Who are the 18 best under-23 players in the A-League? What's Kayla Morrison planning after the W-League Grand Final? Why do the Nix deserve a round of applause? What battles has Seb Pasquali been fighting? Is Steven Ugarkovic actually any good? All that and more, in this week's ESPN Australian Football Wrap.
Arnie's Ozzy 18
On Tuesday, the organisers of the Maurice Revello Tournament -- one of the most prestigious youth football tournaments in the world -- confirmed the Olyroos were one of 10 sides that would take part in this year's iteration. Chile, Denmark, France, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Japan, Mexico, Qatar and Romania also accepted berths, with two other federations remaining in negotiations.
Dual Socceroos/Olyroos coach Graham Arnold has been characteristically bombastic about targeting medals in Tokyo, hence his squad is likely to be loaded with the best combination of foreign and domestic-based talent available; capped Socceroos such as Thomas Deng, Harry Souttar and even Daniel Arzani are all options.
But who would get the nod in a hypothetical event that only A-League-based youngsters are selected -- perhaps as a treat for helping produce such a highly entertaining season?
With just 18 slots available, and the nature of tournament play demanding squads can rotate and recover quickly, versatility and adaptability will be in significant demand. So too, will be regular game time, some semblance of form to enable players to hit the ground running, and prior experience in the national setup.
Two easy selections to start with; incumbent first-choice Glover and Margush are both playing regular minutes for their clubs, and have history in the Olyroos' setup.
Dark Horse: James Delianov.
Centre-back depth is a clear issue in a domestically based squad, with Mourdoukoutas battling injury this season and Laws in and out of the Wellington Phoenix lineup. Both, nonetheless, have Olyroos experience, while Kye Rowles' strong season has him in contention to start next to Deng in Tokyo.
O'Toole helped Australia to qualify for Tokyo and, alongside Russell, brings versatility and regular minutes to the squad. Strain has also played regularly, and Arnold has spoken of his desire to further incorporate him into the Olyroos setup.
Dark Horse: Nathaniel Atkinson (if fit).
Midfield, unquestionably, is the strongest positional group of a domestically based side. De Silva, Najjarine, Piscopo and Genreau all possess the tools to play through any side Australia may face in Tokyo -- with Genreau also able to play deeper if needed. Metcalfe is experiencing a breakout season with Melbourne City, and Devlin brings the work rate, desire and bit of niggle that any side needs in a tournament.
Dark Horse: Keanu Baccus.
Assuming he can keep this form up, Kuol's ability to serve as a weapon off the pine is a prospect that Arnold will struggle to resist. D'Agostino and Wenzel-Halls have each slowed after a red-hot start to the season, but Arnold has spoken openly of his belief and admiration of the two in the past.
Dark Horse: Carlo Armiento.
Utility: Dylan Pierias.
Pierias earns a spot thanks to his form, regular minutes under Mark Rudan and, most of all, versatility. Able to play wing-back, winger and even as a striker, the 21-year-old can plug a variety of holes as well as serve as a lethal weapon off the bench.
Rock Chalk, Jayhawk
Joining Victorian NPLW side FC Bulleen Lions ahead of the 2018 season, the now 24-year-old quickly established herself as one of the best players outside the W-League -- winning a championship and back-to-back Media Player of the Year awards.
Her status as a foreign player, however, meant she was forced to bide her time until the unique circumstances of 2020-21 finally opened the door to the Dub.
She's taken her chance with aplomb, and her standout play for Melbourne Victory was recognised by her peers on Friday with a place in the PFA's Team of the Season
#TeamOfTheSeason @thepfa has announced the @WLeague Team of the Season ahead of Sunday's blockbuster 'Big Blue' Grand Final! 🏆— The PFA (@thepfa) April 8, 2021
Check out the 16-player squad below! ⬇️#SupportingThePlayers https://t.co/YhxehaI3PT
The American centre back -- whose family in California rises in the middle of the night to watch her games on ESPN -- has started and played every minute of every game in 2020-21, and that display of faith from coach Jeff Hopkins has been rewarded with constant improvement.
"Our relationship is like no other backline that I've played with," Morrison told ESPN.
"We're so positive with each other.
"I can honestly say that it's maybe the first backline that I've played with that we are so excited for the person next to us whether they're the only one in the team of the week, whether they're the one who got player of the game, or if they're the one whose stats are better than the rest of us.
"We are each other's biggest fans and I truly feel that confidence and support from them when I'm playing. It helps boost you to that next level that you have those kinds of girls who want the best for you.
"I think distribution and communication are where I've stepped up massively [in 2020-21]. We start a lot of our distribution from the backline, and having high-calibre players in front of me who are demanding and expecting great balls played into them at all times, whether it's to feet or to space, it puts a level of pressure on me to execute those passes.
"I think that I've been able to really step up my game in that area.
"Also communicating with those people, working on our rest defence and not being so scared to communicate to girls who are maybe older than me or more experienced than me. To trust in what I have to say to them and understanding that when I'm speaking it's not in a mean way and they totally understand that.
"They actually demand more communication from me at all times. I think I've finally become super comfortable being bossy in the back."
Needless to say, the former Kansas Jayhawks player has enjoyed her first season in the W-League -- and she wants to ensure it is not a one-year cameo.
"I'd love to secure a spot with a W-League team [next season]," she said.
"Victory is at the top of that list for me, and I hope that I've proven myself and that I've earned that spot back, but we have one game left and I've still got to work really hard. It's probably harder to not take back someone if you win the championship!
"I'm hoping that if we can get that Grand Final win there's an even better chance that they'll ask me back -- or at least another W-League team asks me."
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's announcement that a trans-Tasman travel bubble will open between her nation and Australia from Apr. 19 has brought renewed hope that Wellington Phoenix will be able to stage up to two A-League games in their homeland in late May or early June.
Relocating first for the hub-based conclusion of the 2019-20 season and then to Wollongong for the 2020-21 campaign with the shadow of COVID-19 constantly lingering in the background, the Nix players, coaches, and support staff have undertaken extraordinary efforts to ensure the A-League could continue with its full complement at a time of great internal and external uncertainty.
Unfortunately, sacrifice, when done routinely, tends to lose its impact -- compassion fatigue -- but the willingness of those associated with the Phoenix to endure uncertainty and life-altering upheaval on two separate occasions shouldn't be lost on the footballing public.
"The players and staff at the Phoenix have made significant personal and collective sacrifices to allow the A-League to continue this season and they must be commended for that," PFA co-chief executive Beau Busch told ESPN.
"By the conclusion of this season, the team will have been separated from family and friends for up to 10 months and have relocated twice with minimal fuss."
The Nix's New Zealand-based fans also deserve plaudits for keeping the fire alive during the year-plus without a fixture to attend in person, as do the fans in Wollongong and New South Wales -- shoutout to Ulises Davila's Mexican fan club -- who have embraced the side.
"The way the team and the players have adopted and embraced Wollongong as their new base has added depth to this season's A-League narrative, and the players continue to produce exciting football on the pitch, providing a point of engagement for their new local community," Busch said.
Speculation mounted this week that the long-earmarked move of Steven Ugarkovic from Newcastle Jets to Western Sydney Wanderers would be accelerated -- with two players from the Wanderers heading in the opposite direction as compensation.
Perhaps due to Newcastle being a smaller media market, or thanks to his habit of doing his work early in phases of play (Newcastle's goal against Victory earlier this season is an example of the latter), Ugarkovic still doesn't get the respect he deserves in discussions about the league's best midfielders.
He won't be a cure-all for the disjointed Wanderers attack should his move go through, but he undoubtedly will make it better and -- ostensibly being exchanged for two players coach Carl Robinson is happy to offload -- comes relatively cheap.
The 26-year-old's work rate, ability to incorporate teammates, capacity to affect play without the ball through his positioning, and -- perhaps most important for Wanderers -- willingness to play enterprising and probing passes forward is a rare combination in the A-League.
He will undoubtedly be an asset moving forward who makes Western Sydney better.
Seb Pasquali, one of Australian most naturally talented young football players, has taken a long road back to football.
The 21-year-old spent the offseason rehabilitating a hip femoroacetabular impingement -- also known as extra bone growing on his hip joint -- that required arthroscopic surgery in October, and osteitis pubis.
Slowly working his way back to full fitness, he made his way through internal games and Western United's National Premier League Victoria side before returning to an A-League pitch in his side's 1-0 win over Newcastle on the weekend.
"You can sort of get moving pretty quickly," Pasquali told ESPN about his recovery from surgery.
"You start off with some light pilates-based work and more hands-on work with physios, getting some mobility back in and soft-tissue work, and then you look to get on the bike to get your hip range of motion back up to speed.
"You take it pretty easy for the first few weeks and then things progress from there with regular contact with the surgeon and measuring [progress].
"It can be difficult at times [to keep a good mindset]; not so much the motivation -- I'm a pretty driven person so I find I can get it done -- it's more the impatience of it. It can move really slowly and you want more, but you can't do more than what you're doing."
The Exercise Science student at Victoria University eventually progressed to on-field practice, which came with its own set of challenges.
"I had a lot more teething issues there, with getting back to running and trying to distinguish between what was pain from not running or what was pain from hip-related issues. That's when you learn a lot more about your body than you usually would.
"I just wanted to get back out on the field and play and just worry about the next game as opposed to thinking about what training I have to do next. The best feeling in football is when you're available, fit and ready to play.
"Being amongst the team again and feeling the energy around the boys is pretty special. You miss that."
Good Football Thing of the Week
Good Social Media Thing of the Week
This immediately enters the annals of iconic A-League images pic.twitter.com/ANtEQSGgh5— Destruction In The Box (@DITBPod) April 7, 2021