A-League Men Season Preview 2021-22: New signings, key players, ones to watch

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Why Australia is set for a new 'exciting chapter' of football (1:07)

Sydney FC's Ally Green speaks about the important message behind the rebranding of the A-League and W-League. (1:07)

The football world's longest offseason is finally at an end and, with a new name in tow, the A-League Men competition is back, kicking off on Friday as defending champions Melbourne City take on Brisbane Roar.

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The first year with full independence and with a new broadcast partner in 10Viacom CBS, there is significant buzz around the competition -- but what about the stuff that actually happens on the grass?

Join ESPN's experts Ante Jukic and Joey Lynch as they dive in and take you through all the big talking points at the competition's 12 teams.

JUMP TO: Adelaide United | Brisbane Roar | Central Coast Mariners | Macarthur FC | Melbourne City | Melbourne Victory | Newcastle Jets | Perth Glory | Sydney FC | Wellington Phoenix | Western Sydney Wanderers | Western United

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2:23

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21-year-old Josh Cavallo describes the weight that's been lifted from his shoulders and how he'd like to be viewed by the world as his career goes on.

Adelaide United

Prioritising a strong culture and the incubation of young and predominantly local talent who can then be ushered into the first team and, eventually, serve as transfer bait, Adelaide has become a model A-League Men franchise for many. FFA Cup success has almost become routine, but can this boutique approach deliver premierships and championships?

Coach: Carl Veart

A former youth boss on both a national and South Australian level, 51-year-old Veart is a perfect fit for the project the Reds have undertaken and deserves significant credit for creating a positive club culture -- one in which Josh Cavallo felt comfortable enough to become the only openly-out gay footballer in the professional ranks of world football. If he's capable of matching these off-field wins with some of the on-field variety, however, is an open question. -- Joey Lynch

Key outs: Tomi Juric, Jordan Elsey, Ryan Strain, Al Hassan Toure

Key ins: Nick Ansell, George Blackwood, Isaias

What does success look like this season?

Adelaide remains one of the league's more competitive teams, but moves in the offseason hint that at this stage, it might not be enough. Outside of Louis D'Arrigo, it would be a surprise if any players 23 or under see substantial starting minutes in attacking positions. As a consequence, Asian qualification should theoretically be the aim, but whether the Reds have the capacity to actually achieve it is another matter. -- Ante Jukic

One to watch: Ben Halloran

The Reds went heavy on nostalgia this offseason, adding Isaias to a midfield base already featuring Juande and D'Arrigo. They're all sound footballers but there are significant question marks over how the Reds will function moving forward with that trio pulling the strings. Halloran, therefore, remains the alpha and omega for Adelaide. Everything good the Reds do in possession effectively flows through him. -- Lynch

Brisbane Roar

Despite Adelaide's smash-and-grab in the finals to ended Brisbane's season last term, the Roar's trust in youth and play under Warren Moon provided a conscious and refreshing change from the A-League Men's pragmatic norm. That elimination final loss summed up their season, though -- finishing in front of goal undermined the team's ability to control or stay in games, specifically with Dylan Wenzel-Halls up front.

Coach: Warren Moon

There were glimpses of this during the 2019-20 bubble, but as a counterpoint to the competition's accepted school of thought, Moon continued to show significant amounts of faith in attack-minded youth. He had the Roar playing some good football, too. Whether he can keep them on an upward trajectory, with coaches around the league now more familiar with Moon's tactics, will help provide a more thorough examination of his qualities as a coach. -- Jukic

Key outs: Dylan Wenzel-Halls, Riku Danzaki, Joseph Champness, Macaulay Gillesphey, Jamie Young

Key ins: Nikola Mileusnic, Matti Steinmann, Luke Ivanovic, Juan Lescano

What does success look like this season?

Despite the potential expectation of maintaining an upward trajectory and improvement, remaining relatively competitive while continuing to integrate young players suffices, in what could provide the basis for a legitimate long-term project. Anything more than that is a bonus. -- Jukic

It's hard not to root for Moon, both because of his qualities as a coach and because of the contrast between himself and prickly predecessor Robbie Fowler, but I'd agree Ante, this is a long-term project that he needs to be given time to work on. -- Lynch

One to watch: Luke Ivanovic

With Danzaki and Champness now gone, Brisbane lost the bulk of their one-on-one threat. After never really establishing himself at Sydney FC, whether Ivanovic could offer a tangible attacking presence for Brisbane and help fill that void. Although Rahmat Akbari could shift up the pitch to accommodate Steinmann, Ivanovic is a less prominent but nevertheless interesting case going forward. -- Jukic

Central Coast Mariners

After the tumultuous offseason that threatened the very future of the competition, the Mariners magical 2020-21 campaign felt like just the antidote the A-Leagues needed. Everyone loves the underdog. Alas, the odds of an encore look unlikely, but the club will relish the chance to prove the naysayers wrong again.

Coach: Nick Montgomery

In the wake of Alen Stajcic's surprise departure at the end of last season, as first revealed by ESPN, Mariners stalwart and youth coach Montgomery now patrols the Gosford dugout. For the optimist, the 40-year-old represents a continuation of the club culture and the best figure to continue to usher young players into the first XI. For the cynic, he was the cheapest and easiest option on-hand for owner Mike Charlesworth as he looks to offload the club. -- Lynch

Key outs: Daniel De Silva, Jack Clisby, Alou Kuol, Stefan Nigro, Gianni Stensness

Key ins: Nicolai Muller, Noah Smith, Cy Goddard, Beni Nkololo, Storm Roux, Moresche

What does success look like this season?

Unfortunately for the Mariners, the only way appears to be down. Being in the mix for finals would be great, but finally finding a new owner willing to provide greater investment would be massive. -- Lynch

One to watch: Oliver Bozanic

Bozanic and Matt Simon served as emotional leaders and anchors for the Mariners fairytale in 2020-21 but now face the task of mentoring and keeping on track an even younger squad throughout a season that carries all the signs of turning into a pumpkin. -- Lynch

Even more than mere dressing-room dynamic, though, the importance of Stensness under Stajcic arguably facilitated a lot of what Bozanic did on the pitch in his return. How the 32-yea-old adjusts to Stensness' departure will be key. -- Jukic

Macarthur FC

Like Western United the year prior, the Bulls made the semifinals in their first year of existence in 2020-21. Yet, despite the success, there has been significant activity in both the arrivals and departures lounges this offseason, as well as persistent rumours of backroom discontent.

Coach: Ante Milicic

There's been a lot of talk around the campfire with respect to Milicic this offseason, unfortunately for both footballing and non-footballing reasons. Traditionally, you will see three things from a Milicic-coached side: a lot of possession, a lot of spacing and, under no circumstances, any dribbling whatsoever. That's part of what makes the Ulises Davila and De Silva signings so interesting. -- Jukic

Key outs: Denis Genreau, Mark Milligan, Matt Derbyshire, Markel Susaeta, Benat Etxebarria, Ivan Franjic

Key ins: Ulises Davila, Daniel De Silva, Tomi Juric, Craig Noone, Tomislav Uskok, Jordon Mutch

What does success look like this season?

Given that they've signed the reigning Johnny Warren Medalist, and key attacking players from three other finalists, playoffs should absolutely be an expectation for this side. I know I'm a fan, but the loss of Genreau -- ostensibly being replaced by Mutch -- could be significant. -- Lynch

One to watch: Tomislav Uskok

Following on from before, how Davila and De Silva fit within Milicic's highly regimented, three-touch football will be fascinating. But even more so, incredulous as the comparison may initially appear, the Bulls' key figure could well be former NPL stalwart and Western United man Uskok, who shapes as Milligan's replacement as a defender-cum-holding midfielder. -- Lynch

Melbourne City

City finally delivered on the potential born from their takeover by the City Football Group in 2020-21: Building one of the strongest rosters the league has ever seen and romping to a premiership and championship double. What now for an encore?

Coach: Patrick Kisnorbo

There are a number of small but accumulative details to examine this season with respect to Kisnorbo, who took the senior role after Erick Mombaerts left the club and immediately led Melbourne City to their first A-League Men's title. How he adjusts to the sophomore year at the domestic level, with an altered support staff and now-familiar competition, is also coupled by the prospect of City playing in the AFC Champions League. -- Jukic

Key outs: Craig Noone, Adrian Luna

Key ins: Mathew Leckie, Manuel Pucciarelli

What does success look like this season?

Pictures of the Toilet Seat hanging around the necks of Melbourne City players. Any objections? -- Jukic

Nope. Anything less than a title would be a letdown. -- Lynch

One to watch: Connor Metcalfe/Marco Tilio

Hopefully the fence doesn't provide too uncomfortable a seating position, but I can't decide between Metcalfe and Tilio. Metcalfe is 22 and has established himself as an all-action starting midfielder for the dominant side in the competition. He's also in the final year of his current deal. Tilio, 20, is a very different player to Metcalfe meanwhile but, barring injury, might have trouble seeing substantial minutes over Andrew Nabbout, Jamie Maclaren and Leckie. Could they eventually be fighting for the same starting spot in midfield? -- Jukic

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Victory's Didulica: Go to Sydney if you want 'glitz and glam'

Director of football John Didulica explains Melbourne Victory's approach to squad building, and how it differs from their rivals.

Melbourne Victory

After two horror seasons in which the club went burned through five different managers, "won" its first-ever wooden spoon, came close to fan revolt, and watched its crosstown foes win the double, Victory commence a new era with a new coach, new football department, and a lot of new faces -- but with a familiar set of expectations.

Coach: Tony Popovic

Back with his third A-League Men's club after his second unhappy stint in Europe with Xanthi FC, Popovic brings his legacy of success and a cultural shift to the club -- but how long can his formula of success last? And will he even see out his three-year deal before Europe calls again? -- Lynch

Pretty significant questions to be asking, there, considering the act of hiring Popovic almost automatically means ceding control of the football department to him as a consequence. -- Jukic

Key outs: Adama Traore, Rudy Gestede, Callum McManaman, Jacob Butterfield, Elvis Kamsoba

Key ins: Chris Ikonomidis, Jason Davidson, Josh Brillante, Stefan Nigro, Jason Geria, Brendan Hamill, Ivan Kelava, Roderick Miranda, Francesco Margiotta

What does success look like this season?

Rightly or wrongly, Victory has established a brand and internal culture that treats success and trophies as an expectation, not the aspiration but, given the low floor from which they've been operating and the trust Popovic's previous success has earned with fans, the stakes may be slightly lower than normal. Nonetheless, clear progress towards them, at least through a finals place, will still be expected. -- Lynch

One to watch: Matthew Spiranovic

Going for a defender this time. The 33-year-old will dictate how Victory set up under Popovic but whether he can play at a consistent and high level after two years out of professional football shapes up as one of the more interesting case studies in the history of the competition. -- Jukic

Newcastle Jets

It might be quicker to list whose left at the Jets given the significant turnover their roster has had this offseason -- Cameron Devlin signed with the club, only to leave for Scottish side Hearts without playing a single game! Nonetheless, the club does have some promising young talent on hand and, it appears, scope to engage in a proper rebuild.

Coach: Arthur Papas

It feels like Papas has been a rising star in Australian football management forever now but he's still just a baby in a coaching context at 41-years-old. After a wide-ranging apprenticeship across Australia and Asia that culminated in a stint as an assistant under Ange Postecoglou at Yokohama F Marinos, his first spell in the main seat at J3 side Kagoshima United FC didn't go completely according to plan, but now he gets a relatively blank slate to work with in the Hunter. -- Lynch

Key outs: Nigel Boogaard, Roy O'Donovan, Matt Millar, Ramy Najjarine, Connor O'Toole, Cameron Devlin, Joseph Champness

Key ins: Matthew Jurman, Dane Ingham, Jordan Elsey, Daniel Penha, Samuel Silvera, Beka Mikeltadze

What does success look like this season?

On the pitch, the Jets building upon the green shoots that have been visible in preseason and showing clear signs of growth is probably the most important thing this campaign. They don't need to play finals but getting on a trajectory that makes an appearance in 2022-23 would be ideal. Off the pitch, a new owner to take the club off the hands of an APL consortium would be significant. -- Lynch

One to watch: Beka Mikeltadze

Mikeltadze, a 23-year-old Georgia international could be quite the coup for the Jets. Does a bit of everything as a striker and, even in preseason games, looks like he will be a critical component of Newcastle's possession and eventual threat. -- Jukic

Perth Glory

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the A-League Men's travelling circus. Thanks to West Australia's stringent border controls, Glory, much to their chagrin, will spend much of the first half of the season as a travelling roadshow, complete with a marquee attraction in the form of new signing Daniel Sturridge. The club's fan base will no doubt be hoping it's an act devoid of clowns.

Coach: Richard Garcia

Diego Castro was older than time itself and still had to carry the bulk of attacking responsibility with Bruno Fornaroli. How does that relate to Garcia? It speaks to a very nondescript tactical plan. That in itself reflects Perth on the pitch as a whole, for a while now. What is Garcia and what are they? We'll find out quickly this season. -- Jukic

Key outs: Diego Castro, Jason Geria, Neil Kilkenny, Nick D'Agostino, Chris Ikonomidis, Sebastian Langkamp

Key ins: Aaron Calver, Jack Clisby, Brandon O'Neill, Brad Jones, Adrian Sardinero, Daniel Sturridge

What does success look like this season?

Glory's outlook serves as a bit of a microcosm of the A-Leagues as a whole: success more likely to be measured more by the off-field metrics than the on-field ones. On the former, how much column inches, social media likes, and news grabs Sturridge will demand will likely be key while, for the latter, a return to finals football is looking like the best-case scenario. -- Lynch

Kenny Lowe got away with similarly middling football that was perceived as a success because they could scrape into the finals. Over the years, Perth has become the very epitome of how warped the definition of success is in Australian football. The same applies to Garcia and the club this season. -- Jukic

One to watch: Daniel Sturridge

Sometimes the low hanging fruit is the sweetest: Sturridge arrival a major plot point of not only Glory's season but the A-Leagues as a whole. Ostensibly, he's the biggest signing the competition has seen since Alessandro Del Piero and a genuine threat for a 20+ goal season. Conversely, he's not played competitive football since receiving a gambling ban in March 2020, got out of hotel quarantine less than two weeks out from the season and has never had the best go of it with injuries. He has the potential to boom or bust very, very hard. -- Lynch

Sydney FC

That the coming campaign will be the first in which the Harboursiders enter without a trophy to defend since 2015-16 is a testament to its status as the most well-run clubs in the A-Leagues. It's a legacy of success built on consistency in approach -- but does it have enough adaptability to stay ahead of a rapidly evolving chasing pack?

Coach: Steve Corica

Despite a lot of familiar faces and structures, Sydney is a bit of an unknown this season, but they're enigmatic in a good way. After carrying an increasingly untenable burden, Milos Ninkovic at least seems to finally have creative outlets he can work off. The lack of them in his absence was the very thing that defined Sydney's demolition at the hands of Melbourne City in last season's Grand Final. How the notoriously rigid Corica adapts to the ground shifting underneath him tactically will be really interesting. -- Jukic

Key outs: Ryan McGowan, Alexander Baumjohann

Key ins: Max Burgess, James Donachie, Connor O'Toole, Elvis Kamsoba

What does success look like this season?

Asian qualification would be satisfactory. -- Jukic

Seizing their crown back off Melbourne City would be great, but an unfair expectation, so I'll go with keeping in touch with the reigning champions and seeing off any further upstarts, though, would be a good result. -- Lynch

One to watch: Calem Nieuwenhof

The 20-year-old is a proper midfielder. Hopefully, he stays fit. It spoke volumes that he was a player Ninkovic gravitated to, and Sydney was very different before he went down last season. -- Jukic

Wellington Phoenix

If you think Perth Glory have it hard with their border situation, spare a thought for the Phoenix: staring down the barrel of yet another season commencing not in Aotearoa but, instead, in Wollongong. The club has been herculean in their commitment to keeping the competition going during the past few years but, alas, sentiment doesn't count for points on the table.

Coach: Ufuk Talay

Despite being linked heavily with a return to the mainland during the last campaign -- with rumblings of a Victory move growing loud before they ultimately went with Popovic -- Talay is back for a third season with the Nix. But staring down starting another season largely overseas and with a heavily depleted roster, the coming campaign is shaping as his biggest test yet. -- Lynch

Key outs: Tomer Hemed, Ulises Davila, Cameron Devlin, Luke DeVere, Mirza Muratovic, Steven Taylor

Key ins: Gary Hooper, Nicholas Pennington, Callan Elliot, Luka Prso

What does success look like this season?

In an ideal world, the Nix are able to hold down the fort through the season's opening months in the Illawarra before adding some reinforcements in January and returning to New Zealand for the second half of the campaign. Once there, they promptly turn their home ground into a place where opposing teams dreams come to die. But with so many difference-makers departed, simply staying in touch with the top-six till then will be a fraught task. -- Lynch

One to watch: Ben Waine

Waine, 20, burst onto the scene in 2021-22, and is shaping as not just a key player for the Phoenix, but also the New Zealand national team in the years ahead. -- Lynch

Western Sydney Wanderers

Is this the year the Wanderers finally stop flattering to deceive? After significant success in their first years of existence, the Red and Black haven't played finals football for four seasons now and their trophy cabinet remains utterly devoid of domestic silverware. At some point, it simply has to back up its claims of being amongst the league's biggest clubs with success on the field.

Coach: Carl Robinson

Accounting for a combination of club expectations, the level of backing in recruitment and resourcing he has received, and that he is now in year two of his tenure, arguably no coach in A-League Men this season has a shorter leash than Robinson. Fail to have his side looking like finals contenders, and the axe could come relatively quickly. -- Lynch

Key outs: Bruce Kamau, Dylan McGowan, Nicolai Muller, Scott McDonald

Key ins: Dimi Petratos, Terry Antonis, Ramy Najjarine, Tomer Hemed, Rhys Williams, Tomas Mejias, Keijiro Ogawa, Jack Rodwell

What does success look like this season?

At this point, simply ending the club's finals drought shouldn't be enough for the Wanderers -- and the goalposts shouldn't be allowed to move midseason. Given the expansive recruitment and the resourcing the club has, and their own internal narrative about being a "big club" they should be challenging for the title. -- Lynch

Nah. Third or fourth place might suffice at this point to suggest improvement is being made, going into next season. Robinson is not without culpability in this regard, but it is hard to understate just how imbalanced that squad was last season. Like you noted, though, he might not have a lot of time to actually demonstrate if improvement is being made. -- Jukic

One to watch: Steven Ugarkovic/Terry Antonis

I might be showing my age with a reference to The Smiths, but please, please, please let me let me get what I want and start Ugarkovic and Antonis together. The likelihood, however, is that they will have to be subservient to the indulgent Petratos or even more indulgent James Troisi. -- Jukic

Another point of focus is how the Wanderers handle Troisi's status. The attacker has been one of the most notable, and loudest, players in the A-League Men's competition against COVID vaccinations, which are safe and the most effective way to reduce deaths and severe illness from the virus. In the opening weeks of the season, he can play -- but what happens when the Wanderers have to travel outside of NSW? -- Lynch

Western United

Who is Western United? Entering their third season in existence, the expansion-side enters 2020-21 on its second coach, second training base, with significant roster turnover, and a fan base that can, at best, be described as nascent. And unfortunately for those not involved in its construction, the club will likely continue to face existential questions regardless of its on-field successes until there is, finally, movement on its stadium.

Coach: John Aloisi

Is it a case of third time lucky for Aloisi? After stints with Melbourne Heart and Brisbane Roar, the Socceroo legend will replace Mark Rudan in the Western dugout this season. Offseason moves for veterans are both reflective of previous stops and suggest he's very much in win-now mode. -- Lynch

Key outs: Andrew Durante, Besart Berisha, Aaron Calver, Tomislav Uskok, Brendan Hamill, Iker Guarrotxena

Key ins: Dylan Wenzel-Halls, Ben Garrucio, Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Aleksandar Prijovic, Jamie Young, Neil Kilkenny

What does success look like this season?

The more wins the better, given that on-field success is one of the few reliable means the club has to fashion some semblance of identity without a proper place to call home. Rumblings from the club suggest that internal expectations are high. -- Lynch

One to watch: Dylan Pierias/Connor Pain

Pierias experienced a strong season under Rudan in 2020-21 and, as a born-and-bred western suburbs boy, was positioned as one of the faces of the club. That last point, however, might come back to bite Western given that his path to game time this season isn't clear -- perhaps symbolic of the A-League Men's own void between promoting youth in its marketing and actually giving them scope in games. -- Lynch

This is all valid but I'm going to the other wing. Pain, the player who arguably benefitted the most from Western United's three-at-the-back formation under Rudan. Now, he will primarily see minutes as an out-and-out winger under Aloisi in a 4-2-3-1, with the club signing a fourth left-back in Ben Garruccio. That creates slight but critical changes in possession dynamics and positional cues. Will he revert to what he was at Central Coast or flourish? -- Jukic