Who’ll Be This Season’s Sarpreet Singh/Libby Cacace Breakout Welly Nix Academy Player?

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A year ago if you knew who Libby Cacace was then it’s probably because you were going to school with him. Sarpreet Singh was at least a known name back then but he was known because he was the dude that fans were calling out in vain to see given a chance in the first team. Given how incredibly he burst onto the scene towards the end of last season it’s pretty easy to feel that he shoulda gotten a go much earlier than he did. Yet also given how incredibly he burst onto the scene, you could reasonably argue he got his chance at the exact perfect time.

Singh had already had a couple seasons dominating with the reserves and proceeded to do more of the same in 2017-18. But prior to December he’d only played 47 minutes of A-League action. A few more appearances off the bench were granted before he made his first A-League start in a mid-February game at home against Perth. Sarpreet scored a ripper in the third minute and he never looked back. Now the 19 year old is a Phoenix regular, a New Zealand international, and a fan favourite.

Cacace was a holding midfielder in his second season with the Phoenix reserves team when he was chucked out there in the 54th minute of a 4-0 away defeat to Sydney FC by Darije Kalezic. Young fella did so well he ended up starting six games over the rest of the season – and all of them as a wide defender too, flexing a bit of positional flexibility.

Both he and Singh were rewarded with new contracts by the club, both he and Singh have featured pretty regularly under new gaffer Mark Rudan. Both he and Singh have also been dropped by Mark Rudan but they’ve also also been recalled by him too. The 2017-18 campaign was a bummer of a season for many reasons but in these two home-grown players the Phoenix have a pair that could be influential at the club for the next decade… if the club still exists then, but that’s a different tale.

Not every prospect cracks it at the Nix. Thirteen months ago you’d have guessed it’d be Keegan Smith we’d be talking about following his stunningly unexpected run of starts in goal under Kalezic to begin that campaign but now here we are and Keegan Smith is no longer a Nix player, now donning the gloves for Tasman United instead. Then there are guys like James McGarry, Ollie Whyte and Logan Rogerson who never broke through in Wellington only to get pro deals in Europe. That’s football for ya.

But there’s a very active academy continuing to identify and develop young kiwi player at the Phoenix and while a reliance on untamed youth is hardly in keeping with the Mark Rudan philosophy, he also hasn’t been averse to regular rotations either and if you show the right attitude in training then he’s going to take notice, particularly with a small squad vulnerable to ins juries.

So who are the young guns seeking to be this season’s version of Sarpreet and Libby? Who’s gonna shred it up for the ressies and then break into the first team by the end of the term? Mate, we’ve got a few possibilities.

Sam Sutton

Where better to start than with the captain of the youth team? The WeeNix are strugglers in the NZ Premiership, currently without a point through their first seven games, though they’ve been pretty competitive in most of those games… just can’t keep from conceding goals and turning their own pressure into goals at the other end. You know, the two most important factors in any game.

But they do some quality things in possession and one of the main reasons for that is midfielder Sam Sutton, who has started every game for them (no mean feat considering the constant rotation they go through with dudes dropping in and out of the top team). A slick passer and hard worker, the fact that he’s captaining the ressies when he doesn’t even turn seventeen until next week (December 10) is all the evidence you need.

Sutton was called up to the senior squad late last season as Chris Greenacre spread the wealth around but didn’t make it into a matchday squad, however he did get some minutes in preseason under Rudan. Still plenty of time left for him to break Libby Cacace’s record of the youngest player to feature for the Nix in the A-League – Sutton won’t pass that mark until 18 April 2019… which falls between the third to last and second to last games this season.

Ben Waine

Technically he’s already been given a chance. Waine was the young bloke who came off the bench in the FFA Cup game a few months back for his senior debut. Spent heaps of preseason working with the main squad and you’d assume he’s still doing a fair bit with them. Elsewhere he’s another who has started every game for the ressies (Callan Elliot is the other of that trio, along with Sam Sutton), scoring his first two Premiership goals in a 3-2 defeat to Tasman a few weeks back.

Waine is a wide forward, currently being deployed on the left wing for the WeeNix. He plays with pace and aggression and looks to run at the defence and make things happen. As far as that model of player goes, if he’s going to continue to get chances with the top side then he’s behind Callan Elliot in the pecking order but he’s probably the next dude on the list.

Zac Jones

This one just sorta makes sense. A year ago the Nix had four different keepers take the field and each of them made at least four starts, none of them more than Lewis Italiano’s 13 starts. Keegan Smith started six, Tando Velaphi started four and Oli Sail started four. Every one of that quartet also played at least once for the WeeNix, along with young Zac Jones who started in a 2-1 win over Hamilton Wanderers. This season the A-League side have signed Filip Kurto to wear the gloves and therefore Italiano, Smith and Velaphi have all left. Smith was a weird one as he coulda stayed with the reserves but something must’ve been going on there and he couldn’t have honestly felt like the club was doing their best by him, if we’re being honest.

But that’s all to the benefit of Zac Jones. He’s the lad who has taken over as the numero uno for the WeeNix, splitting time with first team backup Oli Sail. With Kurto out injured at the moment, that’s led to Jones being included in the travelling squad for the first team, although the short-term signing of Ante Covic means it’s unlikely he makes the bench. Based on his early performances for the WeeNix he’s a little raw for the big stage just yet but she’s a long old season and there’s plenty of water to flow under the bridge yet. Jones is one of the brightest prospects here and the path to the first team isn’t all that crowded. Good bet.

Willem Ebbinge

One of the leaders of the young crew coming through… except the midfielder has accepted a scholarship to attend Harvard University over in the States and you can’t really turn that one down. If the academic side of things goes all good then he’ll be off next August.

Nonetheless, that does still give him all season to get a start with the Phoenix, maybe fill in off the bench a few times. Ebbinge was an unused sub once under Chris Greenacre late last season so you know he’s close. This lad’s started three games for the WeeNix this season and come off the bench twice, having started 13 games for them a season ago. Perhaps not a long term option for the club (he can always pop back once he’s got his degree) but as far as the Premmy squad goes he’s as ready for senior footy as any of them. Scores the odd goal, which is nice. And he’s clearly a clever bugger too.

Boyd Curry

There were five current Phoenix Academy players in the U19 squad that won the Oceania title for New Zealand earlier in the year (including Callan Elliot but not including Ollie Whyte). Will Ebbinge and Zac Jones are already on this list. Defenders Boyd Curry and Dino Botica get their dues here. Or at least Curry does, Botica hasn’t played for the WeeNix yet as the logjam of defenders has been excessive. Curry, meanwhile, has been working his way in lately, starting two of the past three games and even scoring in the last one. Scoring both an own goal and a proper goal, actually. But that can happen to anyone. He seems to be a guy with a habit of popping up with goals on the end of set pieces, he was similarly useful for the NZ U19s. Also, like many of these dudes he’s got an excellent highlights vid…

Tacettin Kumsuz

Taci Kumsuz is a very interesting case. Just before the season started, as Callan Elliot and Reuben Way were signed to round out the squad, the Phoenix also sneakily announced that they’d lured Kumsuz and Gianni Stensness from over the ditch. Kumsuz was previously with the Western Sydney youth set up and the 19 year old was included in the Australian U20s last year… but here’s the thing: he’s eligible to represent New Zealand too. Same as Stensness who was also in that squad. Same as Dane Ingham who was also in that squad and has already played a handful of times for the All Whites. Clever bit of scouting from Rudan and his team there.

Kumsuz is a creative midfielder with some serious skill. About the first thing he did for the WeeNix after coming off the bench in week one was to drop a spin-turn and round the keeper (couldn’t get the shot on target though). Since then he’s been a regular in starting line-ups and every team in the world can use an energetic and creative young midfielder now and then. Especially in this case when it might just give the national team a bit of a bonus too. Looks like we’ve found a happy medium between Mark Rudan signing Aussie battlers and Mark Rudan not signing young kiwis.

Gianni Stensness

See above. Except this dude is a centre back, previously of Central Coast Mariners, who hasn’t made as much of an impact with the youth team but that might have been injury related. He started the first two games, missed four, then was back on the weekend.

The thing with Stensness is that there are a lot of other defenders at this club. Dudes like Reuben Way, Ryan Lowry and Dylan Fox are all well ahead in the reserve ranks (and each has played for the WeeNix too). But the best young defender at the club right now is Liam Moore and he’s about to leave for college in the United States (if he hasn’t already left yet) and last year’s top defender, Liam Wood, is now with Team Wellington. In other words if he’s good enough to make the Aussie U20 squad and the kiwi U20s are all leaving then the path is pretty clear if a couple injuries/suspensions should pile up at once. Excited to see what he can do over the next couple weeks to press that case.

Max Batchelor

Thinking in terms of needs here. Batchelor has only started two games for the WeeNix so far but should come into more prominence in the second half of the season when a couple other folks disappear. Most notably Calvin Harris, who is the best player in the WeeNix right now but is leaving in the New Year to attend Wake Forrest University in the USA. Massive shame to be losing one of the club’s best prospects, a rare player who can bust a game open with a moment of magic, but he’s gotta do what’s best for him. As a Hong Kong citizen born of English parents he’s not eligible as a local player so signing him would have cost the Phoenix a precious import spot at a time when they need all the help they can get. Understandable from all perspectives.

There is another striker in the system who could step it up though. Max Batchelor is a tall joker who can add a different dimension to what is currently a forward line stacked with pace over power. Obviously you want your target men a little older and grizzlier but he wouldn’t be the worst alternative. We’ll see if he can hammer down a regular spot for the ressies first and then go from there.

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