Olympics Preview: Australia

Ben Gilby profiles The Matildas (picture above via Football Australia) who take their place in by far the toughest group at the Games.

Squad News:

Australia’s squad for the Olympic Games is one filled with players plying their trade in some of the biggest clubs in women’s football including FA Women’s Super League title and Golden Boot winner Sam Kerr, Olympique Lyonnais’ star defender Ellie Carpenter, UEFA Women’s Champions League bound Arsenal trio, Steph Catley, Caitlin Foord and Lydia Williams, as well as W-League Grand Final match winner Kyra Cooney-Cross. 

The squad selected is a mix of youth and experience, with three players recording over 100 international appearances for Australia.  Teenagers Cooney-Cross and Mary Fowler join Teagan Micah, Emily Gielnik, Hayley Raso, Charli Grant, Courtney Nevin, Laura Brock and veteran Aivi Luik as the nine Olympic debutants.  

The squad, which looks very strong on paper does not come without a few potentially risky selections. Tony Gustavsson has called up both Elise Kellond-Knight and Chloe Logarzo, both of whom have been side-lined for injuries for a lengthy period, and who have not played for the Matildas since the pandemic. First choice goalkeeper Lydia Williams has been out for much of last season with Arsenal. Teagan Micah has also come in as goalkeeper after impressive against Sweden in the June friendly. Long time second choice goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold of West Ham United has also been selected.

Another player called up is South Australian star Charli Grant, who has yet to make her international debut despite being called up for the Denmark and Sweden friendlies.

Whilst the return of Logarzo and Kellond-Knight is a risk, it is not a surprise. Speaking at his press conference prior to the friendlies with Denmark and Sweden, head coach Tony Gustavsson told me that, although Logarzo was not ready for those two games he was in “constant contact with her” in order for there to be an opportunity to take the former Bristol City player to Tokyo, such is her massive importance to the Matildas. Equally, Gustavsson admitted to me that he selected Kellond-Knight for the Scandinavian friendlies despite knowing she wasn’t yet fit to play as he wanted to have a good look at her in training.

Coach:

Above: Australia Head Coach Tony Gustavsson. Photo Supplied To Us By: Football Australia

Tony Gustavsson has a hugely impressive CV which saw him picked from a strong list of candidates to lead the Matildas into what is arguably the biggest three years in their history with the Olympics followed by next year’s Asia Cup and 2023’s World Cup which Australia are joint hosts of.

Forty-seven year-old Gustavsson was born in Sundsvall, where he started his playing career in 1989 a sixteen year playing career ended with him taking charge of Degerfors IF men’s side in the second tier of the Swedish game. He then took over at top tier side Hammarby IF and led the Stockholm side into the UEFA Cup. The Matildas coach took his first coaching position in women’s football with Tyreso FF and immediately led them to the top flight championship. Two years later, under Gustavsson, Tyreso FF made the UEFA Women’s Champions League Final where they went down 4-3 to mighty Wolfsburg. His success with Tyreso attracted the attention of the USNWT which saw him help to shape a team that won the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games plus the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2015 and 2019.

Olympics History:

This is Australia’s fourth appearance in the Olympics, with their first entry into the competition coming as the host nation in 2000. In Sydney, the Matildas finished the group stages with a draw and two losses. Their other two previous trips to the Games both saw Australia make the Quarter-Finals. Athens 2004 saw a win over Greece, a draw with the USA and a loss to Brazil before going down 2-1 to Sweden in the last eight. After missing out in 2008 and 2012, the Matildas beat Zimbabwe, drew with Germany and lost to Canada before facing host nation Brazil in the quarter-finals in Rio. Despite a heroic effort in front of over 52,500 screaming Brazilians in Belo Horizonte, the Matildas went down 7-6 on penalties after a goalless 120 minutes.

Qualifying: The Matildas qualified for the Olympics in March 2020, with Emily van Egmond and Sam Kerr leading the Australian charge during the AFC Women’s Olympic Qualifiers Group stage which was belatedly held in Australia.  They eventually clinched their place at Tokyo with victory in Vietnam just prior to the outbreak of coronavirus. 

Strengths:

Attack, creativity and never say die spirit. A team who can boast Sam Kerr, Caitlin Foord, Hayley Raso and the young talent of Kyra Cooney-Cross have to be taken very seriously as an attacking threat. Add the marauding runs of Ellie Carpenter from right back into the equation and you have a very dangerous team.

Development Areas:

There are several risky selections in the squad with the likes of Lydia Williams, Steph Catley, Chloe Logarzo and Elise Kellond-Knight playing very little football in recent months. Additionally, Gustavsson’s switch to three at the back is a work in progress, but one which will stand the team in good stead over the coming months. The Matildas have only played five matches since February 2020 and this, plus a group of players still getting used to working with a new head coach makes matters more challenging than they otherwise would have been.

Key Players:

Sam Kerr

Photo Supplied To Us By: Football Australia

No Matildas article is complete without reference to the Queen of East Fremantle.

Kerr represented Australia an U17 and U20 level before making her senior debut for the Matildas at the age of 15 in February 2009 against Italy. A year later, she scored a goal in the AFC Asian Women’s Cup Final against North Korea when Australia lifted the trophy. Aged 17, Sam was selected in Australia’s 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup squad. Four years later, she was an integral part of the Matildas squad who made the Quarter-Finals of the tournament in Canada. For the 2019 World Cup in France, Kerr was named captain and scored five goals in Australia’s four matches. She presently has a total of 42 goals to go with her 92 caps.

Kerr’s first club, at the age of 12 was Western Knights, based in Mosman Park just three miles from her home town. Within three years, Sam had attended trials for Western Australia’s state team and then moved across to Perth Glory, the state’s sole W-League side. Making her debut at the age of 15, she was named as the league’s Player’s Player of the Year in 2009 – an incredible statistic. Her stay at the Glory lasted until 2012 when she joined Sydney FC. Kerr played for Western New York Flash for the first NWSL season in 2013 and made it all the way to the Grand Final where they lost to Portland Thorns.

She returned to home club Perth Glory who she represented in the W-League side from 2014-19 in between spells in America. Back in the purple and orange of her local senior side, Kerr led the Glory to two W-League Grand Finals and was in incredible form for the Western Australians, scoring a total of 52 goals in 49 games. In this period the East Fremantle born star spent two seasons with Sky Blue FC in the NWSL and in 2017, at the age of just 23 became the all-time top scorer in NWSL history. The same season saw her winning the NWSL Golden Boot and Most Valuable Player Award.

Kerr spent the 2018 and 2019 NWSL seasons with Chicago Red Stars, for whom she played in the Championship game. Her American adventure ended with the honour of being the first player to be named as the NWSL’s Most Valuable Player twice, and top scorer three times.

In November 2019, to great media fanfare, Kerr announced that she would join Chelsea in the FA Women’s Super League, and she made her debut in January 2020. In her time at the club, she has won two FAWSL titles, two Continental Cups, a Community Shield and played in a UEFA Champions League Final.

Ellie Carpenter

Photo Supplied To Us By: Football Australia

Carpenter has been the jewel in the crown of the next generation of Australian women footballers for a long time now. In fact it’s a shock that she still is just 21 years-old as she seems to have been around forever.

Ellie moved in W-League soccer with Western Sydney Wanderers, aged fifteen with her international debut coming only seven months later on 2nd March 2016 against Vietnam in an Olympic Games Qualifier played in Osaka.

Two years later she transferred to Canberra United where she played twenty-one games and scored five goals – not bad at all for a defender.

In 2018 there was another huge milestone in Carpenter’s career when she moved to the National Women’s Soccer League with Portland Thorns, becoming both the youngest ever player in the competition and the youngest goal scorer. Two years with the Thorns included a loan spell with Melbourne City in the 2019/20 W-League which saw her lift the championship trophy following their 1-0 win over Sydney FC in the Grand Final. A move to Olympique Lyonnais last summer pushed Carpenter into the big time and, in a difficult season which saw the club surrender both the French D1 and Champions League titles that they have held for so long, she performed outstandingly well.

One to watch:

Kyra Cooney-Cross

Photo Supplied To Us By: Football Australia

This 19 year-old who made her senior Matildas international debut on 10th June in Denmark potentially has the world at her feet. Cooney-Cross trialled with the Mini Matildas at the age of 14 and made her W-League debut for Melbourne Victory a year later. Two months after that debut, she scored her first W-League goal – a header against Newcastle Jets and went on to play in every game for the Victory that season.

A move to Western Sydney Wanderers in 2019 saw Cooney-Cross score four times in twelve games as she was part of the team making their first ever Finals appearance.

The W-League season just gone saw the teenager return to Melbourne Victory and go up a level and then some. Some powerful runs from midfield, vicious shots on goal, plus absolute wizardry from set-pieces marked her out as one of the best players, if not the best player in the competition. All this before she single-handedly decided the 2021 W-League Grand Final. With the clock moving over the 120 minute mark at the end of extra time, up stepped Kyra to take a corner on the left hand side. The 19 year-old curled a stunning effort straight into the net to win the Grand Final for Melbourne Victory. It was no fluke. She meant it. She has an incredible record for Australia at U17 level where she scored fourteen goals in as many games and U20 level where Cooney-Cross netted seven times in eight matches.

Prediction:

The Matildas are in the group of death to end all group of deaths. If they can qualify, particularly placed first or second, then anything is possible. For starters, a quarter-final place would be a great achievement given everything the squad have had to deal with. Once in the last eight, potentially, anything could happen.

Group Fixtures inc KO times (local/UK)

21st July v New Zealand (Ajinomoto Stadium, Tokyo, 12:30pm UK)

24th July v Sweden (Saitama Stadium, Saitama, 9:30am UK) 27th July v USA (Kashima Stadium, Ibaraki, 9:00am UK)

Ben Gilby writes for Beyond90, Australia’s leading independent women’s football platform. Visit https://beyond90.com.au/

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