2021 NPLW Victoria Season Preview

573 days is a long, long time.

In that time frame, one could launch a spacecraft and have it successfully perform a fly-by of Jupiter, or sail around the world… 14 times.

573 days is also the number of days that have passed since NPLW Victoria last played a competitive league fixture: Calder United downing FC Bulleen Lions 1-0 at AAMI Park to secure the 2019 Championship.

And needless to say, a lot has changed since then.

When Alycia Eicke put Calder ahead in that contest, COVID-19 still wasn’t yet a thing, while closer to home Sam Kerr was still on the books of Perth Glory and the Chicago Red Stars and Tony Gustavsson was still an assistant with the reigning World Cup champion USWNT.

But perhaps most importantly, when Calder United and Bulleen met on that grey Sunday afternoon by the Yarra the host nation of the 2023 Women’s World Cup was still yet to be decided - the lightning bolt of momentum delivered to Australian football by Gianni Infantino’s announcement that they and New Zealand would host the tournament still just a fledgling dream.

In 2019, football in Victoria saw a nearly 50% increase in the number of women and girls registered to participate in football across the state. The 23,549 women and girls registered represented the second-largest cohort of any Member Federation, with only Football New South Wales’ 71,907 participants ahead.

Alongside Football Australia and the nation’s other Member Federations, Football Victoria has committed to working towards a 50/50 gender split in football participants by 2027, a quest which parties anticipate being boosted by an approximate 400,000 increase in participation driven by excitement by the coming World Cup.

Yet while the continued, meteoric growth of the women’s game represents one of, if not the, best stories in Australian football in recent decades, its ongoing maturation has been hampered by the unfortunate decades of neglect and under-resourcing - a neglected figure in an already neglected footballing family when it came to funding, resourcing and infrastructure.

The latter weakness, in particular, has been identified as a priority area by governing bodies in the lead into 2023, which, as the biggest sporting event to land on Australian shores since the 2020 Sydney Olympics, represents a golden opportunity to press government at a Federal, State and local level for greater investment in football and its rapidly growing women and girl’s participation base.

"There is a detailed legacy piece or gaps analysis that's been done on infrastructure -- so we know what is missing,” Football Australia Chairman Chris Nikou, speaking at celebrations of Melbourne’s AAMI Park being named one of the host venue for the World Cup, said.

“We won't get everything but I think we can make a compelling case as to why more needs to be done."

“Only one in five facilities are female friendly in this country, and I think in good conscience that can't be allowed to continue."

"The biggest issue is not necessarily attracting the participants; it's the infrastructure. We need local, state and federal governments to help us solve that issue because there's no point attracting them if we can't accommodate them. The infrastructure needs to keep pace."

As the highest level of women’s football in Victoria below the A-League, continued strengthening and expanding its NPLW Victoria competitions also looms as a significant area of importance for Football Victoria in the years ahead - the federation needing to provide a fertile proving ground for players before they can on to ply their trade in the W-League and, hopefully, with the Matildas.

Ezel Hikmet, General Manager of NPL at Football Victoria was thrilled to welcome NPLW back, stating that the competition has become a serious breeding ground for talent.

“We are delighted with the participation growth among girls and women in recent times and expect this trend to continue. Football Victoria is working towards a 50/50 participation rate by 2027 and while the target is ambitious, we are optimistic that we can achieve it. There are so many positive initiatives currently happening within female football and with the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023™ there will be plenty of momentum for the game to reach new heights,” Hikmet said.

“The return of NPLW is extremely important. It provides female players the elite competitive framework required to further develop their skills and sets the standard for younger players to strive towards.”

As part of the efforts to grow and bolster the NPLW, its 2021 campaign will mark the beginning of a reform journey that will culminate in the introduction of a full system of promotion and relegation throughout the state’s women’s football pyramid by 2023, as well as its expansion to a 12-team competition.

In 2021, that means that the ten teams competing in the newly introduced Victorian Women’s Premier League (VPLW) competition will be fighting it out for two promotion places into the NPLW in 2022.

Set to commence on April 18, that inaugural season will be contested by Preston Lions, Casey Comets, South Yarra SC, Melbourne Knights, Melbourne University SC, Southern United, Geelong Galaxy, Whitehorse United, Boroondara Carey Eagles, and Eltham Redbacks.

Four sides from the State Leagues will be eligible for promotion to the VPL at the end of 2021 in order to bring the league up to 12 teams, with two sides set to be promoted and relegated at the conclusion of that campaign.

Its numbers then brought to 12 by two successive years of promotion from the VPLW, the NPLW will also introduce relegation for the first time in 2023 - with two teams set to fall to the league below as a result.

“The reforms will add another level of complexity and competitiveness to NPLW. The ability to implement promotion/relegation and expand the league to 12 teams shows that the game has grown exponentially in recent years. We’re really excited for what’s ahead,” Hikmet said.

Nonetheless, before those changes can come, the eight teams competing in the 2021 iteration of NPLW Victoria will need to battle it out for statewide supremacy - with all roads to glory presently running through Keilor Park Recreation Reserve and Calder United.

Winners of a historic quadruple of Community Shield, Nike FC Cup, Premiership and Championship in 2019, coach Mark Torcaso’s side were able to tick off one of those boxes in 2020 when they recorded a comfortable win over FC Bulleen Lions in the Community Shield, only for COVID to put paid to any hopes of further glory.

Beyond a host of returning stars - many of whom such as Polly Doran and Catherin Zimmerman has been taking the field across the W-League during its 2019/20 season - the Victorian powers have announced the signing of reinforcements such as Laura Spiranovic, Julia Sardo, Harriet Withers already in 2021. The club has als sealed a partnership with A-League side Western United as part of their efforts to foster girl’s pathways in Melbourne’s west and secure W-League representation in the years ahead.

Impressive as their reinforcement efforts may have been, however, Calder is hardly alone in strengthening ahead of the 2021 campaign; vanquished 2020 Community Shield foes Bulleen amongst those that have brought in extra firepower of their own for the season ahead.

Under the guidance of new boss Caitlin Friend, young guns such as Grace Taranto, Alana Jancevski and Paige Zois have been lured to the club for the year ahead, as have veteran figures such as Gaby Garton and Reona Omiya. Veterans Racheal Quigley and Lia Privitelli will also be amongst the returning figures to David Barro Stadium.

After departing the club for Scandanavia ahead of the 2020 season, American defender and newly-minted Melbourne Victory stalwart Kayla Morrison is also set to return to the Veneto Club for 2021; the 2019 Media Player of the Year a huge addition to the Lioness’ hopes of repeating their 2018 championship feats.

2017 Gold Medalist Candela Ferreyra Bas is amongst the additions to South Melbourne that will take the field at Lakeside in 2021, as is Matildas’ legend, Football Victoria Hall of Famer and Melbourne City goalkeeper/assistant coach Melissa Barbieri.

They join 2020 signings such as Janna Lawson, Akeisha Sandhu, and Lucy Johnson in seeking to bring another Victorian title back to Hellas.

Out at Dorothy Laver Reserve, coach Kat Smith will field the likes of Beth Mason Jones, Mia Lantieri-Bartley, Rachel Binning, Elaina Vatcky, Caitlin Storay, and Junior Matilda Nia Stamatopoulos as Alamein FC seeks to improve on a strong 2019 campaign that saw them reach the semifinals before being knocked out by Bulleen.

Featuring a host of young players nurtured through their academy out at Wembley Park, Box Hill United will also have Emma Langley, Anais Josefski, Paige Pinson, and goalkeeper Erin Hudson pulling on a Pythagoras shirt as part of their quest to return to finals football, while heading further North Heidelberg United will once again feature American import Sidney Allen playing a creative role.

Tuning up for the 2021 season with a 6-1 Nike FC Cup victory over State League side Port Melbourne, Margot Robinne’s Bayside United will look to improve on a 2019 campaign that saw them finish 20 points adrift of the finals places, while FV Emerging, led by Melbourne City prodigy Naomi Thomas-Chinnama, will give NPLW observers an exciting glimpse at the potential next generation of Victorian talent.

The coming season, and years, ahead packed full of promise, the 2021 campaign is set to begin this Saturday when defending champions Calder host Alamein out in Melbourne’s West, Box Hill host Bayside at Wembley Park and Heidelberg United welcome FV Emerging to Olympic Village.

The round will then conclude on Monday evening with the marquee fixture of Bulleen and South Melbourne from the Veneto Club.

Every game of the 2021 NPLW Victoria will be broadcast live and free across the league’s Facebook and YouTube accounts, with Fox Sports Teo Pellizzeri‏, AAP’s Anna Harrington, The Far Post podcast’s Marissa Lordanic and ESPN’s Joey Lynch joined by a number of Australia’s leading up-and-coming young broadcasters on the coverage.