13 of the biggest storylines to follow this Isuzu UTE A-League season

KEEPUP experts David Weiner, David Davutovic and Tom Smithies discuss how Marko Rudan’s team will fair this season.

Here’s 13 storylines to follow this upcoming Isuzu UTE A-League season, which gets underway on Friday evening.

After months of anticipation, the 2023-24 Isuzu UTE A-League season is finally upon us.

The new campaign is shaping up to be one of the most even and hard to predict seasons in recent memory, with all 12 teams hoping to mount their own case to claim a piece of silverware.

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Ahead of the action getting underway on Friday night in Adelaide, aleagues.com.au looks at 13 of the biggest storylines to keep an eye on this season.

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Mariners’ push for back-to-back titles under new leadership

The hunters are now the hunted as Central Coast Mariners look to secure back-to-back Isuzu UTE A-League Championships for the first time in club history.

From the team that demolished Melbourne City 6-1 in the Grand Final back in June, the Mariners’ squad and backroom staff has changed significantly, following a host of key departures.

Jason Cummings, Sammy Silvera, Nectar Triantis, Beni Nkololo and James McGarry are all among the departures from last season’s Championship winning team, while coach Nick Montgomery and his backroom staff – Sergio Raimundo and Miguel Miranda – have joined Scottish outfit Hibernian.

Mark Jackson was named as Montgomery’s successor for the upcoming season, joining the club as their Football Manager following stints in Leeds United’s academy and at Milton Keynes Dons as their head coach.

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Despite those exits, Jackson will still have much of their title-winning core at his disposal, including Brian Kaltak, Marco Tulio, Danny Vukovic and Josh Nisbet, while adding the likes of Alou Kuol, Angel Torres and Mikael Doka to help fill the gaps left by their departures.

And who knows which youngsters will burst onto the scene in a similar vein to Triantis last season, with new arrival Nathan Paull already taking the former’s place in the back four.

City embark on first major rebuild in their golden era

It will be a new look Melbourne City that takes the field this season.

Rado Vidosic’s side parted ways with 12 players this off-season, including a number of quality individuals who were integral to their push for silverware not only last campaign, but in seasons prior.

Jordan Bos, Marco Tilio, Aiden O’Neill, Tom Glover, Valon Berisha, Thomas Lam, Scott Jamieson, Florin Berenguer and Richard Van der Venne were all among the departures, forcing City to embark on a squad rebuild ahead of the new season.

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They are also set to be without star winger Andrew Nabbout for most of the season following an Achilles injury.

But their replacements are no slouches either.

City have welcomed back Socceroo Aziz Behich, brought in dynamic midfield quartet Tolgay Arslan, Hamza Sakhi, Steven Ugarkovic and Terry Antonis, experienced keeper Jamie Young and overseas trio Leo Natel, Samuel Souprayen and Marin Jakolis.

Importantly, City managed to retain three key pillars of their side in Mathew Leckie, Jamie Maclaren and Curtis Good – who are set to lead the charge for more silverware.

They showed glimpses of what they will be capable of this season in their run to the Australia Cup semi-finals and their opening two Asian Champions League contests.

However, it’s basically a brand new team, meaning it’s hard to get a proper judgement of their calibre just yet and patience may be needed in the early going.

On paper, it’s a squad that’s as good as any contender, but what happens on the green stuff when the season is in full swing will be the true barometer of where they are at.

New coaches galore

There will be five fresh faces on touchlines across the country this season.

Ross Aloisi, Giancarlo Italiano, Rob Stanton, Alen Stajcic and Mark Jackson are all stepping into the hotseat at new clubs this season.

Aloisi has already had an enormous impact at Brisbane Roar, taking the club to the Australia Cup final for the first time in their history. His attacking philosophy coupled with a young core has made them an exciting team to watch in the pre-season.

He will also go head-to-head with his brother, John, when Brisbane face Western United on December 16 and February 23.

Italiano takes over as Wellington Phoenix head coach, after serving as assistant to predecessor Ufuk Talay.

Wellington have gone down a youth-focused route this season, only signing two players from other teams in Mohamed Al-Taay and Jack Duncan. Instead, they’ve opted to promote from within, with a host of academy players earning scholarship deals.

Stanton also begins his head coaching journey at the Newcastle Jets, following Arthur Papas’ departure. The new Jets boss joined the club after an eight-year stint at Sydney FC, as the club’s youth team coach and then as assistant to Steve Corica for the last three years.

He faces a monster task on his hands as he looks to lead the Jets back to the finals for the first time since 2018.

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Stajcic – on the other hand – is back in the A-Leagues, joining Perth Glory after a brilliant tenure as head coach of the Philippines women’s national team.

His record in both the Liberty and Isuzu UTE A-League is impressive and bodes well for Glory fans hoping for a return to the finals, having won silverware with Sydney FC in the former and took the Central Coast Mariners’ men’s side back to the finals in 2021.

Meanwhile, Jackson was named the Mariners’ Football Manager, replacing the outgoing Nick Montgomery as the Central Coast embark on a push for back-to-back Championships.

Meanwhile, for the likes of Rado Vidosic (Melbourne City) and Mile Sterjovski (Macarthur FC), it’s a first full pre-season as the club’s respective head coaches after taking over during last campaign.

The new signings looking to take the league by storm

All 12 clubs have been busy this off-season bolstering their squads ahead of the upcoming season, with a number of quality arrivals touching down in Australia.

Among the headline signings are former Monaco attacker Valere Germain (Macarthur FC), midfielder Tolgay Arslan (Melbourne City), Manchester United product Ryan Tunnicliffe (Adelaide United), Western Sydney Wanderers duo Marcus Antonsson and Jorrit Hendrix, along with Sydney’s Brazilian pairing of Fabio Gomes and Gabriel Lacerda.

Germain is the name that sticks out above the rest, having played in Monaco’s star studded side that won the Ligue 1 title and made a UEFA Champions League semi-final in 2017 – while Arslan is fresh off being a regular member of Serie A side Udinese’s squad.

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Meanwhile, star midfielder Daniel Penha returns to the A-Leagues with Western United after a season in South Korea with Daegu and will be joined by Japanese attacker Riku Danzaki.

From a local point of view, Socceroos Aziz Behich (Melbourne City) and Nikita Rukavytsya (Western United) are among those returning to Australia this campaign after long stints overseas.

Perth Glory have been buoyed by the arrival of All Whites keeper Oli Sail from Wellington Phoenix, while Daniel Arzani is hoping for a fresh start at Melbourne Victory.

While youngsters Lachlan Brook (Western Sydney Wanderers), Alou Kuol (Central Coast Mariners), Thomas Heward-Belle (Western United), Ryan Teague (Victory), Nathan Paull (Central Coast), Raphael Borges Rodrigues (Macarthur FC) and Lachlan Bayliss (Newcastle Jets) are among those hoping to make an impression after off-season transfers.

Road to Qatar

The race is on in the early going of the season to earn a spot on the plane for the upcoming Asian Cup.

Socceroos boss Graham Arnold will be watching with a keen eye when the season gets underway, as he begins to craft his squad for the tournament in January.

Last season, prospective Socceroos faced a similar run-in to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, needing to put their best foot forward in the early going of the season, in order to secure a place in the squad.

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A-Leagues trio Aziz Behich (Melbourne City), Andrew Redmayne (Sydney FC) and Brandon Borrello (Western Sydney Wanderers) were all included in the most recent Socceroos squad, with Arnold acknowledging the lack of minutes over the last few minutes contributed to a number of other league representatives missing out.

He did, however, say that a whole host of A-Leagues players will come back into contention with the competition getting underway this weekend.

City duo Mathew Leckie and Jamie Maclaren are set to spearhead the push to break back into the squad, having been regulars in the Socceroos set-up throughout the Arnold era.

Leckie was in the squad for the friendly against Mexico in September, but withdrew due to injury.

Sydney FC left-back Joel King was also included in the squad to face Argentina, but faces stiff competition in the form of Behich and Jordan Bos.

Adelaide United’s Nestory Irankunda was selected back in March but didn’t make his first senior appearance and his teammate goakeeper Joe Gauci will likely be in the mix, after debuting against Ecuador in the same window.

Some of the other names to keep an eye on include Perth Glory attacker Adam Taggart, Western Sydney Wanderers goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas, uncapped Central Coast Mariners striker Alou Kuol and new Melbourne Victory winger Daniel Arzani.

New era in Brisbane

The Ross Aloisi era is well and truly underway in Brisbane.

Roar’s new manager has already left a strong first impression in his first few months as the club’s head coach, leading Brisbane to their maiden Australia Cup final, where they fell short 3-1 to Sydney FC.

Despite the loss and obvious disappointment Aloisi felt afterwards, there were plenty of positives to take out of their Cup campaign, which bode well for Brisbane heading into the new A-Leagues season.

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Aloisi has implemented an exciting brand of football, with the likes of Henry Hore, Jay O’Shea and Carlo Armeinto thriving in the early going.

As is young gun Thomas Waddingham who scored four goals in his first five senior appearances, after being entrusted as the club’s main marksman throughout their Cup run.

Overall, there’s a new aura around Brisbane this season, as they embark on the first season under new leadership from a board level following the appointment of new executives Kaz Patafta and Zach Anderson, who are both former A-Leagues players themselves.

The next lot of breakout stars

Last season it was Jordan Bos, Nectar Triantis, Calem Nieuwenhof and Keegan Jelacic who enjoyed breakthrough seasons in the Isuzu UTE A-League.

Now the question remains: which young stars will take the next step this season?

All 12 teams are brimming with young talent going into the new A-Leagues season and should see plenty of minutes as clubs across the league begin to make a more youth-centric approach.

Nestory Irankunda will be looking to take the next step in his development at Adelaide United before a mooted overseas move after he turns 18 years old next year, while teammates including Luka Jovanovic, Panashe Madanha and Jonny Yull are hoping to build on their promise.

Jovanovic isn’t the only young striker looking to make his mark this season, with the likes of Thomas Waddingham (Brisbane Roar), Alou Kuol (Central Coast Mariners), Archie Goodwin (Newcastle Jets), Patrick Wood (Sydney FC) and Noah Botic (Western United) hoping for big campaigns.

All six should see plenty of minutes this season, with a few already nailing their spot as the number one option up-front going into the new campaign.

Waddingham looks set to lead Brisbane’s attack this season after being entrusted as the club’s number one option up front throughout the Australia Cup campaign.

Kuol and the likes of Nathan Paull, Will Wilson and Jing Reec should all see plenty of minutes this season at the Mariners, while Christian Theoharous is hoping to build on his promising second-half of the season.

Goodwin is certainly one to watch after showing immense promise in a few seasons with the Jets, while Clayton Taylor and Lachlan Bayliss have had promising pre-seasons in their new colours.

Ryan Teague is back from a stint in Portugal and by all reports, has stood out early doors at Melbourne Victory and Nishan Velupillay is another hoping to solidify his place in the starting XI.

Alessandro Lopane has seen plenty of minutes in Melbourne City’s Cup campaign. Western also handed opportunities to Matthew Grimaldi, Oli Lavale and Max Bisetto throughout the Cup, after impressing in the academy team’s NPL season.

Sky Blues quintet Wood, Kealey Adamson, Corey Hollman, Jake Girdwood-Reich and Jaiden Kucharski all saw plenty of minutes in Sydney FC’s Cup run, with the former particularly impressing.

Macarthur youngsters Oliver Jones, Raphael Borges Rodrigues and Jed Drew are others to keep an eye on, and the Wanderers will be hoping Alex Bonetig, Zach Sapsford and Marcus Younis can build on their immense promise.

Out west, Daniel Bennie, Adam Zimarino and Joseph Forde are among the Perth Glory youngsters looking to make a mark under new coach Alen Stajcic.

Giancarlo Italiano has also built his Wellington Phoenix squad around a strong core of young talent, including Lukas Kelly-Heald, Luke Supyk, Fin Conchie, Isaac Hughes and goalkeeper Alex Paulsen.

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Victory aiming to bounce back after difficult season

Almost anything that could go wrong went wrong for Melbourne Victory last season.

From a number of recruitment misses, to poor results, to off-field distractions. It was a season from hell for Tony Popovic’s side who are looking to bounce back in the 2023-24 campaign.

Victory fell way short of pre-season expectations, finishing in 11th spot on the standings and missing finals for the third time in four seasons.

This all came after a promising first campaign with Popovic at the helm, where he took the team from last spot to Australia Cup success, a second-placed finish on the table and ultimately, just short of a spot in the 2022 Grand Final.

Popovic and his backroom staff have been busy trying to rectify the wrongs of the 2022-23 season, which all started with nailing recruitment, something the Victory coach said they have to get right if they are to spring back up the standings.

Victory weren’t overly busy this transfer window, only bringing in the likes of Daniel Arzani, French winger Zinedine Machach, rising Aussie midfielder Ryan Teague and experienced full-back Adama Traore, while handing scholarship deals to a number of youngsters.

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The club still had a supremely talented core to work with which includes Jake Brimmer, Damien Da Silva, Bruno Fornaroli, Jason Geria and Paul Izzo, with those new arrivals complementing those who were already there.

There will be added pressure on Victory this season, knowing a club of their stature can’t afford to have another campaign lingering in the bottom-half of the table.

Popovic has already resurrected this team once. Can he do it again?

Wanderers’ new look high powered attack arrives on the scene

Western Sydney Wanderers have built an impressive array of attacking talent this season.

After losing Kusini Yengi, Amor Layouni and Yeni Ngbakoto from their attacking stocks, the Wanderers have brought in Lachlan Brook, Marcus Antonsson and Dylan Pierias to turbocharge their frontline ahead of the new season.

The trio join Socceroo Brandon Borrello, who is coming off a career best season last campaign, along with veteran attacking midfielder Milos Ninkovic.

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And if the early evidence in the Australia Cup is anything to go by, then their attack is going to cause all sorts of headaches this season.

Brook scored five goals in their win over NPL Western Australia side Floreat Athena, while Antonsson added three of his own in clashes with Adelaide United and Brisbane Roar.

How Marko Rudan fits all these options into one lineup will be fascinating, as Brook missed their final two Cup contests, with Antonsson coming into the side in his stead.

Nonetheless, it’s a good problem to have going into the season.

Post Craig Goodwin era gets underway in Adelaide

Adelaide United are embarking on a new era of their own, following the departure of captain and star winger Craig Goodwin.

The Johnny Warren Medallist was sold to Saudi Arabian side Al-Wehda, leaving an enormous hole in the Reds attack going into the new season.

Goodwin had 25 scoring contributions last campaign, scoring 15 goals and tallying 10 assists, with coach Carl Veart even acknowledging they were probably a bit “too reliant” on him at times.

Now, the Reds will need to try cover his absence. Nestory Irankunda is the hot favourite to take his place in the starting XI this season, but the likes of Bernardo Oliveira and Panashe Madanha are also options Veart could turn to this season.

However, it will realistically take a whole team effort to replace his scoring windfall, with some of that pressure also falling on the shoulders of Ben Halloran, Hiroshi Ibusuki and Luka Jovanovic as well.

Staj returns

After two years away, Alen Stajcic is back in the A-Leagues, joining Perth Glory as the senior head coach of their Isuzu UTE A-League side, following the resignation of Ruben Zadkovich.

His return comes fresh off an incredible tenure at the helm of the Philippines women’s national team, leading them to their first ever World Cup this year, where they also claimed an historic victory over New Zealand – before falling just short of a spot in the Round of 16.

Given his history in the A-Leagues, the former Matildas boss appears the perfect person to come in and get the Glory back on track after three consecutive seasons without finals football.

Stajcic is a Liberty A-League champion with Sydney FC and helped start the resurrection of the Central Coast Mariners’ Isuzu UTE A-League team, when he took them back to the finals in the 2020-21 season after a seven year absence.

Sydney look to ride Australia Cup momentum

Things are looking up in the Harbour City.

Sydney FC’s 2023-24 campaign got off to the perfect start when they took home the Australia Cup a little under a fortnight ago; their first piece of silverware in three years.

There were plenty of positives to take out of the Cup run, including the form of Joe Lolley – who took home the Mark Viduka Medal – and the emergence of youngsters Kealey Adamson, Corey Hollman, Jake Girdwood-Reich and Patrick Wood.

The latter was particularly impressive, scoring four goals in five games.

While new signing Fabio Gomes didn’t need long to make a big impression, scoring twice in the Cup final to help the Sky Blues to victory.

It’s been some turnaround by Sydney over the last 12 months, given where they were at the start of 2023. Steve Corica’s job was supposedly hanging by a thread and the club was staring down the barrel of consecutive seasons without finals football.

But since then, they have turned it all around, making the semi-finals last campaign and now, winning the Cup for the second time in the club’s history.

Sydney have only lost four of their last 21 matches in all competitions, including 13 wins and four draws to their name – a run which stretches back to January 21, where they lost 1-0 to Western United in Tasmania.

With Corica in the final year of his contract, the pressure is on to continue the solid work over the last few months, especially as they look to return to the A-Leagues promised land after three years on the outside looking in.

Legend chases A-Leagues first, milestones in sight for quartet

Leigh Broxham could become the first A-Leagues player in history to reach the 400-game milestone this seson.

Broxham signed on for an 18th season with Melbourne Victory this off-season and needs 19 more appearances to reach the milestone.

The 35-year-old became the all-time leading A-Leagues appearance record holder last season with 381 games, surpassing recently retired defender Nikolai Topor-Stanley who sits one game behind on 380.

Meanwhile, Wellington Phoenix attacker Kosta Barbarouses, Newcastle Jets utility Jason Hoffman and Brisbane Roar defender Scott Neville are all closing in on playing 300 games each.

Barbarouses currently sits on 296 appearances, while Hoffman is on 291 games played. Neville is a further few behind on 288 games.

In the goals department, Melbourne Victory’s Bruno Fornaroli needs 11 goals this season to become the third player to reach 100 Isuzu UTE A-League goals after Jamie Maclaren (144 goals) and Besart Berisha (142 goals).

He also only needs two goals to surpass club legend Archie Thompson (90 goals) in fourth-place on the all-time standings, and four more to leapfrog Shane Smeltz in third (92 goals).