Foundations laid for Sydney FC's 'the best sporting team of any code' ambitions

COVID-19 pandemic made Macarthur realign goals - Marra (3:07)

Macarthur FC chairman Gino Marra joins ESPN for an exclusive chat about building a football club during a global pandemic. (3:07)

Sydney FC wants to be the best, labour chaos seems to be off the menu, the kids aren't alright and yeah the girls. It's time for another edition of ESPN's Australia and New Zealand football wrap!

For You Blue

As collective bargaining agreement talks near their conclusion (more on that later), thoughts in Australian football can -- cautiously, given the uncertainty surrounding life these days -- begin to plan for the future. For Sydney FC, that means pushing ahead with plans to become the biggest and baddest sporting side in all the land.

"Our vision is to be the best sporting team in the country of any code," club CEO Danny Townsend told ESPN. "That's our goal and we equally want to be performing well on the international stage, something that probably we've not done to date.

"They're our two main strategic goals as an organisation when you look at the medium to long term. But shorter-term, we've got an Asian Champions League to look forward to, assuming that goes ahead and we find a way to work through the biosecurity protocols later in the year and then get back into the A-League and W-League as quickly as we can.

"We've got some pretty major facility projects going on at the club as well and continuing to grow our community base is part of that as well."

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Alongside the NSW Waratahs and Sydney Roosters, Sydney FC is set to become one of the main tenants of the newly constructed Sydney Football Stadium (which will also host 2023 Women's World Cup games) and is forging ahead with construction of its own Centre of Excellence.

Though their recent on-field form is hardly comparable, the two projects will enable the Harboursiders to begin to close the facility gap that exists between themselves and bitter crosstown foes the Western Sydney Wanderers.

"Both [projects] have actually been largely unaffected [by COVID-19]," Townsend said. "If anything, they've been a beneficiary of time being able to be allocated to projects that would otherwise be focused on football.

"The stadium project is ahead of schedule from what we hear from the builder, John Holland, and Infrastructure NSW. If you go past the Moore Park sight there's a lot of construction coming out of the ground, which is great to see when it's a big hole in the ground it's hard to be inspired but when you start to see the foundations coming out of the ground it becomes a bit more real.

"The Centre of Excellence project is also motoring along. We're working through a lot of architectural plans and design which is a fun and exciting part of the project, where you start to really piece together what the future facility for our club looks like.

"At the moment we are working through [a North Ryde location] as the main plan, we've got a number of different options but that's the lead one at the moment.

"We'd like to have all of our facility projects complete in 2022. The Centre of Excellence should finish earlier than that, early in 2022, ideally late 2021, but being realistic probably early 2022. The stadium is set for completion in mid-2022. So yeah, 2022 is going to be a big year in terms of us moving into two world-class facilities."

It Won't Be Long

First reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, the danger of industrial action derailing the coming A-League has seemingly been averted; the player's union and club representative body the APFCA are on the cusp of agreeing to a new CBA that will provide the labour framework the next campaign.

As has been widely reported, ESPN sources have indicated that the salary cap is set to fall to $2.1m for the coming season as part of the deal, although A-League clubs will still be required to re-negotiate individual salary reductions with their own playing groups to reach said figure. It is understood that the majority of clubs have completed or are near completion of this task, although Perth Glory's squad remains stood down.

Sources have told ESPN that players have already voted to approve the new pact -- which, importantly for the group, maintained a number of minimum standards surrounding training and medical staff -- and that all that remains for it to be formally completed before its unveiling are small matters of vocabulary. Though never say never given that this is Australian football, a formal announcement of its conclusion could potentially arrive as soon as late this week.

Hello, Goodbye

Sydney will have to get ready for next season without the presence of striker Adam Le Fondre after the club confirmed on Wednesday that the 33-year-old would spend the final year of his contract on loan at an overseas club -- likely to Mumbai City -- after receiving a "lucrative offer."

Adelaide United also has a series of holes to plug, with Paul Izzo, Riley McGree, Nikola Mileusnic, Lachlan Brook and Kristian Opseth joining Taras Gomulka in leaving the city of churches this week. It wasn't all bad news, though, with Denmark international Michael Jakobsen re-signing for a third season in South Australia on Wednesday.

Earlier in the week, former club captain Ross Aloisi was announced as an assistant to new boss Carl Veart.

Perth Glory, who are nominally just over a month out from resuming their ACL campaign, now only have 12-senior players listed on their books after midfielder Jake Brimmer mutually terminated his deal with the club for family reasons. With the difficulties in bringing out-of-state players to Perth laid bare by the collapse of Nathaniel Atkinson's and Andrew Nabbout's moves, and their playing group stood down during CBA talks, the club's recruitment drive will make for interesting viewing going forward.

Elsewhere, expansion side Macarthur FC has announced the capture of peripheral Socceroo Aleksandar Susnjar, while Western United and Central Coast Mariners also penned Tomoki Imai and Mark Birighitti respectively to new deals.

Former Melbourne City defender Harrison Delbridge remains a free agent, with sources earlier this week indicating that, though there was interest, the 28-year-old has yet to find a club willing to meet his asking price.

Get Back

As revealed by ESPN this week, the FFA is set to institute a number of reforms to how the game fosters its next-generation in the wake of research laying bare the issues facing Australian youth development. This included recommendations that all A-League academy sides be placed into their local NPL competitions in 2021.

Questions were quickly raised in the aftermath of that news, though, about what this meant for the NPL's principles of promotion and relegation: Would A-League academies be exempt to ensure continued access to NPL1 football?

When contacted for clarity by ESPN, an FFA spokesperson emphasised that discussions surrounding the logistics of implementing the proposed reforms were still ongoing but confirmed that there had been no talks surrounding A-League academies being exempted from the perils of relegation.

"FFA are currently liaising with each member federation, as competition administrators, within their respective states, on the performance gap analysis and the important role the NPL plays in providing elite players in the pathway with more football opportunities to help bridge the performance gap," the spokesperson told ESPN.

"These initiatives will ensure that the players within these academies will be completing more match minutes in the best competitions within each state and by raising the age restriction, should lead to more competitive A-League academy teams.

"The operational detail is still being finalised with the member federations, however, there has been no discussion as to whether these A-League academy teams will be immune to relegation moving forward.

"These recommendations are the first steps in providing greater opportunities to our elite players to develop within our own competitions, leading to having a profound impact on supporting their career aspirations and at the same time unlocking opportunities for clubs connected with the international transfer system, training compensation and solidarity contribution and reinvigorated and modernised domestic transfer system."

Though he qualified that he wasn't in a place to make the decision himself, Socceroos boss Graham Arnold doesn't believe that A-League academies should be exempted from the drop following the implementation of the reforms. Instead, he saw the move to raise the age limits and move A-League academies to NPL1 as a display of commitment by the FFA, member federations and NPL sides, and that A-League clubs that didn't respect this gesture shouldn't receive special treatment.

"My recommendation would be that A-league clubs, if they come last, they get relegated," he told ESPN. "What this [research] has shown is that we need to reboot and reunite the game, re-energise it quickly.

"That decision is made with the help from everyone and the vision is around helping each other for the kids to achieve their goals and dreams. If the NPL and [member federations] are going to think that way and help Australian football by rebooting and allowing that, then all A-League clubs have to take it seriously."

Getting Better

Even before the FFA's latest research further quantified it, the problems with youth development in Australia were well known; the PFA, for example, authoring numerous reports in recent years highlighting the issues surrounding an aging A-League.

Youngsters that find themselves in the pathway, likewise, are acutely aware, and frustrated, with the handbrakes placed upon their progression as they seek to take the next step in their careers.

"I agree with all of it," one A-League youngster told ESPN regarding the research and proposed reforms. "Most players my age aren't getting the minutes that we need to actually improve. Training is one thing, playing is another.

"I'm not saying that A-League clubs should have to give young players more game time, no -- if they don't deserve it then they don't deserve it. But being able to get minutes with the youth team in NPL1, with a strong team with an average age of 20 to 21 that can actually compete, that will actually help players develop -- not playing [lower tier NPL] with an average age of 16 and unable to compete."

The reforms, he then mooted, could also help improve working conditions for young players looking to emerge through the system -- an area for improvement also identified by a recent PFA report on the Y-League and player pathways.

"The problem is that A-League clubs get rid of kids if they haven't made it by the age of 20. And on the other hand, players get to the age of 20 or 21 and don't want to stay in a youth team environment on $100 a week.

"Having a solid youth team, with an average age of 19 or 20 that could compete in the NPL1 will only happen if clubs are willing to actually pay a bit more money to the youth players. I'm not saying they have to pay $1000 a week, but $300 or $400 would actually give young players an incentive to stay and try to break into the first team instead of going to the NPL for $600 a week."

Come Together

One of the biggest themes that emerged in Arnold's interview with ESPN was a call for unity: that all levels of the game needed to rally together behind the common goal of empowering the next generation. And the Socceroos' boss is absolutely right; a house divided against itself will fall.

But it's important that heading forward, if the game is to do what is best for the entire ecosystem, that Arnold's calls for unification are genuinely followed.

As its only professional league, boosting the health of the A-League is of the utmost importance to Australian football, but if competitions and clubs below are expected to acquiesce with the moves to support A-League academies, the league and the FFA, in turn, must take steps to support them in their efforts to thrive. Not only does it display honest intentions, but it will also have the added benefit of creating an even more fertile ecosystem to produce young talent.

One of the most obvious places for these efforts to begin is the provision of support towards finding a viable model of a long-awaited National Second Division -- recently declared as not being a matter of if, but when and how, by the FFA. And although the challenges surrounding it are legion, a good-faith exploration of the feasibility of implementation A-League promotion and relegation would serve as the ultimate example of the game being unified.

Other steps, like taking Arnold's advice in relegating academy sides that don't take advantage of the opportunity afforded to them in NPL1, as well as seeking to ease regulatory and financial burdens on NPL and community clubs would be positive steps. So would be the rapid introduction of a domestic transfer system and clarity around training compensation that enables all the clubs that have played a part in developing young players to receive their just reward.

Further down the pyramid, partnerships and endeavours to support smaller community clubs, clubs that produce the lion's share of the talent that will eventually make their way into NPL and A-League and serve as the game's backbone, that have been hit hard by the COVID-19 would ensure that the reforms being pursued by the FFA will have a steady supply of young talent to take advantage of them for decades to come.

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

As Australia begins to prepare to host the 2023 Women's World Cup alongside New Zealand, one of the most pressing issues facing administrators will be ensuring that momentum from the event is used to springboard improvement for women and girls up and down the pyramid.

One such example of progress being made is in WA, where Football West is in the final stages of completing its first-ever season of an NPLW competition that recently went viral thanks to Katarina Jukic's long-ranged rabona submission for the Puskas Award.

With 23,549 women playing in 2019, Victoria trails only New South Wales when it comes to participation in the women's game but, unfortunately, it's also the member federation hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic; none of its major competitions able to be completed in 2020 under even modified parameters.

Seeking to kickstart their recovery, governing body Football Victoria has commenced planning on a number of "Get in the Game" proposals that, in collaboration with state and local government and Cricket Victoria, will see some semblance of football return as part of a "Spring Attack" in the coming months. It's also understood that, as the federation seeks to grow female participation, FV is planning to propose that the principles of promotion and relegation be introduced into the state's NPLW competition in the coming years.

According to "2021 Start Up" documents seen by ESPN, FV is exploring the feasibility that the top two finishers in the recently introduced VPLW competition will, contingent upon them meeting NPLW licensing requirements, be promoted into the eight-team top-tier for the following season in 2021, as would the top-two finishers from the 2022 season.

From 2023, the same year that Australia hosts the Women's World Cup, relegation would then be introduced into the now 12-team NPLW competition; the bottom two sides replaced by the top two finishers from the VPLW contingent upon licensing requirements. Senior and junior NPLW programs would be decoupled from each other for the purposes of promotion and relegation as part of the measures.

Previously an amateur competition, FV will also explore the merits of shifting the NPLW into a semi-professional format -- raising regulatory and infrastructure standards -- and will also examine growing junior girl's competitions from their current Miniroos-U12-U14-U16 setup to a Miniroos-U12-U13-U14-U15-U17 setup.

She Said She Said

Despite the loss of its 2020 season, NPLW Victoria nonetheless appears set to send players to the upcoming W-League campaign; Lia Privitelli and Melina Ayres' appearance in Melbourne Victory's kit launch indicating the two are odds on to be part of Jeff Hopkins' squad.

According to ESPN sources, the pair are likely to be joined by a bevy of players from reigning Victorian champions Calder United -- including former Sky Blue FC striker Catherine Zimmerman, who has scored over 70 goals and won two MVP awards in two seasons in the Victorian top-flight since arriving from the United States.

Bayside United's French attacker Margot Robinne is also believed to have trialled with Victory.

Magical Mystery Tour

As case numbers decline towards what premier Daniel Andrews has called "COVID normal," Victoria is slowly beginning to move towards re-joining the rest of the country. As mentioned, however, this fall in cases comes too late to allow any junior, community or NPL football to resume in 2020; FV formally announcing the cancellation of the season and announcing a refund policy in September.

The challenging situation means that the 59,382 Miniroos and youth footballers that registered in Australia's second most populous state in 2019 now face up to a year without football. Other member federations around the country have been able to get some modified competition in during 2020, but their volume has shrunk.

"The fact they're missing so much game play and so training where they have to make decisions and execute moves, that's no doubt going to set them back," says Lachlan Armstrong, who coached Daniel Arzani as an academy coach at Melbourne City and currently serves as an assistant coach with NPL Victoria side Melbourne Knights, told ESPN about the impact the pandemic may have on young players.

"If you had a kid that was injured or had growth issues and missed a big chunk of training, generally they can come back into it and pick it back up, but this is the whole cohort. It's going to be really interesting to see how they come back into a training and playing environment."

Armstrong does believe that there remained scope for driven youngsters to improve their touch and ball-handling ability in isolation -- saying those with drive and/or sufficient family support will absolutely find a way to improve during the lockdowns -- but that there was something about games that couldn't be replicated in the back garden.

"In a game, you've got teammates, opponents and space and that's where the really intelligent players thrive because they're able to make a decision and execute a decision under pressure," he said.