A Win for Arnie, a Loss for A-League; The Impact of World Cup Qualifying in Australia

In the upcoming World Cup Qualifying window the Socceroos will play 4 games in 15 days and it will likely have a heavy impact on the A-League finals series.

15 days does not seem too bad, until you add in travel time and quarantine on return. Then suddenly that 15 days turns into 35 days, which will see anyone selected from the A-League miss the end of the season barring an early release. Graham Arnold has said he is hesitant to do this.

The FIFA window starts on May 31 and will end on June 15, with the Socceroos set to play on June 3, 7, 11, and 15. While we do not have an exact timeframe because of the schedule changes, those dates should coincide with the final games of the regular season, and the finals themselves. 

Graham Arnold has said he will pick a squad of 34 players for the qualifiers. Further complicating matters is that the Olyroos are also set to play in a multi-nation tournament in late May, located in Toulon, France. This is to prepare for the Olympics.

While we do not know how many of the players selected for either squad will be from the A-League, we can have a calculated guess based on recent history.

A-League players who’ve recently played for the Socceroos

Graham Arnold selected 47 players to play for the Socceroos in 2019. Those games included the AFC Asian Cup, a friendly against the Republic of Korea, and World Cup Qualifiers against Kuwait, Nepal, Chinese Taipei, and Jordan. Of those 47, 11 currently play in the A-League.

Those players and the squads they were selected in are:

  • Mitchell Duke (Republic of Korea, Jordan)
  • Adam Federici (GK) (Jordan)
  • Craig Goodwin (Republic of Korea, Kuwait, Nepal, Chinese Taipei, and Jordan)
  • Rhyan Grant (all six squads)
  • Chris Ikonomidis (AFC Asian Cup)
  • Robbie Kruse (AFC Asian Cup)
  • Jamie Maclaren (AFC Asian Cup, Kuwait, Nepal, Chinese Taipei)
  • Mark Milligan (AFC Asian Cup, Nepal, Chinese Taipei)
  • Andrew Nabbout (AFC Asian Cup)
  • Andrew Redmayne (GK) (Republic of Korea, Kuwait, Nepal, Chinese Taipei, and Jordan)
  • Josh Risdon (AFC Asian Cup, Jordan)

A-League players who’ve recently played for the Olyroos

11 players does not look too bad. Where it starts to look bad is when you add in the number of players who played for the Olyroos that currently play in the A-League. 38 players selected to play for the Olyroos in 2020. Those games included the AFC U-23 Championships, and friendlies against Sydney FC and Macarthur FC. Of those 38 players, 31 currently play in the A-League.

Those players are:

  • Nathaniel Atkinson
  • Keanu Baccus
  • Daniel Bouman
  • Trent Buhagiar
  • Nicholas D’Agostino
  • Cameron Devlin
  • Ben Folami
  • Denis Genreau
  • Thomas Glover (GK)
  • Tom Heward-Belle (GK)
  • Luke Ivanovic
  • Joel King
  • John Koutroumbis
  • Joshua Laws
  • Connor Metcalfe
  • Tass Mourdoukoutas
  • Ramy Najjarine
  • Jordan O’Doherty
  • Aiden O’Neill
  • Connor O’Toole
  • Adam Pearce (GK)
  • Reno Piscopo
  • Kye Rowles
  • Tate Russell
  • Dylan Ryan
  • Ryan Strain
  • Angus Thurgate
  • Al Hassan Toure
  • Lachlan Wales
  • Brandon Wilson

How bad could it get?

Considering all those names, the A-League stands to lose up to 42 players across 11 of the 12 teams. What we can do is rule some players out for either injury or international retirement. I am choosing not to rule out certain players based on form because of the sheer size of squads that Graham Arnold will be choosing.

Form is also something that can be turned around very quickly, especially given how condensed the remaining schedule is.

The players I am ruling out are:

  • Robbie Kruse (international retirement)
  • Mark Milligan (international retirement)
  • Chris Ikonomidis (injury)
  • Trent Buhagiar (injury)

The squads that are impacted based on the remaining 38 players are:

  • Melbourne City – 6
  • Western Sydney Wanderers – 6
  • Sydney FC – 5
  • Newcastle Jets – 4
  • Central Coast Mariners – 3
  • Adelaide United – 3
  • Wellington Phoenix – 3
  • Melbourne Victory – 2
  • Western United – 2
  • Perth Glory – 2
  • Macarthur FC – 2

This is a problem that will impact the league as a whole, but it will have the largest impact on Melbourne City, Western Sydney Wanderers, and Sydney FC. These numbers are all based on past selection, and do not include any recent standouts who might warrant selection, such as Dylan Wenzel-Halls for Brisbane Roar. 

What are the solutions for the league given the sheer number of players they stand to lose?

Solution 1: Delay the A-League season

The most unlikely of the solutions, given that the host broadcaster basically has the league bent over a barrel, and what they want, they will get. The broadcast deal runs until the end of July 2021, but two things need to happen for a delay.

One, the broadcaster must want to delay the season, given it is set to finish in early June as it currently stands.

Two, a lot of players contracts expire on June 30, 2021, so a solution would need to be found for that. For this to work, it would require a lot of moving parts to come together, and I do not know if a solution can be found in such a short period of time.

Solution 2: Salary cap relief

Still an unlikely solution but providing some relief in the salary cap might help teams who lose players during this period. Whilst this would be of more help to the teams who have better financial backing, such as Melbourne City and Sydney FC, in theory eligible teams would include those with players called up, and they could go out and sign short-term replacements.

My proposed system would see teams eligible for a 20% relief per player based on the players called up. If a player’s salary is $75000, the team would be entitled to add $15000 in relief to sign a short-term replacement. It is not a lot of relief but given it would only be for the remaining month or so for the season, it is better than nothing. 

Solution 3: Further adjustments to the schedule to finish the season quicker

With just two months of the season remaining, more mid-week games might be the easiest way to get the season finished before the end of the May so that no teams are impacted by call-ups.

The feasibility of this would test the depth of a lot of squads and could result in extra injuries with what will be a schedule seeing teams play mid-week, then a weekend game, before backing up for another mid-week game, and repeat for the rest of the season.

If players get injured, it will defeat the purpose of shortening the season to avoid squads being impacted by call-ups if players will be unavailable anyway. Ground availability might also become an issue given a further overlap with the NRL, AFL, and Rugby seasons.

Solution 4: Play on as currently scheduled

It is what is most likely to happen. It is an unfortunate reality of what this season will be, that teams will be heavily depleted when they are needed the most, given the importance that is placed on the finals series and winning the Grand Final.

It is going to suck, and some teams will be more impacted than others, but there is not a lot that can be done about it. For all of those who said that an “asterisk” should be placed next to the 2020 season, I would argue this season deserves one too. At least the end of the 2020 season had basically the same squads that started the season. 

This could also further lend argument to placing less of an importance on the finals series, but that is a long discussion for another time.

Regardless of what happens, tune in and enjoy the rest of the season however it turns out. Goodness knows the league needs as much support as it can get leading into an off-season full of unknowns.

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