A-League Women extension a small step to match the world's best
Last Wednesday, the APL announced the immediate extension of the A-League Women season from 14 rounds to 20. This change comes as Western United is unveiled as the latest expansion team to join the league. The move will see a further extension to the ALW season to a full 22-round home and away season from 2023/24 when the Central Coast Mariners will also join the competition.
The move will see clubs play the same amount of match minutes as world-class leagues such as the Women's Super League in England, the National Women's Soccer League in the USA, Div 1 Feminine in France, and the Frauen-Bundesliga in Germany. This statistic is achieved before considering the minutes gained from the finals series. They will only be beaten for regular-season minutes by the Damallsvenskan in Sweden and the Primera Division in Spain.
ALW fans across the country were delighted by the announcement and have called for a fully professional league for a long time. While this change hasn’t occurred, a full-length home and away season is an essential step to getting there.
The A-League Women competition will extend from 14 rounds to 20 for the 2022/23 season, and then to 22 rounds for the 2023/24 season. (Equalizer Soccer)
This move's implications for women’s football in Australia cannot be underestimated. The increased minutes in top-flight matches will help the progression of some of our brightest stars. It will also open the door to more opportunities for younger players, as longer seasons require more squad rotation.
Aside from development opportunities, the league's extension will help make it a more attractive option for international players. Equalling the match minutes of some of the world's most prestigious competitions will raise its profile. So rather than being viewed as somewhere to keep fit during other league's off-seasons, the ALW will become a permanent destination for footballers to join.
The news of an extended A-League Women season has been praised. But it’s vital to ensure this initiative is a path the APL stick to in their quest to grow the women’s game.
Upon making the announcement, the APL immediately compared the A-League Women to leagues that will be similar in length. They were keen to show how important the move to a full home and away season is for women's football in Australia. However, these comparisons fail to consider what those same minutes provide for clubs overseas.
The A-League Women will match the regular-season minutes played in England, the USA, and France's top divisions. (Twitter: @aleaguewomen)
To take statistics at face value would be ignorant.
The league minutes would be similar. But clubs in the four European leagues mentioned above, the Primera Division (Spain), WSL (England), Div 1 Feminine (France), and the Damallsvenskan (Sweden), all participate in cup competitions alongside the league. Clubs in England will compete in two.
Even in the USA, which matches Australia's finals series minutes, there is a pre-season cup for NWSL teams. This tournament is similar to the pre-season cup seen in the early days of the A-League Men.
This type of competition could not be possible in the past in Australia as A-League Women players also played for sides in state NPL competitions. However, an extended league season should see no reason for players to have to represent two clubs. If so, a national cup competition should be entirely possible.
Sam Kerr was one of a number of Australian women to win cup competitions in Europe this season, an opportunity they would not have in Australia. (ABC)
The threat of relegation is also seen in all the European leagues mentioned, which the A-League Women still lacks. Relegation adds meaning to games for teams towards the bottom of the ladder. It ensures they aren't simply going through the motions as their campaign closes.
It is an issue that still surrounds the men's competition, and although progress has been made, the powers that be must do the same for the women's game too.
The Association of Australian Football Clubs, behind the push for a men's National Second Division, have also signalled their intention to lobby for a women's National Second Division. But it is ultimately up to the APL to have this implemented.
But the most significant difference between the A-League Women and the top leagues worldwide is that they are fully professional.
The ability to devote yourself to the sport and constantly be on the training ground or in the gym has profound advantages on a player’s development and ability to perform at a high level.
The ALW is yet to ensure complete professionalism for players, meaning they still need to balance club (and in some cases national) commitments with other work.
For example, last season Adelaide United striker Fiona Worts had to follow a five-goal haul away to the Brisbane Roar by working a shift at McDonald's back in Adelaide the next day.
Fiona Worts is an example of an A-League Women player still having to balance work commitments with football. (7 News)
It’s not a situation that allows players to perform at a level they are capable of achieving. Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson has encouraged players to explore opportunities abroad. There they have the chance to focus on their football development full-time.
Noticeable factors still separate the A-League Women from other leagues around the world. Fans, pundits, and the APL can compare match minutes with pride, but it cannot truly compete until these discrepancies are addressed.
It’s crucial now that the APL doesn’t sit back and rest on this change. Continual improvement is needed to ensure the A-League Women can keep up with the rest of the world.
This move from the APL shows faith in women's football. It shows they are listening to what the fans are asking and are looking to use the 2023 Women's World Cup as a platform for positive change in the game.
APL CEO Danny Townsend talking about the implications of an expanded and extended A-League Women competition. (Twitter: @aleaguewomen)
A lot of what needs to be done cannot happen overnight, and fans are aware of this. But this step must be the first of a long journey to ensure the A-League Women can reach its full potential. That is abundantly clear.
It’s a small step. But it’s one that needs to be applauded at the end of the day. Fans can argue that this change needed to come sooner, and they may be right. But slow progress is better than no progress. And whilst there's still work to be done, this announcement is an opportunity for fans of the women's game down under to celebrate a small win.
This article is a follow up to Cody's piece calling for the APL to expand the A-League Women home and away season back in February.