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  • Writer's pictureJake Holub

A-League Men: The U21 players to watch this season

The start of the 2023/24 A-League Men's season has seen clubs embrace young talent more than ever. Three rounds into the season, we have seen multiple teams provide U21 players plenty of minutes, with league leaders Adelaide United topping this metric with 883 minutes played by U21 talent. Thus, going through each club, Front Page Football has compiled a list of players in this age demographic you should watch over the season.


Adelaide United - Giuseppe Bovalina


Age: 18


Position: Right-back

Giuseppe Bovalina in action against Melbourne City in Round 2. (Courtney Pedlar)


Picking only one Adelaide United player is challenging, considering their significant young talent pool. With the likes of Nestory Irankunda and Jonny Yull rightfully receiving several plaudits and hype, it is only suitable to recognise a name just starting to break into the first team, Giuseppe Bovalina.


The 18-year-old has already displayed the qualities any modern fullback aspires to have in his limited minutes thus far. He possesses tremendous pace, physicality, technical ability, work rate, and defensive nous while also having an eye for goal. While he started both of the Reds' Australia Cup fixtures, Bovalina has also found a first-team role this A-League Men season. In a thirty-minute cameo in United's 6-0 thumping of Melbourne City and playing the second half against Melbourne Victory, Bovalina adjusted well to the professional step-up, impressing in both his appearances.


Manager Carl Veart said Panashe Madanha's poor performance in the Original Rivalry resulted in Bovalina's introduction, a move which we should potentially keep an eye out for should Veart award Bovalina a start heading into their Round 4 clash at Coopers Stadium against Sydney FC.


Brisbane Roar - Thomas Waddingham


Age: 18


Position: Striker

Thomas Waddingham (centre left) was a revelation throughout the Brisbane Roar's successful Australia Cup campaign. (Brisbane Roar FC Instagram)


Thomas Waddingham is a perfect example of what the Australia Cup can offer Australian football. Before the past Australian Cup campaign, Waddingham had yet to feature in a senior game. But now he has established himself as the starting striker for a Brisbane Roar side looking to contend for a Finals Series spot under Ross Aloisi.


Arguably the biggest breakout star of the Cup, he capped his competition by scoring the opening goal in the Final against Sydney FC. Waddingham has propelled himself into becoming one of the best young attacking talents in the country, deservedly earning a spot in the Young Socceroos squad that recently travelled for the Marbella Week of Football.


In a football world becoming more dominated by young, quick, physical goal scorers who also happen to be left-footed (Erling Haaland, Rasmus Højlund, and Dusan Vlahovic, to name a few), Waddingham seems to be Australia's version of this recent phenomenon. With all four of his Cup goals coming from inside the penalty area, he has shown his ability as a fantastic poacher ready to pounce on dangerous balls into the box while possessing excellent mobility and being a good presser out of possession.


Waddingham has started both of the Roar's league games since returning from international duty, picking up an assist in their 3-0 win over Sydney FC. At only 18, Waddingham is still very young for a striker, and this season should be a fantastic opportunity for him to gain experience at a professional level. While it may be unrealistic to expect the striker to become one of the league's top scorers immediately, Waddingham will undoubtedly be one to watch as he adapts to professional football over the next few seasons.


Central Coast Mariners - Nathan Paull


Age: 20


Position: Centre-back

Nathan Paull (left) in action against Adelaide United in the 2023/24 A-League Men season opener. (Central Coast Mariners Instagram)


Recently, it feels like all the Central Coast Mariners youth signings and academy products tend to all become the top talents in the league. Last season, we saw Nectarios Triantis go from failing to get a proper sniff of senior football at the Western Sydney Wanderers to being the starting centre-back for the A-League Men champions, resulting in his move to Sunderland. Heading into the 2023/24 season, Nathan Paull is on a similar trajectory.


A regular for Sydney FC's NPL side but failing to feature for their first team, Paull swapped sky blue for yellow and navy this off-season, joining the Mariners following Triantis' departure. The towering and physical defender has since started in Australia Cup and AFC Cup games for his new side, displaying the maturity and intelligence of a seasoned veteran despite his youth and inexperience at senior level.


Paull has almost seamlessly slotted into the Mariners' backline, particularly impressing with his ball-playing from deep, which resulted in an assist in the monumental 9-1 win over Stallion Laguna. While the Mariners have admittedly struggled so far this campaign, Paull has played every minute and will likely continue to improve as the season progresses and he gains more experience.


Macarthur FC - Jed Drew


Age: 20


Position: Left winger

Jed Drew initially burst onto the scene with Macarthur last season. (Macarthur FC Instagram)


Although he had his initial breakthrough into the first team last season, Jed Drew is seemingly about to reach new heights this campaign. After six starts for Macarthur in 2022/23, Drew has already reached half that total to open the new season, starting all three of the Bulls' league games so far.


Following an injury to Daniel De Silva in the AFC Cup, Drew has made the left-wing position his with tremendous speed and direct play. He particularly stood out when he came on for the injured De Silva in Macarthur's 8-2 win over DH Cebu FC, scoring a stunning goal and registering an assist.


Drew has carried this continental form into the A-League Men, where he has impressed with his dribbling, completing two per game with a 67% success rate and displaying great playmaking ability with two big chances created and 1.7 key passes per game.


With his teammates Jake Hollman and Raphael Borges Rodrigues earning call-ups for the recent Olyroos squad heading to the AFC U23 Asian Cup and possibly the Paris Olympics later on, Drew can undoubtedly join them should he maintain consistent minutes and performances with Macarthur, as Mile Sterjovski's side look to continue their excellent start to the league season and progress in the AFC Cup.


Melbourne City - Alessandro Lopane


Age: 19


Position: Midfielder

Alessandro Lopane swapped the Western Sydney Wanderers for Melbourne City in the off-season. (Melbourne City FC Instagram)


Receiving his initial opportunity at A-League Men level with the Western Sydney Wanderers, Alessandro Lopane moved to the reigning premiers in the off-season. Thus far, it has seemed a fantastic choice. Lopane has received plenty of minutes across the Australia Cup, the Asian Champions League, and the opening three rounds of the new league campaign.


Generally considered more of a central midfielder, Lopane has primarily featured out wide for Melbourne City, likely due to injuries to key players such as Andrew Nabbout and Mathew Leckie. Lopane has certainly held his own so far, being tidy in possession while displaying an ability to make late runs into the box and convert crosses from the opposite side, grabbing goals in the Australia Cup and ACL from these particular actions.


As Léo Natel gains match fitness and Leckie, as mentioned earlier, steps up his recovery, it will be interesting to see whether Lopane possibly receives more minutes in a central role, ultimately the area of the pitch he seems better suited to.


Melbourne Victory - Franco Lino


Age: 18


Position: Left-back

Franco Lino signed a new long-term contract with Melbourne Victory ahead of the 2023/24 season. (Melbourne Victory Instagram)


Following impressive showings at an NPL level and with the Young Socceroos, Franco Lino has worked his way into the Melbourne Victory first-team for this A-League Men season. The 18-year-old left-back has shown significant promise for Tony Popovic's team, providing athleticism and excitement.


The Original Rivalry saw Lino make his league debut and potentially receive the opportunity to establish himself at left-back following an injury to veteran Adama Traore. Although it is never nice to see a well-respected player like Traore suffer injury, it may open the door for one of Victory's brightest talents to prove himself in the competition.


With Victory having signed Lino to a long-term deal ahead of the new season, he is clearly highly regarded at the club. He should get his chance sooner rather than later, and he will likely impress.


Newcastle Jets - Clayton Taylor


Age: 19


Position: Left winger

Clayton Taylor (right) in a pre-season outing against Sydney FC. (newcastlejetsfc Instagram)


Another signing from Sydney FC's NPL side, Clayton Taylor, could become another who slipped through the Sky Blues' grasp. Taylor already looks like a top pickup for the Newcastle Jets, establishing himself as a pivotal attacker in all competitions this season.


After a stunning goal against Brisbane Roar in the Cup and a double against Melbourne Victory (which probably should have been a hat-trick if not for a wrongfully disallowed goal), Taylor has stood out with his eye for goal. This trait tends to develop later for many young wingers.


Taylor has oozed confidence on the left wing for the Jets, completing two dribbles per game while demonstrating a very direct and unpredictable style, where he can either cut inside onto his preferred right foot or drive to the byline using his left foot with his weaker side equally as impressive. Taylor's progress is noteworthy for someone only entering the professional landscape this season. Seeing how much he can improve throughout the season in a youthful Jets side will be intriguing.


Perth Glory - Daniel Bennie


Age: 17


Position: Left winger

Daniel Bennie (left) shoots on goal in Perth's 2-0 win over the Central Coast Mariners in Round 3. (Dan McAdam/Laughing Bulldog Images)


Daniel Bennie's past few months have been outstanding. At the U17 AFC Asian Cup with the Joeys, Bennie notched one goal and two assists across three games, scored for Perth Glory in pre-season against West Ham United, and earned a starting spot across their opening three 2023/24 league fixtures.


Bennie can play across the frontline, primarily featuring on the left wing for the Glory. It is a testament to Bennie's talent that he has been given the opportunity at his age to feature so regularly for Perth, with his speed and creativity allowing him to thrive against seasoned professionals.


With significant depth and competition in wide attacking areas within the Glory squad, including the likes of Salim Khelifi, Stefan Colakovski, Bruce Kamau, Jarrod Carluccio, and Trent Ostler, it will be interesting to see how Alen Stajcic manages Bennie, considering his youth and inexperience at a professional level, maintaining a balance between providing opportunities and not burning him out.


Sydney FC - Jake Girdwood-Reich


Age: 19


Position: Centre-back/defensive midfielder

Jake Girdwood-Reich was one of Sydney FC's standout performers throughout their triumphant Australia Cup run. (Sydney FC Instagram)


Jake Girdwood-Reich is another player who, although he received opportunities in the 2022/23 A-League Men season, this campaign is one where he can take his game to the next level. A defensive midfielder by trade, Girdwood-Reich featured as a centre-back for Sydney FC throughout their Australia Cup run, where he was one of the most impressive defenders in the competition.


He has continued to be used in this role during the new league season while also featuring as a defensive midfielder in Sydney's Round 3 clash against Melbourne City. Although the Sky Blues have struggled so far, Girdwood-Reich has been one of the few shining lights, with his versatility, physicality, aggression, and defensive awareness not often noticeable in a young player.


Expect Girdwood-Reich to continue to feature regularly for a Sydney side seemingly looking to utilise their academy more, one that has seen a plethora of talent slip through their grasp, including prospects such as Marco Tilio, Cameron Devlin, Cristian Volpato, Calem Nieuwenhof, Jake Hollman, and countless others.


Wellington Phoenix - Lukas Kelly-Heald


Age: 18


Position: Left-back

Lukas Kelly-Heald penned the longest contract in Wellington Phoenix's history ahead of this season. (Wellington Phoenix FC Instagram)


In contrast to Sydney FC, the Wellington Phoenix have proven themselves to be a club that is quite successful in turning their talented academy players into first-team regulars. Following a significant turnover in their squad heading into this season, including eight first-team players and manager Ufuk Talay departing, new Nix boss Giancarlo Italiano has looked to the academy to replenish his team for the new season.


While Alex Paulsen and Finn Surman have particularly impressed during Wellington's fantastic start to the season, earning call-ups to the All Whites squad in the process, Lukas Kelly-Heald is a name that certainly should not be too far away from perhaps reaching a similar landmark. Standing just under two metres tall, Kelly-Heald exemplifies precisely why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, proving an excellent left-back with his composure and ability to work up and down the left-hand side of the pitch.


Kelly-Heald, another who is only playing his first professional football season, has not looked out of place in a solid Phoenix defence. He is completing 2.7 interceptions and three tackles per game on the defensive end (amongst some of the highest numbers in the league) while completing one dribble a match at a 100% success rate. He has also already notched an assist.


New Zealanders playing at the Phoenix can often be overlooked around the league, but Kelly-Heald is a top prospect to keep an eye on (and it's certainly not hard to; he is 6'6", after all).


Western Sydney Wanderers - Oscar Priestman


Age: 20


Position: Central midfielder

Oscar Priestman warms up ahead of the Western Sydney Wanderers' Round 3 clash against Newcastle. (Western Sydney Wanderers Instagram)


The Western Sydney Wanderers, like many fellow A-League Men clubs, required a substantial rebuild, particularly in the midfield department, following the departures of Romain Amalfitano, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Calem Nieuwenhof. Oscar Priestman from Sydney FC's academy is one player they have brought in as a replacement in this area.


Priestman has made substitute cameos for the Wanderers in the Australia Cup and A-League Men, slowly progressing as he looks to win a starting place for his new side. He has put himself in a great position to do so following Western Sydney's draw with the Newcastle Jets last week, where Priestman came off the bench and picked up an excellent assist for Marcus Antonsson's equaliser.


Although the current midfield pivot of Jorrit Hendrix and Joshua Brillante possesses much more experience and quality, it has also arguably lacked the youthful exuberance Nieuwenhof, in particular, provided last season. Marko Rudan will have some decisions to make should Priestman continue to impress in his limited minutes off the bench.

 

READ MORE A-LEAGUE MEN CONTENT ON FPF

 

Western United - Kane Vidmar


Age: 19


Position: Centre-back

Kane Vidmar moved from Adelaide United to Western United in the off-season. (David Aliaga)


This off-season saw Leo Lacroix and Nikolai Topor-Stanley depart Western United, two key defenders who notably played vital roles in the club's 2021/22 championship side. 19-year-old centre-back Kane Vidmar was signed this off-season to add youth to a position typically held by older and more experienced players at Western.


After Jacob Tratt picked up an injury in Western United's 5-0 thumping to Western Sydney, Vidmar made his A-League Men debut before making a starting debut in last week's defeat to Macarthur. Vidmar made a strong impression, demonstrating solid passing ability and defensive solidity.


With Tratt not included in the squad again for United's Round 4 clash against the Newcastle Jets, Vidmar is expected to keep his starting spot for his new side. He has had a solid start to life with Western United. Vidmar will look to gain as much game time and experience as possible, particularly with the possibility of Asian Cup selection for the Olyroos, coached by none other than his father, Tony Vidmar.

 

All statistics sourced from SofaScore.


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