A-League Men 2023-24 season preview: Key players, questions

The new A-League Men season is upon us, resuming with an extra bit of pep in its step after Wednesday's announcement that the league was scrapping its controversial deal to sell hosting rights to its men's and women's Grand Finals to Sydney and replacing it with a new "Unite Round."

The move ensures fan sentiment will receive a significant boost heading into what will be a crucial season for the league, one that commences on Friday evening when defending champions the Central Coast Mariners face Adelaide United in South Australia.

But who's looking the goods on the actual football side of things? There's certainly been a bit of upheaval around the league, with several major names departing during the offseason and a number of teams appointing new coaches.

Here is all you need to know about every team ahead of the new A-League season.

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Adelaide United

Last season: 3rd, semifinals

Coach: Carl Veart

Key players: Joe Gauci, Ryan Kitto, Nestory Irankunda, Hiroshi Ibusuki

Key questions: After an offseason exodus that included a not-so-harmonious farewell for club legend Craig Goodwin to the Saudi Pro League, the Reds say they've secured their financial position but is their plan -- to go even younger and local -- one that can set the stage for success and sustainability? Or is it just unambitious cost-cutting dressed up in lipstick? Amid this, can Veart not just consistently expose his young talent to senior football but, once there, put them in positions to succeed?

Best-case scenario: After the painful farewell to Goodwin, the prospects assembled at Hindmarsh Stadium give the faithful something to smile about as they hit the ground running. Supplemented by the guiding hand of veterans such as Ben Halloran, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Kitto, they produce another finals finish, where a raucous Hindmarsh Stadium gives them an edge. Alongside a greater role for Irankunda, Veart gives a consistent run of minutes to Luka Jovanovic and Jonny Yull, who are all recognised widely as future Socceroos and sold in the offseason for hefty sums.

Worst-case scenario: It all comes apart. The Reds' young lineup is overawed and worn away by the grind of a full season and the club panics and brings in a score of free-agent veterans in January who fail to turn the tide. Defensive issues that have haunted them remain, but this time around late comebacks aren't there to bail them out. With Goodwin's threat gone, Irankunda struggles under a heavier offensive load and as fresher opponents key in on him. The team's cross-heavy attack bogs down and they fall towards the bottom of the table.

Most important player: Luka Jovanovic. The 18-year-old represents a key player not just because of his potential contributions as a striker but because of how he's used this season. The scope that the teenager receives with George Blackwood departed will provide an insight into the Reds' youth project. Towering Japanese striker Ibusuki will likely start the season up top, and Irankunda will be given the chance to impact games from the off as well, but Jovanovic, who scored three goals in nine appearances last season, should be given the chance to increase his five starts.

Breakout candidate: Jonny Yull. Already a Young Socceroo, Yull was the fifth-youngest player to feature in the A-League Men when he debuted against Perth in 2021, and he's since grown into one of Australia's best midfield prospects. Signing a three-year contract with the Reds in August -- ensuring he won't leave on a free transfer any time soon -- the scope he's given to force his way into a box-to-box role will, like Jovanovic, be illuminative given he faces a potential logjam in the midfield alongside veterans Isaias, Zach Clough and new signing Tunnicliffe.

Brisbane Roar

Last season: 8th

Coach: Ross Aloisi

Key players: Tom Aldred, Jay O'Shea, Florin Berenguer, Kai Trewin

Key questions: Is this the year when the Roar begin to turn things around and rediscover what made them one of the A-League Men's proudest clubs? Or is the era of new coach Ross Aloisi, CEO Kaz Patafta and COO Zac Anderson built on silver tongues and shifting sands?

Best-case scenario: Aloisi-ball, Ross Aloisi-ball, is the truth. Roar's form in the Australia Cup carries over to the regular season as they march up the table with a blend of high-energy and positive football. A home final is secured and Suncorp Stadium is rocking for that contest. In addition to this improved form, the club doesn't needlessly shoot itself in the foot with off-field scandals or general incompetence and, combined with the move of home games back to Brisbane proper, the club begins to repair and build new relationships with its fanbase.

- Read: Lack of VAR irks Roar in Australia Cup final loss

Worst-case scenario: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The much-ballyhooed changes made in Brisbane do little to change the trajectory of the club and some new scandal or distraction arises to once again both paint it in a bad light and create further dissolution among fans. On the pitch, the playing group can't adjust to the rigours of Aloisi's new system, either from a physical and tactical perspective, and despite a few more goals being scored they also concede more often. Middling results continue and they miss finals yet again.

Most important player: Florin Berenguer. Part of the extensive turnover at Melbourne City during the offseason, Berenguer has slotted straight into Roar's lineup and, based on early returns, looks like he will prove a key cog. A former City player of the year, the Frenchman's talents and ability to serve as a creative force at this level are established and he could be one of the league's best if the Roar are committed to playing an attacking and positive style of football this season. The issue could be fitness: He's 34 and spent significant time on the shelf in recent seasons with soft-tissue injuries.

Breakout candidate: Thomas Waddingham. He burst onto the season with goals in four straight games during the Roar's Australia Cup run -- including the final -- and looks set to be given an extended run of minutes to start the season both because of his form and the Roar not having a lot of other options. With physical development that belies his 18 years of age and an almost complete dearth of senior minutes before this preseason, the Cairns native is yet another young striker who could make his mark this season if he can handle the rigours of a senior season.

Central Coast Mariners

Last season: 2nd, Champions

Coach: Mark Jackson

Key players: Danny Vukovic, Brian Kaltack, Josh Nisbet, Marco Tulio

Key questions: Just how much of the Mariners' rejuvenation and transformation into champions was down to former coach Nick Montgomery? Were the foundations laid for the ethos that underpinned their success -- chief among it the ability to find and develop young and overlooked talent -- to survive without him? Or is it back to the cellar now that Montgomery has moved on to take charge of Hibernian and contributors such as Jason Cummings, Samuel Silvera and Nectarios Triantis have left?

Best-case scenario: The A-League Men's little engine that could keeps chugging along. The team rallies around new coach Jackson and continues to uphold the principles of camaraderie, effort, bravery and purposefulness in possession that underpinned their title. More young talent emerges to set the league alight, and Colombian signing Ángel Torres becomes the latest bargain-bin difference-maker who makes the rest of the league's scouting look second-rate. Tulio wins the Johnny Warren Medal, Alou Kuol earns a Socceroos call-up, and Gosford is rocking during another title push and an AFC Cup win.

Worst-case scenario: The wheels fall off and the Gossy Good Times give way to sparse crowds and apathy. In attempting to put his stamp on things, Jackson gets away from what made the club so successful and the players don't play for him like they did for Montgomery. After consistently finding diamonds in the rough, the Mariners' luck runs out and they're unable to replace the production that left in the offseason as they fall out of the finals. Another extended period in the cellar looms, and Marvin is revealed to actually be an actor in a suit instead of a fuzzy Viking.

Most important player: Josh Nisbet. He is a living avatar of what made the Mariners so special recently. Overlooked and discarded because of his size, he was given a chance in Gosford and demonstrated why those doubters should have been looking at what he could do not what he couldn't. The 24-year-old won the Mariners Player of the Season last campaign and serves as one of the most important cogs in the side's midfield, whose bravery and willingness to play through the centre of the park is a critical part of their counter-attacking play.

Breakout candidate: Will Wilson. Victory fans were dismayed when Wilson departed for the Central Coast this offseason, allowed to leave on a free transfer dispute being on a multi-year deal when his now-former club couldn't find a loan destination for him. A talented midfielder, the 21-year-old's flashes were one of the few bright sparks in what was a turgid campaign for Victory last season, and now he's in Gosford he just smacks of the latest young talent that will take the next step after leaving the Victory.

Macarthur FC

Last season: 12th

Coach: Mile Sterjovski

Key players: Jonathan Aspropotamitis, Clayton Lewis, Ulises Davila, Valère Germain

Key questions: Can Macarthur give us a reason to pay attention for the right reasons and to give their fans a reason to care? With a full offseason under his belt, can Sterjovski engineer a return to finals football, and can the Bulls begin to tap into the southwest Sydney community?

Best-case scenario: A former Ligue 1 champion, Germain proves one of the shrewdest A-League Men signings in recent memory as he and Davila form a dynamic duo at the tip of a newly invigorated Bulls' attack -- Lewis and Daniel De Silva having standout seasons behind them. Sterjovski deploys a team far more entertaining to watch than in recent seasons and fans begin to enjoy and follow the side for all the right reasons amid a push for finals football and a strong campaign in the AFC Cup. After a few false starts, they begin to feel like there's a long-term foundation in place as a distinct, community-aligned third major entity in Sydney.

Worst-case scenario: The Bulls slip further into irrelevance and begin to drum depths of prosaic A-League Men existence rarely encountered; existing less as a team with its own identity, fanbase and spirit than league-mandated presence in the schedule that appears briefly before kick-off before being immediately forgotten at full time. As the team plays turgid football that sees it remain rooted to the foot of the table, more and more fans begin to drift away and the club begins to feel alien in its community -- an imposition from on high that engenders no affection from those on the ground.

Most important player: Ulises Davila. The Bulls' inspirational captain battled injury during the last A-League Men season, suffering a torn meniscus in February that ruled him out for the rest of the campaign; but when he's fit and in form, he remains one of the A-League Men's most entertaining and creative forces. Sterjovski spoke last season of wanting his players to be brave in possession and take it to opponents more often, and the Mexican attacker will be key to those efforts.

Breakout candidate: Raphael Borges Rodrigues.The son of former Adelaide United striker Cristiano, Borges Rodrigues came through the Melbourne City academy and was one of its highest touted prospects, even winning youth player of the year in 2020; but he ran into a roadblock when trying to break into their stacked senior front line. Seeking a fresh start at Macarthur, the winger has the talent to develop into a game-changer for Sterjovski's side with his dribbling ability and instincts to cut inside, albeit he'll likely be coming off the bench to start the season.

Melbourne City

Last season: 1st, Premiers, Grand Finalists

Coach: Rado Vidošić

Key players: Mat Leckie, Steven Ugarkovic, Tolgay Arslan, Jamie Maclaren

Key questions: Can Melby City win the big games? After their 6-1 drubbing at the hands of Central Coast last season, the club has now lost three of the past four Grand Finals under three different coaches. They've got enough talent to be in another Grand Final this year but will those big-game blues linger?

Best-case scenario: After integrating their large number of new additions into the squad -- nine starting-calibre players left or retired in the offseason -- City find momentum after a sluggish start to the season and sweep all before them on the road to yet another Premiers Plate alongside a deep run in the Asian Champions League. With something to prove, they march into finals and are ruthless in hammering whoever stands against them, exorcising the ghosts of their previous failures on the way to a second Championship.

- Read: Socceroos defender Behich returns to Melbourne City

Worst-case scenario: City's time as the competition's dominant force ends. With so many new arrivals the team can't find the same sense of unified direction, purpose and connection within their squad -- not helped by the absence of several players during January's Asian Cup -- and they scrape into the finals before watching as Victory take the crown. Patrick Kisnorbo exits French side Troyes after their poor form in Ligue 2 continues, and the City faithful's clamour for the coach's return is heeded by club brass among adverse results. This leads to Vidošić exiting midseason, only for Kisnorbo to then look elsewhere.

Most important player: Mat Leckie. He has battled a knee injury during the preseason but, on his day, he's among the best players in the league; potentially its best. The 32-year-old, 76-time Socceroo remains an important part of club and national teams, and his presence on the left, which can't be given too much attention by opponents given the other assembled talents in the City attack, has and will continue to prove a match-winning presence for both; just ask Denmark.

Breakout Candidate: Max Caputo. At 18, he has already found the back of the net in Asian Champions League play this preseason and, with Andrew Nabbout out with a long-term injury, there could be scope for the teenager to emerge as the primary backup for Maclaren this season. With a frame that belies his age, and a striker's instincts, the former Essendon Royals junior should be up to the demands of such a role.

Melbourne Victory

Last season: 11th

Coach: Tony Popovic

Key players: Damien Da Silva, Roderick Miranda, Zinedine Machach, Daniel Arzani

Key questions: Now what? After one good year and one very bad year under Popovic, are Victory capable of returning to finals or, at the very least, avoiding a fourth bottom-two finish in five seasons? Can the likes of Arzani, Machach, and Jake Brimmer bring life to a listless attack and supplement what flew under the radar as a very strong defence?

Best-case scenario: It turns out there was only one way to go for Victory after their catastrophic 2022-23 and, steeled by the league's best defence and an attack that does enough, the four-time A-League Men champions secure a home final. Bruno Fornaroli stays fit and bangs in 15 goals, making concerns around the lack of a proper backup striker a moot point, and, Arzani, as one of the key creative forces in Victory's attack, earns a return to the Socceroos. Victory fans return in their droves and the atmosphere at AAMI Park returns to one of the league's best.

- Read: Why this season could be Victory's most significant

Worst-case scenario: Somehow, things get even worse. Long-term injuries to Da Silva, 35, and Miranda, 32, in the centre of defence, and further fitness woes for right-back Jason Geria, blow a hole in what was one of the club's few bright spots last season; the defence subsequently ships a cavalcade of goals. The attack continues to sputter and the fans who lapsed during the events of last season are joined by a decent chunk of those who remained in their apathy. Events are spoiled by an incident between Victory supporters and visiting fans late in the season, leading to an imposition of the suspended penalties hanging over the club's head.

Most important player: Rai Marchan. There are plenty of players who will likely make flashier contributions for Victory this season -- Arzani, Fornaroli, Ben Folami, Nishan Velupillay -- and anyone can tell you that a Popovic side is built on the back of a rock-solid defence. But Victory were so often aimlessly turgid in possession last season, and their midfield bore a lot of that blame. Marchan, 30, missed much of that campaign with concussion issues which, to Victory's credit, he was given all the time in the world to overcome. Now, though, he shapes as returning to that midfield mix and Victory will be boosted immensely if Marchan can play as a single pivot and free up Machach and Brimmer to spend more time forward.

Breakout candidate: Eli Adams. Signed from Brisbane Roar ahead of the 2022-23 campaign, Adams has impressed in preseason; he's mostly played on the wing in the past, but the 21-year-old could see extended minutes in a more central role if Fornaroli isn't able to stay on the park.

Newcastle Jets

Last season: 10th

Coach: Rob Stanton

Key players: Ryan Scott, Carl Jenkinson, Brandon O'Neill, Reno Piscopo

Key questions: Will the Jets' purgatory ever end? With the club entering yet another season without an owner, what kind of on-field results are even a fair expectation for this club? How much longer can Jets fans maintain their passion and patience in the face of their club's uncertain future and just one finals appearance since the start of the 2008-09 season?

Best-case scenario: Stanton gets a tune out of his unheralded squad and the Jets fashion an output greater than the sum of their parts, giving the faithful a reason to hope that, yeah, maybe things are going to get a bit better. More importantly, after years of being propped up by other clubs and forced to subside on the smell of an oily rag, a new owner, with an actual commitment to the region and without the baggage that is going to force them out and make us suffer through all this nonsense again in a few years, is found and all involved in the Hunter can begin to plan for the future with some sense of certainty.

- Read: Jets appoint ex-Sydney FC assistant Stanton as head coach

Worst-case scenario: Yet another campaign passes without any news on the ownership front, and the Jets slip further and further into the mire; the club is propped up by the league's insistence that a licence remains in Newcastle but little consideration or resourcing is given to those on the ground beyond what will keep the lights on. On the field, Stanton's first A-League Men gig proves a baptism of fire, new French signing Jason Berthomier can't adjust to the Australian competition, and the Jets slump to the wooden spoon.

Most important player: Brandon O'Neill. In a team with many question marks, O'Neill will be relied upon both to provide veteran leadership in the midfield and serve as an emotional rock if things are as challenging as they are looking like they might be. The 29-year-old can be relied upon to be clean in possession and keep the ball moving, but he'll need to provide Piscopo, Apostolos Stamatelopoulos, Trent Buhagiar and Archie Goodwin with service if the Jets are hopeful of springing surprises.

Breakout Candidate: Archie Goodwin. The 18-year-old has become a fan favourite in the Hunter since he debuted for the club as a 15-year-old during the 2020-21 season and netted in a 2-1 win over Melbourne City. Regular football has yet to arrive, however, and injury limited him to just eight appearances and a single start last season, cruelly spoiling the momentum of goals in back-to-back games. He's demonstrated in limited exposure on the park that he's got what it takes to put the ball in the back of the net, though. Now, he's just got to earn and then be afforded those chances.

Perth Glory

Last season: 9th

Coach: Alen Stajcic

Key players: Darryl Lachman, Salim Khelifi, Adam Taggart, Mustafa Amini

Key questions: In his second go-around in the A-League Men, can Stajcic work his same rejuvenating magic at the Glory as he did in Gosford? Can Taggart find his goal-scoring touch and throw himself back into Socceroos contention? Will the club's newly announced owner, Melbourne-based property tycoon Robert Brij, usher in a new period of sustainability and growth?

Best-case scenario: The Staj Effect™ is real and his side rockets back up the table. Taggart breaks Maclaren's stranglehold on the A-League Men Golden Boot, making the Glory one of the league's most lethal sides on the counter-attack, and they find themselves right in the thick of the fight for a home final come the end of the campaign. Off the park, new owner Brij moves quickly to implement a new wave of investment into the squad, facilities, and more.

- Read: Melbourne property tycoon Brij buys Perth Glory

Worst-case scenario: It turns out that Stajcic used up all his magic with the Mariners and the Philippines women's national side, and the pixie dust runs dry in his efforts to stage a turnaround out West. Taggart can't stay on the park and the club's assembled cadre of young talent can't step up to become difference makers. At season's end, Brij announces that U.K.-based crypto firm the Leicester Football Exchange is purchasing a stake in the club.

Most important player: Salim Khelifi. He quickly established himself as an important figure for the Glory upon signing for the 2022-23 campaign, used as both a traditional winger and a wing-back (even if the latter didn't suit) only for his season to be cut short after 14 games by a foot injury that required surgery. But now he's returned to the side after signing a two-year contract extension on what was initially a one-year deal, and the Tunisia international should provide an extra layer of impetus to Glory's attack.

Breakout candidate: Giordano Colli. The 23-year-old saw his numbers reduce significantly in his second year of senior football, going from 13 starts in 20 games during Glory's horror 2021-22 to just four starts in 11 games last season; only three of which arrived after a training-ground incident with now-former coach Ruben Zadkovich that set the rumour mill alight. The former Bayswater City youth player has the talent to contribute, though, and he could thrive with a fresh start under Stajcic.

Sydney FC

Last season: 5th, semifinalists

Coach: Steve Corica

Key players: Joe Lolley, Robert Mak, Max Burgess, Fábio Gomes

Key questions: Even with an Australia Cup added to Sky Park's trophy case, are the Harboursiders still the biggest team in Sydney and destined for more silverware in 2023-24? Or is this the year that Western Sydney properly strike back? Can their foreign signings fire? Has Corica's tenure reached its used-by-date or does the Sky Blues legend have any more tricks in his toolbelt?

Best-case scenario: Sydney once again become the league's most hated side, because they keep winning football games. With Lolley and Mak wreaking havoc on the wings and Fábio banging in the goals at a rate similar to that of his Brazilian compatriot Bobo when he was in Sky Blue, Corica's side blow unsuspecting foes out of the water regularly. Pulling the strings in the midfield, Burgess puts in a Johnny Warren Medal-worthy campaign alongside Luke Brattan, while Jake Girdwood-Reich has a strong season to render moot Jack Rodwell's inability to stay injury-free. Ultimately, another championship is secured for the A-Leagues' most successful club.

- Read: Can Corica turn Australia Cup victory into A-League success?

Worst-case scenario: Turns out that the Australia Cup might be something of a curse and the Sky Blues experience a season from hell as they crash down the table. Fábio proves completely unable to find form and fitness despite his early promise, and Patrick Wood can't step up to fill the deficit. Mak departs in January after a godfather offer is received from an overseas club, robbing Corica of one of his few attacking threats, and a leaky backline can't replace the contributions of the retired Alex Wilkinson, with veterans Rhyan Grant and Andrew Redmayne regressing significantly. After missing the playoffs, Corica is axed.

Most important player: Max Burgess. To watch Burgess play is to engage in an exercise in frustration. So frequently he displays the type of talent and game-breaking ability that suggests he should win awards, get regular Socceroos caps, and be the subject of significant overseas interest. Importantly, it's also fun to watch. But this is combined with a maddening inability for this to be on consistent display -- his acrimonious exit from Western United when he was one of the league's form players a case in point. A fit and firing Burgess, however, makes Sydney a much more dangerous side; but can he be that player week in and week out?

Breakout candidate: Nathan Amanatidis. He became the subject of something of a bidding war among a host of clubs during the offseason and, ultimately, Sydney secured his services -- luring him from Adelaide on a three-year deal. The 17-year-old attacker was one of the Joeys' best players at the AFC Under-17 Asian Cup, and he should have the scope to learn and develop from two of the league's best in Mak and Lolley.

Wellington Phoenix

Last season: 6th, Elimination Final

Coach: Giancarlo Italiano

Key players: Mohamed Al-Taay, Bozhidar Kraev, Oskar Zawada, Alex Rufer

Key questions: With former coach Ufuk Talay now gone, is it back to the cellar for the Phoenix or does his former assistant Italiano have the ingredients to keep them in the playoffs? Can they find a way to tighten things up in the backline? And how will they respond to the competition of another Kiwi side based in Auckland joins the league next season?

Best-case scenario: After keeping the band together, Kraev, Zawada and co. bang in a heap of goals for the Nix. Ben Old has a breakout season as one of the league's best midfielders, and new signing Al-Taay becomes an absolute titan at the base of the midfield after starring at the Asian Cup with Iraq. The Nix still concede a fair chunk of goals but they score more than they ship for the first time since 2020-21, and that helps them continue a run of finals football.

- Read: Bournemouth owner named preferred bidder for Auckland licence

Worst-case scenario: The leaking defence finally catches up with the Phoenix as they enter their post-Talay era and, combined with the loss of several key contributors, they can't find a way to stay in enough games to remain in finals contention. After being able to see off European interest in Zawada during the offseason, they can't keep the suitors away forever and he departs the club in January -- leaving a hole that can't be filled. In the end, they're battling to avoid the wooden spoon, not secure a finals spot, and the newly introduced Auckland side puts them in the shade during the following offseason.

Most important player: Oskar Zawada. Talay recruited his internationals quite well during his time in New Zealand, and Poland youth international Zawada was one of the best examples. The 27-year-old scored 15 goals across 25 starts in his first season in Aotearoa, and several match-winning strikes proved significant in securing his new side another year of finals football. Zawada's presence will be crucial if -- and it's a big if given that clubs such as Dutch outfit Heerenveen were interested in him -- the Nix can keep him around for a full season.

Breakout candidate: Alex Paulsen. Long-time first-choice keeper Oliver Sail's exit for Perth Glory led to the Phoenix bringing in veteran Jack Duncan in the offseason but, given the former Newcastle Jet custodian has battled inconsistency and injury, and was also benched for stretches during his last year in the Hunter, 2023-24 could be the season in which 21-year-old New Zealand youth international Paulsen seizes a starting role.

Western Sydney Wanderers

Last season: 4th, Elimination Final

Coach: Marko Rudan

Key players: Lawrence Thomas, Marcelo, Brandon Borrello, Marcus Antonsson

Key questions: Was the return to finals football a portent of things to come or a brief, teasing flash that will quickly be replaced by more misery? Can Rudan shake off the Derby defeat in the Elimination Final and continue to build his project at Wanderland? Given all the underlying strengths the club has, anything less shouldn't be acceptable.

Best-case scenario: The Wanderers storm to their first Premiership in more than10 years and follow that up by winning a first A-League Men Championship. After shipping a league-low 27 goals last season, Rudan and his defence find a way to engineer an even more stout backline and concede fewer than 20 goals through the campaign -- new signing Doni Grdić earning a Socceroos call-up for a breakout season replacing Tomislav Mrčela. Up front, headliners Borello and Antonsson help fans to forget about Amor Layouni as they both hit double-digit tallies, while Dylan Pierias and Miloš Ninkovic supplement them so well that the club doesn't even need to worry about bringing in another attacking option in the January window.

- Read: Rudan blames Saudis for A-League transfer woes

Worst-case scenario: The Wanderers' return to finals football proves a one-year tease, and they self-destruct and fall towards the league's bottom half. Their midfield play is morose and uninspiring, and simply can't win enough football games to keep pace. Despite his impressive resume. Jorrit Hendrix proves a bust signing in the midfield, Antonsson joins the long line of Wanderers import attackers who fail to fire, and Borrello secures a move overseas just before leaving for the Asian Cup. Yet another clearout and rebuild is needed out West.

Most important player: Jorrit Hendrix. With Calem Nieuwenhof becoming the latest Australian to secure a move to Scotland during the offseason, Hendrix's signing adds an extra layer of importance given he's replacing one of the league's most effective midfielders. Ostensibly in his peak playing years at 28, and arriving after playing more than 200 games for PSV Eindhoven, the one-time Netherlands international's resume suggests he should be one of the league's best players. If he will be is another question.

Breakout candidate: Nicolas Milanovic. A Penrith native, Milanovic joined his hometown club during the January window earlier this year, reuniting him with the coach who gave him his A-League Men debut back in 2020 with Western United. The 21-year-old had to content himself with 11 appearances off the bench through the rest of the season, and an impact sub role is likely awaiting him at the start of this campaign, but he has the tools to do more: He is comfortable with the ball in tight spaces, able to put himself into positive positions to receive, and willing to take a risk if needed.

Western United

Last season: 7th

Coach: John Aloisi

Key players: Tomoki Imai, Angus Thurgate, Daniel Penha, Noah Botic

Key questions: After missing the finals as defending champions last season, can Aloisi engineer a turnaround? Can moving to play games out of their training base in Melbourne's West finally see them begin to build a proper fanbase and identity? Oh, and any news on that stadium that formed the basis of your case for an expansion license? You know, the thing we've been waiting nearly half a decade for?

Best-case scenario: As Melbourne City fall from the perch and Victory continue to wallow in the mud, Western United ascend as Melbourne's predominant A-League Men side, staging a push for the Premiership and following that with another A-League Men title. As Aloisi tries in vain to keep a lid on the hype, Botic bangs in 20 goals on the way to earning a Socceroos call-up, and Penha hits double-digits on the assist charts as well as scoring twice from the halfway line. With the Tarneit training ground they move their home games to provide a pumping atmosphere, and actual foothold in Melbourne's West, the club builds on that momentum by breaking ground on their promised stadium, announcing a name-change to West Melbourne United for when they move in.

Worst-case scenario: Memories of a breakthrough title fall further into the background as Western miss finals for the second straight year, new signings James Donachie and Tom Heward-Belle unable to replace the outgoing Leo Lacroix and Jamie Young. The midfield is proven adept at working hard and circulating possession, but it is unable to provide any sense of meaningful and consistent penetration, and Botic, Penha and new signing Nikita Rukavytsya are starved of service. The move to the Tarneit training base does little to attract fans or create any kind of meaningful atmosphere, and it is half empty by the end of the season, with still no word on when their actual stadium will be built.

Most important player: Angus Thurgate. Western surprised a few by signing Thurgate from the Jets on a three-year deal during the offseason, with many thinking the midfielder, who already has 91 A-League Men starts despite being just 23, would look to move abroad. Now, Thurgate could be primed for a breakout season in 2023-24, and Western could reap the rewards: The "Port Macquarie Pele" is a workhouse figure in the midfield who could work very well in tandem with Sebastian Pasquali, bombing forward and arriving late into the box to supplement likely No. 10s Lachlan Wales and Ramy Najjarine.

Breakout candidate: Noah Botic. Writing about Botic is a challenge because the pitfalls in hyping up, and placing undue expectations, on a young player, particularly a young striker, generally do neither them nor the author any good in the long run. But Botic's talent is such that it's very hard not to get excited about what he could do as he develops and gets an extended run of minutes this season. Botic is a striker. Not a winger or a No. 10 who can potentially move into the No. 9 role in a pinch; a striker. You can see it in the way he moves, the positions he takes up, and how he approaches the game. And given the potential he's already demonstrated, and just how hard it is to find such players, that's pretty exciting.