Gemma Lewis' Wellington Phoenix poised to make life uncomfortable in A-League Women

WOLLONGONG -- The brand new Wellington Phoenix side has taken the concept of "moving out of their comfort zone" to a whole new level in 2021 and, as they embark on their debut A-League Women season, they are hoping to also make life uncomfortable for every other team in the league.

Inaugural head coach Gemma Lewis is well aware of the challenge facing her young and inexperienced playing group who, because of COVID-enforced travel restrictions, will base themselves in Wollongong, Australia for the foreseeable future.

"If we can cause some upsets, disrupt some people -- make things not so comfortable for teams, that's kind of what we are embracing a little bit," Lewis told ESPN during a rare break in her jam-packed schedule.

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"Everything we are going through, being away from home, being this kind of hybrid Australian and New Zealand team, they're all things that could be seen as challenging but we are using that as our point of difference, our competitive edge, the thing that nobody has.

"There are no expectations on us this year, and I'm not sure if anyone is really expecting much from us, so I think we want to surprise a few people along the way".

Building a squad just weeks before kick-off after most players had already committed to other clubs was tricky enough but the trans-Tasman requirement of the side posed an even bigger hurdle.

The Phoenix were limited to 13 New Zealanders as part of their conditions for entering the competition (11 seniors + 2 scholarship players), and there were added restrictions to which Australians she was legally allowed to sign as the club is officially a New Zealand entity.

"That's been a really difficult one for us," Lewis explained. "We understood the want to have Australian players within this team so that there were still opportunities for Australians, but I think the part that we struggled with was that when we tried to give Australians the opportunities, we also realised we couldn't sign anyone between a certain age bracket and they couldn't be considered a minor, they had to be senior [over 18], but then a lot of the senior players had already been signed.

"And so we can't actually give the opportunities to these younger girls who are maybe the best younger Australian players or the future Matildas because we are still considered to be a foreign team."

Signing internationals was also out of the question as those players would have to take up one of the valuable spots allotted to New Zealand nationals, and so the Phoenix women will begin their season with just three players who have experience in the competition formerly known as the W-League -- Annabel Martin, Lily Alfeld, Isabel Gomez.

Lewis believes the hybrid nature of the team and their remote location are factors that have also contributed to the lack of commercial investment in the side as they prepare to kick off without a major sponsor.

"It's a bit of both. Not being in New Zealand and it's also hard for businesses to understand ... you're half a New Zealand team and half an Australian team.

"You're also away from home, not competing in New Zealand, so you're not necessarily getting the visibility that a commercial sponsor would want.

"I was really hoping that women's sport -- being the first team, that people would see the bigger picture in that but I think COVID times have also challenged that as well."

Rather than dwell on the "uncontrollables," the 31-year-old former Wales international is focusing on the positives.

While there are no easy games for the league's rookies, the lopsided nature of a draw where there is no full home and away season, has fallen marginally in their favour seeing them face perennial finalists Sydney FC twice in the first month but then play Melbourne Victory, Canberra United and Brisbane Roar, who also finished top four last season, only once.

And while the continuing impact of the pandemic has seen the entire squad uprooted and moved into a temporary home in Wollongong, the youthful nature of the playing group has meant they have the benefit of an intensive transition to professional football.

"The girls being young, gives us the flexibility that we've really been able to throw ourselves in and not had to worry about peoples work schedules, we've not had to train at awkward times like 6 a.m. or 6 p.m. and we've been able to actually approach things like more of a professional job," Lewis said.

"We train at a reasonable time, we have gym in the days, we have meetings and performance analysis during the days, which I know some teams can't necessarily do because of people having to work full-time, so that part has been a luxury for us and we are hoping it has helped to accelerate our development and some of the learnings within the short time frame we've had."

Involvement as a coach in the youth national team set up in New Zealand since 2018, Lewis has been ideally positioned to identify emerging talent and has tipped a number of her former charges to play significant roles on the park this season.

"One to watch for me is Kate Taylor -- she's young, only 18," Lewis said of the former Kiwi under-17 representative. "She's one of our centre-backs and you wouldn't have seen a lot of her because of the cancellation of age groups and things like that, I think she is going to be a really key player this season and be really solid at the back for us. You'll see her strengths on the ball but off the ball as well."

Lewis also flagged the oft-unsung talents of 19-year-old Grace Wisnewski.

"Somebody that's had a good career so far, a bronze medal for the 17s still eligible for the 20s, so she's still quite young but in terms of somebody that will fly under the radar, it's when you watch games back you realise that she's the player that does all the jobs that nobody else wants to do," she said.

"That means that we can be more expansive and [have] creative players because she's doing all the hard stuff."

Grace Jale has a couple of years more experience and, at 22-years-old, is the only one of the squad to have represented New Zealand at senior level. Lewis is keen to see the midfielder grasp the opportunity to get back on the national team radar.

"She could have had opportunities sooner, but things haven't necessarily really lined up for her with concussion and injury here or there but people are just waiting to see what she can really do," she said.

While the group has been living in conditions a little like an extended international camp, the learning curve has been more than just football and Lewis says the adjustment has had its ups and downs.

"A lot of girls are living away from home for the first time as well as stepping into a professional career at the same time, so you know there's not just challenges with the football side of things there's also doing your laundry and cooking for yourself for the first time - all these things you just don't think of as a footballer a lot of the time."

As for Lewis herself, she sees this chance to build a team from the ground up as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"You don't as a coach, really ever have that opportunity," she said. "I'm not sure many coaches can say that they came in for the first time the team ever existed and had to start a team from scratch and to start a culture from scratch and have to start everything from the word go."

The Phoenix are set to kick-off their A-League Women existence on Friday against the Western Sydney Wanderers and, while Lewis and her staff have been racing the clock since Day 1, her outlook on the eve of the season is pragmatic.

"I've said from the start we are not going to be 100% ready for the first game but there's a whole season to go and we'll get there," she said. "We'll keep building, we'll keep improving, we'll get there along the way. But with the timeframe we're working on right now, our wellness and the fact that we still want to enjoy this experience is just as important."