Ah yes, the old trick where you reveal your latest national team squad on a Friday afternoon right after the big and controversial release of your new Premiership format and a day out from the kickoff of the men’s National League and another round of the women’s National League and in the middle of an U17 men’s World Cup campaign and then just generally on a bloody Friday arvo when the weekend’s nigh. So, yes, apologies that it’s taken a couple days to even get around to having a proper squizz at this Football Ferns squad for the trip to China. The first Ferns squad since the World Cup. A very curious Ferns squad indeed.
There’s one fewer player and are five other changes from the World Cup squad here. Six if you include Meikayla Moore who was injured and replaced in that WC squad (by Nicole Stratford, who is here). For a team that was forced to cram an entire World Cup cycle into a single year and which now immediately turns its focus towards the Olympics next year... that’s a lot of change. But then the World Cup had its disappointments, as we all know. The Ferns weren’t able to achieve what they set out to achieve. And a couple of these changes seem to directly relate to those disappointments... while a few others are just natural ones, we’ll get all that.
The tour itself is a two-game trip to China for a cheeky invitational tournament called the Yongchuan Cup. New Zealand plays the hosts in one semi-final (12.35am on Friday NZT) after Brazil face Canada in the other, with the winners and losers then meeting in a third place game or a final three days later (both on Sunday night/Monday morn NZT). Nothing drastic there but two quality games against quality opposition, all of whom will expect to beat us but all of whom we’ve gotten results off in the past and are capable of doing so again. Not sure if those are the standards to hold this team to at this point in time, considering a couple factors in this squad and also the recalibrated focus on Tokyo 2020... but we’ll see how it goes. Here’s the squad...
Lily Alfeld - Northern Lights (0 caps/0 goals)
Victoria Esson - Avaldsnes IL, Norway, (3/0)
Erin Nayler - Girondins Bordeaux, France (67/0)
There’s nothing really to say about the latter two here. Nayler is not only the best keeper in Aotearoa but she’s one of the better ones in the world, although that might be a biased kiwi take. But she was top quality at a World Cup full of top quality keepers and has been stringing together another excellent season in France of late as well. Meanwhile Vic Esson has established herself as second in command with a few solid seasons for Canterbury followed by this current stint at Avaldsnes (alongside Rebekah Stott) where she’s played 10 league games in 2019. She had been out injured for the last month but with this selection you’d assume that’s a thing of the past now.
As for the third stringer, that’s more of a yarn. With Anna Leat, the long term option, focussing on her studies in the United States at the moment and taking a step back from the international stuff, that rules her out. Nadia Olla, who debuted at the Nations Cup a year ago, had held that role at the World Cup and was in four of the previous five Ferns squads... but she’s been left out for Northern keeper Lily Alfield, who kept at the U20 World Cup in 2014 and has been involved in the Ferns set up before... though not since the Cyprus Cup in 2014. At 24 years old she’s more experienced than Olla (19yo) though Tom Sermanni’s probably thinking more purely about expanding that playing depth than anything else. This is his brief opportunity to do that before zoning in on the Olympics full focus.
CJ Bott - Vittsjo GIK, Sweden (19/1)
Claudia Bunge - Northern Lights (0/0)
Sarah Morton - Auckland (6/1)
Ali Riley - FC Bayern Munich, Germany (129/1)
Steph Skilton - Auckland (9/0)
Rebekah Stott - Avaldsnes IL, Norway, (76/4)
Nicole Stratford - USV Jena, Germany (0/0)
Yeah see now this is where it gets funky. For the most part Sermanni has picked as many of the big names as he’s been able to but circumstances aren’t always so kind. Abby Erceg is unavailable for this tour out of what are officially labelled as personal reasons but having only last week wrapped up a very, very packed 2019 club campaign by captaining the North Carolina Courage to a second consecutive NWSL championship – in a league which didn’t break for the World Cup so at one stage she played for New Zealand in a warm-up game in the midweek between two NWSL games – I’m not sure anyone could have had any complaints with her being given a rest here. She’s bloody earned it if anyone has.
However this does unfortunately happen at a time when Meikayla Moore is still months away from returning to action and Anna Green happens to be injured as well. Which means that Rebekah Stott is gonna be a rather crucial player on this tour if the Ferns are gonna be competitive. She’s joined at CB by Nicole Stratford and Claudia Bunge, Stratford having been the ring in for Moore when she was injured immediately prior to the World Cup. At the time that was kinda stunning. Stratford had only just gotten in on the FFDP stuff and was nowhere near the Ferns squad previously – 30 years old and uncapped. It was the 23rd spot out of 23 in the squad and a late notice replacement so no need to make a big song and dance but definitely a weird one. But since then she’s signed with USV Jena in Germany, that old familiar haunt for so many kiwi women footy players, where she made her debut off the bench late last month. So it all looks a lot more reasonable now and with the injuries to this position she should get a chance to show what she can do on the international stage.
Bunge is the other central defender. A first ever call-up to the squad, the only player in that situation here, and a welcome addition to the crew. Meikayla Moore’s pre-WC injury kinda exposed a lack of depth at this position behind the main starters and Bunge is coming off the U20 World Cup last year and has been a great performer for a really strong Northern team (who beat Canterbury in Christchurch a few weeks back!). Bunge is the kind of player who has the potential to step up into the pro ranks, she’s got good height and she reads the game well and age is on her side, therefore she’s exactly the kind of player to be bringing into the camp in a situation like this. One eye on the present, one eye on the future (and your third eye upon the entirety of everything).
Steph Skilton is the other one who might play some CB though under Sermanni she’s been considered more of a utility player, has the Auckland captain. But needs must and all that. Elsewhere it’s all the usuals. Ria Percival is more likely to play midfield in this team so I’ve shifted her into that category but of course she’s equally capable at RB or CM. Katie Bowen is also a right back for the Utah Royals so keep her in consideration, while CJ Bott and Ali Riley would be the natural right and left back options here – although note that CJB plays left back for her Swedish club. And Sarah Morton is another fullback option who is steadily becoming a regular squad member after being picked in the last six – the other players who’ve been in each of the last six (or more squads): Paige Satchell, Sarah Gregorius, Rosie White, Rebekah Stott, Ali Riley, Erin Nayler, Annalie Longo, Betsy Hassett, Katie Bowen, and CJ Bott... so there you go.
Hannah Blake - University of Michigan, USA (1/0)
Katie Bowen - Utah Royals, USA (65/3)
Olivia Chance – Bristol City, England (17/0)
Betsy Hassett - KR Reykjavik, Iceland (116/13)
Annalie Longo - Melbourne Victory, Australia (119/15)
Ria Percival - Tottenham Hotspur, England (145/14)
Jana Radosavljevic - BV Cloppenburg, Germany (0/0)
Katie Duncan has retired since the World Cup, having come out of retirement to make that squad. 124 caps for the Football Ferns with four World Cups and three Olympics. What a career. Duncan had already had a spell out of the squad though so her absence is more about the depth. At the World Cup it was mostly Bowen and Percival (though Duncan did start the Cameroon game). They’re the two topskees and Olivia Chance is fast putting herself in that category too. Betsy Hassett is a few weeks removed from the end of her season in Iceland so keep that in mind but she’s a key on the attacking end of midfield, as is Annalie Longo fresh off signing with W-League club Melbourne Victory.
It’s interesting that Tom Sermanni said in the press release that he’s looking for more established players to “make a statement and say ‘I want to continue in this team and this is what we need to do going forward’”. There’s none of that worry in the goalkeeping stakes while the defence is missing too many folks for that to matter. But in the midfield and especially with the attackers that’s a sneaky aspect to all this. There have been a lot of players who have been wonderful servants #ForTheFern but there also hasn’t often been a huge amount of pressure on them for places. As more depth emerges, the likes of Hassett and Longo are going to have to keep delivering at a high level if they want to keep getting the same opportunities. Which is just the kind of motivating factor we need to see in a team that hasn’t yet delivered on their potential at a major tournament. Everybody on their toes.
And part of that depth is having Hannah Blake and Jana Radosavljević in the squad. Both have been in squads before, Blake got her lone cap off the bench against Thailand in 2017 and Rado was in that same squad though never played. Each has also had their injury issues, pretty sure Hannah Blake had a back worry for a while there and Rado missed almost all of the last European season after a serious knee injury. There’s a bit of rotation here. Daisy Cleverley has dropped out after the World Cup while Malia Steinmetz, Emma Rolston, and Grace Jale haven’t been picked since the Nations Cup. This is Blake and Rado’s chance. Same as it is for Bunge and Stratford and even Katie Rood in the frontline. It’s all about testing that depth and building genuine competition for places... and letting those on the outer see where the standard is at.
Sarah Gregorius - Unattached (97/34)
Katie Rood - Lewes FC, England (10/5)
Paige Satchell - SC Sand, Germany (15/1)
Rosie White - Reign FC, USA (105/24)
Hannah Wilkinson - Sporting CP, Portugal (92/25)
A little bit of a surprise to see Sarah Gregorius in there, to be fair. She’s without a club since taking up a gig with FIFPro and while she said at the time that she was still committed to the Ferns and hoping to make the Olympics, but when you’re not playing footy at that same level it’s easier said than done. Then again if any employer can understand that and make allowances then it’s the global players’ union.
And, honestly, we don’t have a lot of depth here. An inability to fashion regular goal-scoring chances was the major weakness at the World Cup just as it has been most times the Ferns play top opposition. We’ve still got the core four forwards from that squad... who contributed a total of zero goals in France but it’s a more holistic issue than that. Style of play is a factor, as is the service from those around the strikers, and can’t ignore the limited preparation under the current gaffer. But if senior players are on call (if Sermanni actually means that and it ain’t just lip service) then it’s these forwards who have to cop that. Hannah Wilkinson is back to full fitness and scoring goals in Portugal now. Rosie White is back on the professional scene with Seattle Reign (fingers crossed on a new deal for next year). Paige Satchell is playing professionally in Germany too.
Basically the Ferns have until late-July next year to figure out how they can create chances against the best teams out there. There’s no winning games and making knockout stages until we can reliably do that. The excuses that were there in France aren’t there any more.
Hence it’s also cool to see someone like Katie Rood reintroduced to the squad. With Sermanni’s limited time in charge, he has tended to lean on experienced players in a way that wasn’t always beneficial. Katie Duncan had something unique to offer coming out of retirement but Emma Kete... really talented player but it was too much ground to make up after such a long time removed from the top level. Katie Rood should never have been dropped in the first place. But she was and now here we are, with the opportunity to show us what we were missing.
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