Experience Dominates Potential in the Football Ferns’ Cup of Nations Squad

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We’re in a World Cup year now, folks. Building towards the big show. Lots of football to be played between now and then and all of it is going to revolve in at least an abstract way if not an outright specific way around France in June. Good thing then that the Ferns have plenty of excellent preparation lined up, from a friendly against the USA, to the Cup Of Nations tournament in Aussie at the end of February for which Tom Sermanni has just named his squad.

A little early to be naming the squad a whole month out from the first game? Perhaps. Although it’s only really the Euro-based players (excluding those in Scandinavia) who are in season at the moment and this is just after the extended training camp held in Auckland for wider squad candidates. In other words, not a lot will change between now and then.

The story of this squad naming is quite obviously the players who have been recalled/welcomed back/embraced after extended absences. Experience has dominated over its old mate potential and Abby Erceg’s return is the most significant bit of news the Ferns could have hoped for ahead of the World Cup but she’s not the only one back from the international wilderness (not sure I really like that word wilderness in this context – if something is wild and untamed it means it’s natural, this is too much along that narrative of humans dominating nature as opposed to holding it sacred… I’m diverging, aren’t I?). Yeah, so following an unexpected stint at that training camp, both Emma Kete and Katie Duncan have been included in this squad. Quite remarkable, that. But I’ll come back to them in due course.

The Ferns play three games at the Cup of Nations over three double-header matchdays in three different cities. The games are on at great times for kiwi viewers too so if they don’t end up on telly or livestreamed without geoblocks (still not sure why we can’t watch the W-League streams here) then we the people will simply have to kickstart the broadcasting revolution ourselves by overthrowing the abusers of power. Moving on.

vs AUSTRALIA / Thursday 28 February, 9.30pm NZT / Jubilee Stadium, Sydney

vs ARGENTINA / Sunday 3 March, 6.05pm NZT / Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

vs KOREA REPUBLIC / Wednesday 6 March, 5.05pm NZT / AAMI Park, Melbourne


GOALKEEPERS

Victoria Esson – Avaldsnes, NOR (3 caps/0 goals)

Anna Leat - East Coast Bays, NZL (3/0)

Erin Nayler – Girondins Bordeaux, FRA (57/0)

Completely as expected for the goalies. Esson is on the verge of going pro in Norway and has thus edged her way ahead of the other standout domestic candidate here, Nadia Olla, while Erin Nayler’s status is beyond doubt and Anna Leat is one of the brightest prospects in NZ footy right now following her heroics with the U17 World Cup side… although let’s be honest she was already on that trajectory long before. Not really anything else to add here, Nayler will be the starting keeper at the World Cup as long as she’s fit and healthy but by the time the next one rolls around we’ll have ourselves a real tussle for those gloves.


DEFENDERS

CJ Bott - Vittsjö GIK, SWE (12/0)

Abby Erceg - North Carolina Courage, USA (132/6)

Anna Green - Unattached (71/7)

Meikayla Moore - MSV Duisburg, GER (31/3)

Sarah Morton - Western Springs, NZL (5/1)

Ali Riley - Chelsea, ENG (119/1)

Stephanie Skilton - Papakura City, NZL (8/0)

Rebekah Stott - Melbourne City, AUS (67/4)

Big haere mai to Abby Erceg, back to fill those centre-back boots once again as one of the world’s finest defensive players. The Ferns still looked alright for options without her… so just imagine how good they can be with her. Assuming Sermani keeps a steady 4-3-3 shape, which makes sense on the basis of the players available and their abilities, then it’ll be between Rebekah Stott and Meikayla Moore for who starts next to Erceg in that position. Either one could also play right back (though Stott has the edge there), however fullbacks are not an issue for this side. Along with the captain Ali Riley, there’s also CJ Bott, Anna Green, Sarah Morton, Katie Bowen and Ria Percival who can all do an excellent job at those two positions.

This feels like the first time since the Olympics that there’s been a full-strength defence to choose from. Everybody’s fit and available at the moment… which has meant Liz Anton slips out of the squad from the Nations Cup. Can’t pick everybody, after all. Steph Skilton will most likely be a backup CB (and a bit of a utility player) although Green could slide into the middle if necessary and Katie Duncan could even be a shot there.

First choice back four, I’d go: Stott, Erceg, Moore, Riley. Depends how highly you rate Meikayla Moore, really, and personally I reckon there’s a strong case that she’s been the most impressive Fern of the last two years (although Katie Bowen, Erin Nayler and Annalie Longo are all close).


MIDFIELDERS

Katie Bowen - Utah Royals, USA (56/3)

Daisy Cleverley - University of California, USA (6/2)

Katie Duncan - Onehunga Sports, NZL (119/1)

Betsy Hassett - KR Reykjavik, ISL (107/13)

Annalie Longo - Cashmere Technical, NZL (110/15)

Ria Percival - West Ham United, ENG (135/14)

Now we get to the real curious ones. Katie Bowen and Ria Percival were always going to be there – the question is more whether Sermanni will pick the two of them together in these games or if they’re competing for one defensive midfield spot (if so then whoever misses out jumps the queue for right back). Betsy Hassett and Annalie Longo are the preferred attacking midfielders, though Rosie White is a capable alternative. Again it depends on how the midfield is arranged.

But there’s also competition from both sides of the experience scale as Daisy Cleverley and Katie Duncan come back into the squad. Duncan last played for NZ at the 2017 Cyprus Cup and was retired until Tom Sermanni’s glowing presence lured her back into the crew, while Cleverley actually started Duncan’s last international cap and came off the bench in the two-game series against the USA later that year but hasn’t featured in a squad since. Sometimes the American college students disappear a little like that. Striker Marty Puketapu is another one who has slipped off the radar while at college. Interesting then that Cleverley’s been recalled now and particularly with Malia Steinmetz and Grace Jale not included after being in the Nations Cup side.

You know, not that long ago we had bugger all midfielders after Kirsty Yallop and Katie Duncan retired but the emergence of Katie Bowen as an international force and Ria Percival’s switch to the middle for the Ferns (one of the few things we can thank Andreas Heraf for – Percy is well familiar with CM at club level but was exclusively an international right back for ages there), suddenly the stocks are overflowing as several super-promising prospects also emerge. Steinmetz has the aura of Professional Footballer all over her the way she plays, though a bout of heat stroke at the Nations Cup meant only a few minutes there and now she’s surprisingly missed this squad having been included in all of the previous six tours. Depth can be a tricky thing… but coaches always say it’s a good problem to have.

Then there’s Katie Duncan. I’ll be honest, when she and Emma Kete were revealed to be in that training camp, each openly embarking on the comeback, I didn’t think they’d necessarily make it this far. Kete more specifically, since she’s spent the last couple years studying. Hasn’t played at the top level since finishing up with Canberra United in 2016. But apparently she’s eyeing up some trials in the USA and going all in, which is amazing to see. Plus she goes back a way with Sermanni, given he was coaching the Matildas while she was in the W-League.

Yet even Katie Duncan was up against it to get this far. Been playing club level in New Zealand lately and 22 months or so removed from international football is a fair distance to overcome. Class is permanent, as they say. Although I’d add that both would need strong tours in the Cup of Nations to stay in contention for the World Cup. There’ll be a bit of ‘let’s see what we’ve got available’ involved in this one as it’s Tom Sermanni’s first opportunity to play against higher-ranked opposition.


FORWARDS

Sarah Gregorius - Upper Hutt City, NZL (88/33)

Emma Kete - Unattached (48/3)

Aimee Phillips - Unattached (6/1)

Katie Rood - Lewes, ENG (8/4)

Paige Satchell - Three Kings United, NZL (7/1)

Rosie White - Chicago Red Stars, USA (95/23)

Pleasing to see Katie Rood hold her spot in the squad of 23 – same number as will go to the World Cup – after an impressive Nations Cup campaign. Also impressing in that one was Emma Rolston and she’s nowhere in sight. Along with Steinmentz, probably the two most unexpected omissions. Roodie’s just signed on loan with Lewes in the second tier of England so should be getting extended minutes from now until the World Cup itself.

That’s extremely useful as we’re looking at a forward line which has its two top strikers out injured and potentially in a race against time to be fit for the tournament at all. Hannah Wilkinson and Amber Hearn. That’s a lot of goals missing if that’s how it ends up. Lots of major tournament experience as well. Sarah Gregorius and Rosie White make up for some of that and in the meantime you’d assume that White is the first choice centre-forward, Gregorius the first choice left wing. That leaves an open third spot for one of the rest of them to challenge for. Paige Satchell brings pace and trickery. Rood brings technique and vision. Then there are the two unattached forwards: Emma Kete and Aimee Phillips.

For Kete it’s all about how quickly she can get back up to speed at this level – though the fact she’s been picked at all shows Sermanni believes she can handle it. Kete hasn’t always scored a heap of goals but she’s super experienced and could offer the team the attacking focal point that they’re missing without Hearn or Wilko. And Phillips is similar, someone who has crammed heaps of experiences into her last couple years since leaving Canterbury Utd to play in Europe. She’s listed as unattached here so assuming that means she won’t be back in Germany after their winter break. Phillips is a natural goal scorer and it never made much sense that she was missing from the last three squads. Glad to see her back in there.

Also gotta mention a couple other injured players who didn’t get listed on the NZF release. Olivia Chance is back into training now with Everton as she recovers from last year’s knee injury. Likely that she’s back on the field before the end of the English season and ready to build on what was a breakout 2018 until the injury. Jana Radosavljević, who is also recovering from a torn ACL, is much less likely to be fit in time and that’s a bummer as she’d been doing great in Germany before the injury. Only been in one senior squad for NZ and yet to earn a first cap – don’t wanna forget her in case Serbia comes calling.

And that’s about that.

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