Late twist changes Western United’s Liberty A-League history as 16yo makes ‘special’ debut

WATCH: Match highlights from Western United v Melbourne City.

An 86th-minute thunderbolt from substitute Kahli Johnson has seen Western United register a draw for the first time in their Liberty A-League history, coming from behind to take a point in an exhilarating 2-2 stalemate with Melbourne City on Sunday afternoon.

It looked like goals from Holly McNamara and Hannah Wilkinson would be enough to see City secure their first win ever against Western after Hannah Keane’s early strike was cancelled out.

However, Johnson’s incredible late strike flipped the script and saw the spoils split.

Reigning Golden Boot winner Keane, deployed on the right of midfield rather than up front, opened the scoring inside six minutes after City failed to deal with a marauding run from Keiwa Hieda down the left on her full starting debut.

Having grabbed the lead, a Western side missing internationals TJ Vlajnic and Jaclyn Sawicki – as well as returning Goalkeeper of the Year Hillary Beall – sat deep and challenged City to break down their low block.

In turn, Dario Vidosic’s side dominate possession in the opening half as their star-studded attack were frustrated by the lack of time and space afforded them in the final third.

Goalkeeper Alyssa Dall’Oste stood tall to deny Rhianna Pollicina on 20 minutes, preventing what looked to be a certain goal as the ball fell kindly from close range, before producing another impressive stop to deny City an equaliser following a corner situation.

Shortly after, an injury to Melissa Taranto forced a rethink for Mark Torcaso, who introduced 16-year-old midfielder Avaani Prakash for an A-Leagues debut as she became the youngest player in club history, men’s or women’s.

Western held firm and took their lead into the break, but with all the quality in City’s attack you sensed it would take a colossal effort for them to hold out for the full 90 minutes.

After such a bright start to her campaign, McNamara finally opened her account not long into the second stanza in trademark fashion. The 20-year-old picked up the ball on the left, dropped her shoulder and sent a stunning strike into the back of the net.

From there, the game opened up as both sides searched for a winner.

On 60 minutes, Western skipper Chloe Logarzo made way following a captivating battle with Rebekah Stott, making way for Johnson – who ultimately proved a game-changer for Western.

First though, McNamara made Torcaso’s side pay again, picking up the ball near the halfway line, jetting in behind the Western back line and teeing up Wilkinson to put City ahead.

But there was to be a late twist as Johnson came inside off the left and produced a rocket of a strike that left Lysianne Proulx with no chance as it thundered into the back of the net.

Then, in added time, Western thought they had found a fairy tale winner as teenager Prakash bundled the ball over the line, only to be denied by the offside flag.

The Talking Point: 16-year-old makes ‘special’ A-Leagues debut

Only five days ago, 16-year-old midfielder Avaani Prakash signed her first professional contract with Western United – now, she’s the youngest debutant in the club’s history.

An injury to Melissa Taranto saw the teenager introduced by Mark Torcaso after 37 minutes, slotting into the centre of midfield alongside the likes of Emma Robers.

Prakash, who has already represented Australia at Under-16 and Under-20 level as well as being a part of the Future Matildas program and once juggling in front of Sam Kerr, Steph Catley and Alanna Kennedy on a Sunrise segment back in 2019, gave a good account of herself on Liberty A-League debut against an experienced City engine room.

“Incredible, 16 years old (and) getting the opportunity at Western United,” A-Leagues legend Grace Gill said on commentary duties on 10 Play. “She plays in the Bulls FC Academy in NSW and went to the Westfield Sports High School in Sydney… a huge opportunity.”

Former Matildas defender Alicia Ferguson-Cook added: “That’s quality… every young footballer’s dream to sign their first pro contract. To do it at 16 is pretty special.

“(I’d) be interested to see how the dynamic for this Western United defensive block changes with Prakash there. Maybe she is going to offer more creativity and support for Chloe Logarzo, who has a difficult job on her hands against Rebekah Stott.”

There were glimpses to suggest Prakash will fit right in at this level, with her creativity on show.

The Star: Holly McNamara

You sensed it would take a moment of individual brilliance to break down Western’s compact low block and it was little surprise that it came via Holly McNamara.

From the outset, the 20-year-old threatened to cause major problems for right-back Julia Sardo, picking up the ball on the touch line, dropping her shoulder and cutting inside onto her right foot.

As it turned out, that was exactly how she equalised in the 49th minute. McNamara showed why she has already been capped by the Matildas as she came in off the left at speed, carried inside and arrowed a pinpoint strike up and over Alyssa Dall’Oste and into the back of the net.

It’s difficult to believe this was only the 17th appearance for City’s rising star in the Liberty A-League, where she has now registered six goals. This was her first of the new campaign.

Naturally, she went on to add an assist too!

What It Means

This is the first time Western United have ever played out a draw in the Liberty A-League, coming in their 23rd match in the competition.

A point here leaves Torcaso’s side sitting sixth on the ladder, with a win, a draw and a loss from their opening three clashes. Their next outing is against a red-hot Wellington Phoenix next Sunday.

Meanwhile, City sit second after their perfect start was ended, leaving Perth Glory sitting on top of the table to finish Round 3. They will take on Western Sydney Wanderers in their next clash.