the players.
"The challenge for the W-League is to ensure that the gap between its own club operations and the world's leading clubs isn't allowed to become too big and that they remain as attractive destinations."
O'Rourke agreed "the number one thing that we need to do is ensure the quality of our league," which, somewhat counter-intuitively, might mean avoiding an expansion to a full home-and-away competition.
The W-League boss suggested FFA was leaning towards continuing the current set-up, which dovetails the W-League with the NWSL, rather than expansion that would prohibit players competing in both.
"We understand that some of our best Matildas will leave these shores and travel to Europe to ply their trade," O'Rourke said. "We also want to make sure that we are attractive as a league -- to be in the top five leagues in the world.
"To do that we need to make sure that we don't put hurdles in front of some of the best Australian players and the best international players by making them choose which league to play in.
"The NWSL is where there's a complementary opportunity where they could play in both."
Changes -- including a mild lengthening of the 12-week fixture to incorporate midweek games -- are being considered with an eye to the 2020-21 season.
Other, more wide-ranging reforms as tabled in a media report this week, are seen more as aspirations rather than concrete goals.
The FFA has been criticised by many for a sluggish build-up to this campaign, with fixtures yet to be released less than a month before kickoff.
A focus on the underpinning A-League governance structures and a late shift of broadcast rights to the ABC is to blame for the delay.
O'Rourke said clubs, who have been consulted throughout, were supportive of the fixtures being pushed back which will guarantee a release this week.
The W-League will start on Thursday Nov. 14, following the Matildas' friendly matches against Chile on Nov. 9 and 12.
This later-than-usual scheduling will ensure W-League teams have access to their international players for the competition's opening round -- unlike the A-League -- and give the competition a bump of interest from the high-profile internationals.
There will also be a bye between the final round of the home-and-away season and the semifinals to coincide with the March international window, when the Matildas hope to seal qualification for the Olympics.
With Kerr and other senior internationals watching the W-League rather than playing in it, opportunities exist for young talent to emerge and stake a claim for the Tokyo Games.
To that end eyes will be trained on wonderkid Mary Fowler.
The 16-year-old will make her W-League debut this season after signing for Adelaide United with sister Ciara.
The next big thing of Australian football travelled to the World Cup this June in France with coach Ante Milicic only to suffer a hamstring injury on the eve of the tournament and not participate.
Her move is a coup for United, a five-time wooden spooner that has never played in the finals.