A-League returns once more with hope for better season

Johnson: Australia will have a second tier in 2023 (1:26)

In an exclusive interview with ESPN, CEO James Johnson outlines his vision for Football Australia's national second division. (1:26)

At this point, one can almost write A-League Men (ALM) season previews off a prepared template, ticking off some kind of morbose checklist that melds unrequited hope for the future with a lament for the opportunities that have been missed.

Inevitably, the previous campaign won't have gone the way administrators were planning. Factors both in and out of their control will have spoiled things, or some long-awaited reform will have not yet had a chance to be fully implemented or take effect. Nonetheless, officials will be spruiking that this time will be different. Lessons will have been learned, the landscape ahead will be brighter, and there will be a plan to get there.

The opportunities for growth and how the competition is seeking to deliver will be acknowledged; both in fairness and as an act of melancholic hope born of a disillusioned understanding that no matter how bleak things get, the competition, as is the case for Australian football more broadly, retains potential and that everything is there to offer a brighter tomorrow. The sempiternal sleeping giant.

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But while hope is not a strategy, it does spring eternal. And heading into the 2022-23 ALM season, which will kick off on Friday evening, when Melbourne City host Western United at AAMI Park, there is once again a tempered belief that, just maybe, this is the campaign in which the competition starts to get going again. Just a bit of hope, as a treat.

For the benefit of those who haven't been following along with ALM -- which an increasing number haven't if the league's viewing figures last season were any guide -- the Australian top flight will head into a new year looking to build upon a 2021-22 campaign that began with such promise, only to be quickly derailed.

A lot of this had to do with the omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit just as the season was beginning to kick into gear and quickly devastated the plans of league operator the Australian Professional Leagues (APL). In its first year of full control of the competition after its unbundling from Football Australia, the APL's best-laid plans for any kind of continuity were ruthlessly dashed as it was forced to reschedule approximately 50% of fixtures across its men's and women's leagues. Beyond this, a poor user experience on new broadcast partner Paramount+ and advertisements in previously sacrosanct breaks in play during free-to-air broadcasts on Network 10 were self-acknowledged own goals.

Combined with the inherent structural challenges of the league, such as a lack of promotion and relegation leaving little to motivate clubs at the foot of the table at the end of the season, and the almost universal sentiment among those involved was exhaustion by the time Western United were lifting the championship. By that point, even with the league still able to produce thrilling contests such as the Christmas Derby between Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory and the late-season F3 Derby between Central Coast Mariners and Newcastle Jets, the priority had long since turned to preventing the league from flatlining rather than engaging in growth.

On the scheduling point, however, 2022-23 will offer some welcome relief. The APL has banked on fans being able to follow along without sudden postponements and disruption this year, and it is expecting a rise in spirits as a result. This will especially count for Wellington Phoenix, who are now going to stage a full slate of home games in New Zealand after two years of being based out of Australia due to the pandemic. However, Perth Glory -- perhaps the heaviest hit by the COVID-chaos last year, alongside the Phoenix -- have already been forced to move games due to renovations of HBF Park.

Though hardly a panacea (just look at Western Sydney Wanderers' constant flattering to deceive since moving into CommBank Stadium), Sydney FC's move into the new Sydney Football Stadium, a homecoming of sorts, should provide at least an off-field boost to the Sky Blues as they attempt to reinvent themselves under Steve Corica. Their week-one opponents, Victory, meanwhile, will enter the season as the presumptive favourites for the title after an offseason in which they reinforced a squad that finished second on the table with Portuguese superstar Nani. They'll also likely lead the league in crowds and noise again at AAMI Park.

Beyond Nani, Brisbane Roar attacker Charlie Austin, returning Macarthur FC dynamo Daniel Arzani, and Sydney FC attacker Joe Lolley represent other new or returning faces looking to provide a spark. Elsewhere, the likes of Mariners duo Jason Cummings and Garang Kuol, one-time Sydney legend and now Wanderers playmaker Milos Ninkovic, and pretty much every Australian player vying for a place in Graham Arnold's Socceroos' squad, will further juicy narratives.

And on the subject of narrative, Victory will release a behind-the-scenes documentary series in the coming months, alongside offerings on Western United, Adelaide United, and Sydney, in a league-wide initiative. This dive into the documentary scene, beyond a desire to tap into the "Drive to Survive" craze, according to the league, is part of a broader push to focus its messaging, content offerings, and live experiences on the core football fan who has increasingly dropped off the league in recent years.

There will also be many external factors affecting the league's fortunes this season, chief among them the FIFA World Cup that -- though forcing the league to break just six weeks into its nascent campaign -- will provide ample storylines before that point.The APL hopes the tournament will kickstart some semblance of football fever among the broader public that can provide capital. Beyond this, there is also the looming 2023 Women's World Cup, which, though ostensibly providing a bigger boost for the A-League Women's season kicking off in November, should offer opportunities for all of the game. The prospect of a National Second Division revealing its operating model and commencing an EOI process should also create buzz for football, and keep the APL honest.

Alas, the broadcasting lodestone doesn't appear to have been much lessened heading into 2022-23. After featuring one game a week on Network Ten's main channel during the season, the league will now have to make do with two games on its junior station, 10 Bold. The round's four remaining games will remain on Paramount+, which didn't win itself any favour when it tweeted, just days out from the season's commencement, that a long-demanded pause and rewind function would not be ready in time for the season. A significant amount of the prevailing pessimism from supporters surrounding the league can be traced to conundrums such as this; less the product itself, and more the way that fans are able to engage with it and how this, in turn, affects growth.

Oh, and speaking of product. There's the actual football bit, the thing that everything surrounding the ALM ostensibly flows. Questions are present on this front, too. If it wasn't already obvious before, the recently released PFA report on the 2021-22 ALM season reiterated, from the players themselves, that Australia's top-flight remains a league in which its teams are heavily reliant upon moments of transition and pace and power.

As would be observed in the document, outside of Adelaide and Newcastle's willingness to press, the league is largely built on defensive principles of containment. This leads to a paradigm in which ALM clubs have fewer possessions on average than their peers around the world, but also longer ones as teams looking to control games without the ball, and minimise opportunities for their foes to strike in transition, are happy to cede territory and control of the ball in exchange for opportunities to force transition and exploit areas of space in behind.

In these circumstances, the importance of the first goal in the game is invariably heightened as it allows its scorers to sit back and maximise the above trends to their advantage while forcing opponents into a more active role in possession and shot creation against an embedded defence dialling in on the counter.

Western United were able to ride this train to a title in 2021-22, lifting silverware arguably ahead of schedule in just their third year in existence.

Now, heading into a season in which there are so many questions off the field, one of the biggest is this: Is ticking off the boxes on this method still the quickest route to glory in ALM, or is the competition primed to be hit by a new tactical approach that changes the template for success?