While COVID-19 extracted a heavy toll on the league's finances, commercial outlook, logistics and infrastructure -- and promising to continue to do so -- the two competitions entered the new campaign with a series of existential off-field questions hanging over their heads. On the pitch, a horde of players headed for the exit as the salary cap shrunk and, for Australia's women, the bright lights of Europe and year-round football beckoned left the two competitions scrambling to fill the gaps with untried youth and lesser-known names.
It was all very ominous.
Yet, despite these underlying concerns surrounding future viability -- many of which, admittedly, remain unanswered -- the A-League and W-League seasons have served to provide fans with some of the most entertaining and engrossing spectacles seen in their history; Western Sydney Wanderers' madcap 4-3 win over Wellington Phoenix on Monday evening just the latest example.
They may not represent a high-watermark in terms of technical aptitude and tactical execution but, in 2021, they don't need to. As ESPN observed in February, the A-League and W-League's value, in a global context, is delivered not by being the pinnacle of technical execution, but by amplifying a largely locally-based talent pool with narrative, excitement, intrigue, silliness, potential, pride and atmosphere.
Here's why both competitions have delivered so far this season:
1. Breakneck speed, goals galore and dramatic finishes
It may be giving more defensively-inclined viewers fits, but Monday evening's contest between the Wanderers and Wellington represents just the latest in a string of high-scoring, back and forth and, most of all, thoroughly entertaining contests that has elevated the 2020-21 campaign.
The aforementioned drop in technical quality has played some role in this phenomenon -- a greater emphasis on transition and the correlating reduction in club's ability to dictate tempo leading to more open games -- but it has also been aided by Australia experiencing its wettest and coolest summer in at least five years due to the presence of the La Nina effect.
Along with suffocating heat being less of a factor, the retention of the five substitutes rule from the end of the 2019-20 season is also playing a key role in keeping games going at a breakneck speed and aiding the numerous dramatic finishes the leagues have seen. Per Australian stats doyen Andrew Howe, the 2020-21 A-League season has seen more goals scored by substitutes than any other in its history, while the percentage of minutes played by substitutes is the highest in national league history.
But don't just take our word for it.
In the W-League, Canberra United's 4-3 win over Adelaide United, the back-to-back Melbourne Derbies, Brisbane Roar's 4-1 win over Sydney FC, and Canberra's recent, heartstopping 3-2 win over Perth Glory, amongst others, has served to keep fans on the edge of their seats and caps lock engaged on social media.
Western United coach Mark Rudan couldn't even remember all the goalscorers from his side's 5-4 win over Perth Glory, the latter of whom also played out a rousing 5-3 contest with Adelaide United. With apologies to Melbourne Victory fans, even their recent losses to Western and Melbourne City were both highly entertaining contests for the neutral.
And that's to say nothing of the comebacks the Central Coast Mariners have staged this season.
2. The magical Mariners
Indeed, an examination of the narratives that have imbued 2020-21 with such promise simply must include the events occuring Gosford: the Mariners' unlikely rise to the summit of the A-League table this campaign not just one of the best stories in Australian football, but all of Australian sport.
Having previously been so bad that there was a possibility they could be relegated from a league that doesn't even have relegation, the Mariners were effectively a punchline heading into this season: A-League titles and memories of the development of players such as Trent Sainsbury and Mat Ryan being rapidly replaced by visions of Usain Bolt going on "trial" and ... sauce bottles.
What a difference three months can make.
The Mariners sit two-games clear atop the A-League table approaching the 2020-21's campaign's halfway mark and show no signs of slowing down. Under the stewardship of coach Alen Stajcic, players such as Matt Simon, Alou Kuol and Josh Nisbet have united into a devastatingly effective counter-punching side far that operates at a capacity far greater than the perceived sum of their parts.
A new tale of perseverance, community, spirit or joy seemingly emerges from the club every week, and the regional club's focus on family and community (and memes) makes them almost impossible to hate.
3. The dramatic Dub
Cinderella runs aren't just the domain of the A-League, though.
Despite being one of the competition's founding teams, Adelaide United's W-League side has never played finals football; the closest they've previously come a fifth-placed finish in 2015-16. But in 2020-21, with a team loaded with young South Australian talent, that all might be about to change -- if they get some help.
The Reds sit fourth on the W-League table heading into the Dub season's final games: one point back of third-placed Melbourne Victory but, crucially, having played one more game. Fifth-paced Canberra United, a point back of Adelaide, has also played one game fewer.
With one of their remaining fixtures against a struggling Perth Glory, Victory appears all but certain to lock in a finals berth in the remaining weeks. This means the Reds' finals hopes may rest with beating an in-form Western Sydney in their final fixture -- a game at Coopers Stadium for which tickets are free -- and Newcastle Jets and Sydney FC then doing them a favour when they meet Canberra United in the weeks ahead.
4. Every game matters
The playoffs may be a way off, but things are also tight in the A-League.
Moving into second place on the table following their win over Wellington, Western Sydney are six points adrift of Stajcic's side, but only two points clear of sixth-placed Macarthur FC. Red-hot Melbourne City is only a point back of the Wanderers and third-placed Adelaide United but, thanks to the logistics of staging a season in a COVID-19 world, retain games in hand.
A gap is, very slowly, beginning to emerge towards the foot of the table, but even the 11th-placed Newcastle Jets remain within two-games of the finals places after playing 12 games.
One of the greatest weaknesses of the A-League in years past has been that as its seasons progressed many of its games lost all sense of meaning or stakes; clubs locking themselves in or out of finals relatively early and there being no relegation to offer a sense of danger at the foot of the table. This time around, the parity that has emerged should ostensibly ensure a greater number of games with stakes at the tail end of the season.
5. Seizing their moment
One of the unintended benefits of the contraction of the club budgets brought about by the economic impact of COVID-19 -- as well as the European exodus experienced by the W-League -- has been the proliferation of young players into the competition.
Supplementing the hunger, drive and boisterousness associated with youth with an urgency born from knowing that chances for their cohort have traditionally been fleeting, at best, young players have invigorated their leagues in 2020-21; Nikki Flannery, Emma Ilijoski, Mohamed Toure and Kusini Yengi amongst those that have seized opportunities afforded to them.
Adelaide United's Kusini Yengi scored against Melbourne Victory and then did Conor McGregor's billionaire strut in front of their fans 🤭pic.twitter.com/eHympMMo6t— Goal (@goal) March 13, 2021
Young, scrappy and hungry, these players are determined to not throw away their shot, and that spirit is both evident and infectious in watching them.
"I think clubs have taken these choices [to play youth] partially because they've had some talent in their club, but a lot because of the salary cap changing what's possible," Australian interim-technical director Trevor Morgan told ESPN. "I do believe it will springboard the clubs into really investing in young players because the fans love it, the kids are doing well and the game is benefiting from it."
6. The local kid made good
The increased number of youngsters, combined with the A-League entering its 16th season and the W-League in its 13th, also means that 2020-21 has also seen a marked increase in that magical -- and highly marketable -- "one of our own" phenomena across the two leagues.
Central Coast's Matt Hatch's progression from ball-boy to A-League has been thrust into the spotlight since his record-breaking goal against Macarthur FC, and pictures of young Stefan Colakovski's big toothy grin as he cheered for Melbourne Heart has made him beloved amongst Melbourne City fans.
How it started How it's going pic.twitter.com/honNfcevt6— Talking City (@TalkingCityFC) March 6, 2021
Yengi's star-making turn in last week's Original Rivalry -- which was marred in its aftermath by racist abuse online -- was made sweeter by the knowledge that the attacker grew up as an Adelaide United fan; his boisterous celebration delivered at the same ground as John Kosmina's choke on Kevin Muscat's throat and Victory's Grand Final demolition of the Reds.
In the W-League, the likes of Ilijoski and Melbourne Victory's Maja Markovski -- who is also forging a new path for one of Australian football's most famous names in the women's game -- have gone from idolising Michelle Heyman and Lisa De Vanna to playing with them; highlighting the importance of the W-League not just as a domestic league, but as a place of representation and inspiration for young Australian girls.
Hi and welcome to another wholesome edition of Wleague players now teammates of their childhood heroes.— Ann Odong 🐨😷 (@AnnOdong) March 14, 2021
Absolutely love that this league is now old enough to have this a regular occurrence this season. #VisibilityMatters pic.twitter.com/wPEzh0trjo
7. Going down in history
Youth, however, can only get one so far in the public consciousness. But luckily for both, the A-League and W-League have had their share of record-breakers and history-makers in 2020-21.
Last Friday, Heyman not only kept Canberra's push for finals football alive with her two goals but she also became the all-time W-League goals leader when she netted her 71st W-League strike in her side's 3-2 win over Perth Glory.
Melissa Barbieri's return to Melbourne City's starting XI in the wake of Teagan Micah's injury extends her all-time Australian national league career length record to an astonishing 24 years and 35 days -- longer than Micah has been alive.
Damien Mori's all-time record likely looms as untouchable, but Besart Berisha -- already the A-League's goalscoring king -- moved into second place on the all-time national league goalscoring charts when he netted his 138th goal against Macarthur FC this season and Melbourne City's Jamie Maclaren became the fastest player in Australian national league history to reach the 80-goal mark.
8. Around the world
As much as it likes to talk about its multicultural history and appeal, Australian football hasn't had the best record with embracing all forms of diversity in the past decade; the widely unpopular NCIP policy and schisms between the A-League and clubs that pre-date it amongst the examples.
Slowly, though, there are signs that that is beginning to change -- the NCIP, for instance, now consigned to the dustbin it belongs -- and the A-League is seeing the benefits.
In New South Wales, the Mexican contingent of supporters that is now a regular presence at Wellington's games in support of former Mexico youth international Ulises Davila, playing instruments, wearing lucha masks and waving flags, has quickly become one of the A-League's most appreciated supporter groups.
On Monday evening, they were joined by a collection of supporters that gathered to cheer for Wellington's Israel international Tomer Hemed, who celebrated with these fans and the flag of his homeland following his 64th-minute penalty.
There's more to be done but, especially in Harmony Week, it's great to see.
9. The local brains trust
It's not just young Aussie players that are getting their shot across the A-League and W-League's 21 teams: out of all the head coaches, only Western Sydney Wanderers men's boss Carl Robinson does not possess an extended history in the Australian game.
Thanks in part to the dramatically altered landscape 2020-21 is being staged under, Carl Veart, Warren Moon, Ante Milicic, Patrick Kisnorbo, Grant Brebner, Craig Deans and Richard Garcia are all in their first full year of head coaching at a senior professional level this season, as is Ash Wilson, Adrian Stenta and Alex Epakis in the W-League.
All 10 of these coaches are under 50.
At a time when the game is in need of strong figures that can help set the tone -- both on and off the field -- and carry on the path set out by Ange Postecoglou, Tony Popovic, Kevin Muscat and others, these opportunities afforded to Aussie coaches represent a massively important boost to the development of football IP in the local game.
Furthermore, beyond their own development, Wilson, Brisbane Roar assistant Kelly Crew -- who led the Roar into their game against Canberra -- and the all-female coaching staff at Canberra United represent important building blocks as the Australian game looks to improve pathways for female coaches.
10. More is more
The introduction of Macarthur FC into the competition in 2020-21, combined with Western United's entrance the season prior, has also served to boost the A-League.
Not only have the two new sides brought with them the headline benefits such as new derbies and new marquees, but they have also allowed for the competition to free itself from bye games and lessened the slog that it sometimes devolved into with just 10 teams.
Furthermore, two new clubs mean two new rosters, coaching staffs, administrative staffs and more that need to be filled. The majority of these roles either go to new, up and coming individuals in the Australian game or, if they are filled with established types from other clubs, create openings at those clubs.
More teams and a full home and away season providing a boost to the competition? The W-League should take note.