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A-League stage set for Australia's next generation of goalkeepers

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Yokohama FM top Group H & advance to knockouts (1:52)

Yokohama FM earn a 1-1 draw vs. Sydney FC to advance to the knockout rounds in the AFC Champions League. (1:52)

There are less than two weeks until the A-League and W-League return, saving us all from a tortuously long offseason where we'd much rather be at the football. But just in case you've zoned out, the ESPN Australian and New Zealand wrap is here to catch you up.

cowboy like me

After losing incumbent No. 1 Paul Izzo to Tony Popovic's Xanthi FC, Adelaide United currently has Dakota Ochsenham (21), Joe Gauci (20), and James Delianov (21) on their books for the coming season, as well as youngster Ethan Cox on a scholarship deal.

Though Reds coach Carl Veart hasn't publicly named a starter for the coming season, Delianov has been the preferred first-choice for the club's preseason games as the season gets ever closer -- make of that what you will.

While the collection of goalkeepers (a custodian? A glove?) is lacking in experience -- Delianov the grizzled young vet of the group with a single A-League appearance -- they make up for it in potential. And that's something that has Adelaide goalkeeping coach Eugene Galekovic enthusiastic on the eve of the season.

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"I'm really excited," he told ESPN. "Obviously last year we had Paul Izzo, who was the out-and-out No. 1 and had a good season. But now we've got four young goalkeepers, three at a good level but quite young still and then we've got one keeper at that 16-17-year-old range. He's a bit young to play games but is coming along nicely.

"I'm really excited to see how these kids go in the next year or two and seeing their development. It's exciting and I can't wait for round one to chuck one in."

Compared to just over a year ago, when reports emerged that the FFA was considering asking clubs not to sign foreign goalkeepers so that local stocks could be renewed, the coming season will feature new first-choices at Adelaide, Melbourne Victory and the Western Sydney Wanderers, and the Olyroos No. 1 Tom Glover rusted on at Melbourne City.

"I think this is the year where it's going to happen," Galekovic said on a potential changing of the guard. "There's going to be a lot of new No. 1s this year and it's going to be exciting to see how they go, not just at Adelaide but at all these clubs.

"That's probably what we need right now, we had a lot of good goalkeepers come through the ranks but it would be great to get another crop going and getting some games in them.

"Especially for my boys, there's an Olympics coming up so if you think there's going to be a under-23 No. 1 playing in the A-League they're a really good chance to go to the Olympics. That's my characterisation of it, fight for the spot, get the spot, do well in the spot and go to the Olympics."

no body, no crime

When word eventually filtered out that a haphazard "season launch" supposedly happening on Monday wasn't an FFA event (the federation has ceded control of marketing the leagues to clubs for this season), a club event or even a launch at all but, instead, a Fox Sports shindig an almost immediately, a familiar narrative began to emerge.

Once again, Fox was cast into the "moustache-twirling-villain-out-to-half-arse-and-suppress-and-destroy-football" role it has been thrust into so frequently in recent times.

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There's been a trend in the footballing zeitgeist recently to cast an assortment of potential broadcasters -- most frequently Optus Sport but also the likes of DAZN, Stan Sport and even ESPN -- as potential White Knights of the A-League (the W-League very rarely mentioned in these conversations); a benevolent partner that will swoop in and uplift the game to new heights after years of shrinking coverage.

What needs to be remembered, though, is that no broadcaster, at the highest levels of their operation, is saving anything -- least of all Australian sokkah -- out of the goodness of their heart.

If networks are willing to stare down the institutional power of the NRL, AFL and, most recently, Cricket Australia in their attempts to negotiate broadcasting deals -- even as these traditional powerhouses of the Australian sporting scene face unprecedented financial challenges -- they will have no problem, regardless of how smiley they appear on the outside, flexing their muscles to get the best deal for themselves.

Broadcasters are not your mate doing you a favour and they're not going to throw good money after obviously bad bets. None are going to seriously invest in Australian football until it can provide a continuously compelling narrative and enough stability to suggest a return on investment is forthcoming.

'tis the damn season

Trent Buhagiar became Sydney FC's all-time leading Asian Champions League goalscorer during the most recent staging of the tournament, but he did so in defiance of a condition that befell his teammates and afflicted them with a terrible inability to put the ball in the net as they crashed out in the group stages... again.

With Adam Le Fondre, who is scoring for fun in India, now a memory, conversations quickly intensified in the wake of that exit around whether the Sky Blues needed to bring in another, more proven goalscorer to supplement their title defence. SBS went so far as to report that Bobo had been tapped for a return to the club.

But Alex Brosque, who won three titles, three premierships and an FFA Cup on his way to becoming a Harboursider legend, believes that Buhagiar should still be given the first crack at the job.

"Not to influence Steve [Corica], because he knows exactly what he's doing and whether that is recruiting someone or not, but I personally think that Trent deserves a chance," he said.

"I think he's shown in the Champions League how good and lethal he can be. So I'd like to see him with Kosta [Barbarouses] starting up front and seeing how he goes. We need to do that, we need to promote the youth that we have here, Trent being one of those players. You've got Luke Ivanovic who is coming through, so they have the quality there.

"I've seen a lot of players over the years, and having trained with a few young up-and-coming boys myself, I've seen a few boys that have that pace but don't know when to use it and don't know how to use it.

"I think they find it harder, those players, to develop the technical smarts and positioning smarts and knowing all that because they were able to rely on their pace. I've seen a lot of those players come and unfortunately go because when you get to that level and everyone has a bit of pace it becomes about more than that.

"Trent, I've seen that within him, I've seen that even at that level he knows when to go, he knows the runs that he makes are very smart. He knows when Ninko [Milos Ninkovic] looks up, [Anthony] Caceres or [Alexander] Baumjohann looks up and when they're looking at playing that ball he gives himself enough room, knows when to go and once he's in that space he's unstoppable and you can't catch him."

tolerate it

It's been a long time between drinks for the Socceroos.

Last in action in November 2019, Australia's men will finally resume competitive fixtures when they face Kuwait at home and Nepal away in March before they then conclude the current stage of Asian World Cup qualification with two home fixtures in June against Taiwan and Jordan.

With attempts to organise friendlies against England and the United States collapsing in recent months in the face of a new wave of COVID-19 infections in Europe, a lack of Socceroos action is understood to be one of the major causes behind Graham Arnold's flirtations with a possible return to club football.

For Socceroos' defender Trent Sainsbury, the time spent away from the national team has been a difficult one, missing the camaraderie and fraternity that has been fostered amongst the group.

"I miss my brothers playing for the national team, it's a family environment when we go in there," Sainsbury said. "It's kind of nice to go in there, you go away from European homes and go to the national team.

"Wherever we are together, it always puts a smile on your face and refreshes you for your next month wherever you're playing in the world. I know it's been difficult for the boys without playing any games but being Australian we're always positive so we're looking forward to getting back out there and wearing the Green and Gold.

"For me, health and safety is first and foremost -- a lot of the boys in the team have families and young kids -- so we've always got to err on the side of caution. But if staff behind the scenes deem it safe for us to go and travel then I'm happy to be in the national team squad if selected."

long story short

After a chaotic 12 months dominated by attempts to conclude the coronavirus-ravaged 2019-20 A-League season and navigate the labour market chaos that spun out of it, the PFA began staging their annual induction workshops for the leagues in recent days -- with a new dimension added.

This year, on top of annual briefings on wellbeing, career and education, retirement and transition, and financial literacy services, players are, for the first time, receiving information on the latest in concussion research and protocols from global player representative body FIFPro.

Focusing on the five main clusters of concussion symptoms -- physical, emotional, cognitive, sleep and balance -- and how to handle an event that they or their teammates experience, the only Australian players to have thus far received this level of briefing on the matter as a collective has been the Matildas, who was briefed by FIFPro on the matter ahead of the 2019 Women's World Cup.

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"The game has a duty of care to our players and given that the spectrum of health impacts related to concussion and head trauma in football is still emerging, we need to ensure our players are educated on the associated risks," PFA co-chief executive Kate Gill told ESPN.

"Concussions, like many other injuries, are unavoidable in football, but with the right information, players, staff and officials have the know-how to respond immediately in the acute phase of a head injury.

"This education will empower the players to make important decisions in relation to themselves, their teammates and their opponents, by clearly outlining the importance of recognising, reporting and removing concussed players, even when the players themselves may want to continue."

A-League players have sustained 11 concussions over the last five seasons, resulting in 16 missed matches. But while the W-League has recorded one less insistence of concussion over the same time frame, they've seen 150% more matches missed than their male counterparts; Dub players ruled out for 40 games over the same five-year timeframe.

Research has shown that female athletes may be at a greater risk for concussion than their male peers, and also more likely to experience concussion-related symptoms for a longer period. Former Newcastle Jets and Canberra United player Natasha Prior left the W-League at just 21-years-old after a severe concussion suffered during round five of the 2018-19 season -- which was her fifth in less than six seasons.

Prior said after the incident that she felt an "implied pressure" to return quickly from the incident -- a missed game in the W-League representing a greater portion of the season than in the A-League -- and most recently played for Macarthur Rams in the 2020 NPLW NSW season.

On Wednesday, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) approved trials for the employment of concussion substitutes from January in any league that wants to utilise them -- one protocol allowing for one substitute in the event of concussion, with the opposition unable to make a matching change, and the other granting two concussion substitutes and allowing the opposition to make changes at the same time.

"FIFPRO has been committed for several years to improve the approach to concussion recognition and management in professional football. An essential aspect to elevate the concussion standards in football is education, which includes education of the players as well as education of players' entourage," Vincent Gouttebarge, FIFPRO's chief medical officer and a member of the Concussion Expert Group of the IFAB, told ESPN.

"FIFPRO's educational material, articulated around "Recognise, Report, Remove", provides players with a better understanding how to recognise concussions and what to do in case of a suspected concussion; namely that it must be reported to the medical team and that the player potentially concussed must be removed from the field.

"The PFA has always been proactive when it comes to the health and safety of players. The education of their members about concussion is an additional element to the PFA's arsenal towards the protection and promotion of player's wellbeing."

gold rush

Having secured an agreement with local NPLW powers Calder United to create a comprehensive girl's academy -- as well as provide the foundation for a W-League side and the prospect of year-round football for its squad -- Western United may have kick-started a (welcome) arms race in the girl's development space in Victoria.

With his Melbourne City set to move their training base, academy and headquarters to Casey Fields in the coming years, CEO Brad Rowse confirmed to journalists on Tuesday that he was also in the process of negotiating with local clubs about similar partnerships.

"Conversations are already happening," Rowse said. "So we'll hopefully formalise some of that in the coming weeks. That's something we're very interested in doing."

South East Melbourne is home to two NPLW sides in Bayside United or Southern United -- the latter of whom already train at Casey Fields -- that would, in theory, serve as likely candidates for such a pact.

Bayside and Southern -- as well as Calder -- were established within the last five years to compete in the newly launched NPLW Victoria competition and, thus, don't carry the same level of complications surrounding IP, identity, and mistrust that would accompany negotiations with the state's more historical NPL clubs. Nonetheless, efforts would still have to be taken to ensure potential negotiations centred on a mutually beneficial and respectful partnership -- not a brute-force takeover.

Across town, having already secured their partnership, Calder traded in their traditional dark blue kits for the green and black stripes of Western for a curtain-raiser against Ballarat City prior to a meeting of Western and City on Saturday.

Though the club will have to revert to the Calder branding for the 2021 NPLW Victoria season proper, it's understood that they and Western are investigating the possibility of commissioning a possible green and black version of their strips for certain games this season. The special Western-inspired kits would likely be worn for envisioned NPLW VIC and A-League doubleheaders that the two clubs would stage this season -- believed to be a first.

With the need for the 2023 Women's World Cup to leave a lasting legacy for all levels of the game a crucial one for Australia's hopes of remaining a major force in the game in the decades afterwards, moves by clubs in the country's second largest state to invest at all levels of the developmental pathway -- not just the W-League -- are a positive step forward.

Not only will they increase investment in the long run, they will also help provide young girls with access to the same developmental pathways and opportunities that have come to be taken for granted in the men's space.