ALW R1 Talking Points: Canberra star’s hot streak; Why Glory youngster is primed for ‘standout’ year

These are the key talking points from a history-making Round 1 in the Liberty A-League.

What a way to kick off the new Liberty A-League season. Big crowds, plenty of goals and no shortage of drama. All six games well and truly had it all.

From the Central Coast Mariners’ spicy first game back in the competition, to a record-breaking night at Allianz Stadium.

There was an eight-goal thriller in Adelaide that saw one of Canberra United’s stars continue an incredible hot streak and the arrival of another young gun who had a debut to remember.

With a lot to dissect, here are the key talking points from Round 1 of the Liberty A-League.

WATCH DUB ZONE BELOW FOR A FULL RECAP OF ROUND 1

Crowds flock to the Liberty A-League in history making round one

It’s fair to say the World Cup afterglow is shining bright in the Liberty A-League.

The 2023-24 Liberty A-League season returned in a big way and supporters flocked in numbers throughout Round 1.

17,206 fans alone attended the first two games of the season, smashing the record total attendance for a single round within hours of the new campaign getting underway.

RECORDS FALL: Single-round Liberty A-League attendance record smashed in Round 1… after just two games!

Incredibly, the home and away standalone crowd record in the competition was eclipsed twice in one day.

5,735 fans attended the F3 Derby between Central Coast Mariners and Newcastle Jets, before 11,471 spectators witnessed the Sydney Derby later that evening.

The clash between Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers was in fact the biggest crowd for a domestic women’s match in Australian football history, smashing the previous mark of 9,519 in last season’s Grand Final.

In fact, 1,000+ fans attended each of the six contests this weekend.

Canberra star shines in early contender for match of the season

Those in attendance at Coopers Stadium bore witness to a Liberty A-League classic.

Adelaide United and Canberra United played out an incredible 4-4 draw on Sunday afternoon, as both sides traded blows from minute one in a pulsating contest in the ‘City of Churches’.

Reds substitute Emilia Murray’s 95th-minute strike ensured the spoils would be shared, which seemed like a fitting result given no side really deserved to lose or – for that matter – win the match.

MATCH REPORT: Adelaide & Canberra play out wild draw after 95th-minute equaliser

However, there was one player that stood out above the rest, in Canberra midfielder Vesna Milivojevic who continues to evolve into a bonafide superstar of the competition.

Milivojevic was a class above on Sunday, scoring twice and leading the charge in midfield as the side from the capital played their first competitive fixture since the departure of Grace Maher and Laura Hughes.

Incredibly, the Serbia international is in the midst of an unprecedented hot streak, that’s seen her score a brace in each of her last three matches and a total of seven goals in her last five games.

Not to mention, she’s doing this all from midfield.

If she can continue this run of form, then it’s almost a guarantee that she will feature in Dolan Warren Award conversations come the tail-end of the campaign.

Meanwhile, her teammate Michelle Heyman edged ever closer to 100 Liberty A-League goals in her career, when she fired home her 95th in the first-half.

She also took her appearance tally to 160 A-League Women games, making her the sole all-time leading appearance maker in the competition.

Nervous wait for Sky Blues captain

Sydney FC will be sweating on the fitness of captain Natalie Tobin, after she was stretchered off with a knee injury in their 2-0 victory over the Western Sydney Wanderers.

Tobin went down under challenge from Sophie Harding in the second half and was immediately in some distress.

She was seen with ice on her knee post-game.

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Sky Blues head coach Ante Juric said they’re unsure of the exact nature of the injury, but believes she may have torn her meniscus.

If there’s any silver lining, a meniscus injury means she has avoided the dreaded ACL tear – which would more than likely rule all her out for the remainder of the season.

“We’ll need to do scans but the doctors are saying it could be her meniscus, which would be a positive rather than an ACL, but they don’t know yet for sure,” Juric said post-game.

“So they’re going to do scans but at the moment they’re leaning towards a meniscus (tear) or something like that. She was crying after it when I first saw her but she seemed a little bit happier when she told me what the diagnosis could be.”

Tobin’s absence, however, means Juric will have to tinker his back four in the coming weeks and Sydney aren’t blessed with a deep pool of defensive options.

Juric brought on Abbey Lemon – who is naturally a forward – for Tobin, with Tori Tumeth shifting into centre-back alongside Charlotte McLean.

Defender Marguax Chauvet is likely to come into the side, after not being included in the 16-player squad on Saturday evening.

Beyond that, Sydney do have three foreign spots available, which also opens the door for them to potentially look at an overseas option to fill any potential vacancy.

A star is born at the Home of the Matildas

Grace Kuilamu, remember the name.

The 16-year-old attacker had a debut to remember in Brisbane Roar’s stirring 2-1 win away to Melbourne Victory on Sunday afternoon, scoring the opener early in the second-half.

MATCH REPORT: Teenager steals the show with debut to remember as Roar stun Victory

Roar coach Garrath McPherson handed Kuulamu a start after – in his words – training “too well to leave out”, following arriving as a scholarship player in September.

McPherson had originally scouted the youngster while she was in Junior Matildas camp in South Korea and opted to sign her shortly after.

She played alongside fellow new faces Hannah Holgerson and Mia Corbin in the front-three and fit in seamlessly, going up against a defence which boasts a host of top-level talent including Jamilla Rankin, Emma Checker, Kayla Morrison and Jessika Nash.

“She’s (Kuilamu) a superstar… as a coach, sometimes you’re a bit nervous with youth, and making the decision to throw her straight in, particularly away from home against a like a club like Melbourne Victory,” McPherson said post-game.

Although it is only early days, her arrival and subsequent form may help fill the gap left by a host of outgoing stars Shea Connors and Indiah-Paige Riley – who left an undoubted hole in their front three.

Up next is an even greater challenge. A home clash against reigning champions Sydney FC on Saturday.

But Kuilamu will have to split her time studying her upcoming opponents and diving into her textbooks as she has an English assessment at the school on Friday!

Jets’ newest sharpshooter has arrived

The Melina Ayres show has arrived in Newcastle.

On her club debut, Ayres nodded home the winner with nine minutes remaining, to give her side a thrilling 1-0 victory over Central Coast Mariners.

With the scores level, the former Melbourne Victory striker turned home Lara Gooch’s cross, to give Gary Van Egmond’s side bragging rights over their local rivals in the first F3 Derby of the season.

The 24-year-old swapped Victory navy blue and white for Newcastle gold after an impressive tenure down south, including a brilliant campaign last season, where she scored 12 goals in 13 games.

MATCH REPORT: Ayres the F3 Derby hero for Jets as Mariners defeated in Liberty A-League return

With an expanded campaign to 22 games, there’s every reason to suggest Ayres could easily trump her personal best and win a maiden Golden Boot.

Plenty of positives for the Mariners in first game back

For their opponents, the Mariners, it was a shattering end to a promising first game back in the competition in 14 years.

After a slow start, Emily Husband’s side worked their way into the contest and put together a mightily impressive patch at the start of the second-half where they probably should have taken the lead.

Rola Badawiya found herself in good areas around goal, but was unable to find the all-important goal.

At the other end, goalkeeper Courtney Newbon – who was only signed just prior to kick-off – made a number of great stops, including a brilliant double save to deny Ayres in the opening half.

If her performance was anything to go by, the Mariners have a very safe pair of hands between the sticks, despite losing Sarah Langman to injury on the eve of the campaign.

They were, however, without Matildas attacker Kyah Simon, who will certainly boost their attacking stocks going forward.

The flashpoint moment in Gosford

Only two minutes before Ayres found the winner, both sides were reduced to 10 players in a flash.

Players from both sides flew into a midfield melee after a series of committed challenges.

The main incident occurred after Mariners Isabel Gomez clattered Rebecca Burrows in a front-on challenge.

Jets defender Natasha Prior came running from defence to remonstrate with Gomez, but Bryson inserted herself in between the two players, bearing the brunt of the blow.

Then, Huynh joined in on the commotion; both Huynh and Bryson pushed out at one another.

With both players already booked prior in the game, referee Kate Jacewicz had no choice but to send both players to the stands.

The Mariners will miss Bryson for their trip to Adelaide to face the Reds on Friday night, while the Jets will be without Hunyh when they face Glory out west.

Glory attacker primed for breakout season

Perth Glory may have found their Cyera Hintzen replacement.

Susan Phonsongkham kicked off her 2023-24 season in style, scoring in Perth’s 2-0 victory over 2023-23 Grand Finalists Western United on Saturday night.

It continues an impressive run of form that started back in New South Wales with NPL side Bankstown City.

Phonsongkham returned for the new campaign off the back of a brilliant season with Bankstown where she scored a whopping 17 goals in 22 games.

MATCH REPORT: World Cup star scores debut thunderbolt as impressive Perth down last season’s Grand Finalists

Along with new signings Millie Farrow, Grace Jale and the returning Sofia Sakalis, the 22-year-old was electric at Macedonia Park and her coach Alex Epakis is tipping her to have a breakout season.

“During the off-season, she worked significantly hard to make sure she came into pre-season at the best level I’ve ever seen her,” Epakis said.

“I’ve coached Susan or seen Susan for the last 7-8 years as a player and this is the best I’ve ever seen her, mentally and physically.

“Today was a really just reward for the effort she’s put in. That goal was top class and it came at such an important time for us.

“I’m backing her to kick on and have a really stand-out season.”

One of the great comeback stories unfolds in Wellington as ‘small ball’ shows promise

One of the great comebacks happened on Sunday afternoon in Wellington, as Rylee Foster made her return to competitive football.

Foster was the feel-good story of the off-season following her move to the Phoenix, having been told she would never play football again after a horrific car accident in 2021.

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The Canadian goalkeeper was thrown some 30 metres from a car as it spun and jack-knifed on an icy road. She was left with seven neck fractures and bleeding on the brain after flying through a windscreen.

But after two years and 731 days, Foster returned to a football pitch in a heart-warming moment on Sunday against Melbourne City.

She looked confident and composed in between the sticks for the ‘Nix, making a number of impressive saves.

Despite the 1-0 loss, Wellington can take plenty of positives out of the contest, pushing City all the way in Paul Temple’s first game in charge.

Glimpses of Temple’s promise of exciting football and his own brand of ‘small ball’ was on full show at Sky Stadium, particularly when they were able to attack the visitors in transition.

And this team will only grow in confidence in the weeks to come, particularly when they are bolstered by the return of Annalie Longo, whose club debut was put on hold due to injury.