Brisbane Roar have kicked off their Liberty A-League campaign in style, defeating Melbourne Victory 2-1 at the Home of the Matildas.
16-year-old Grace Kuilamu had a Liberty A-League debut to remember, scoring the opener just after half-time, before Jenna McCormick doubled their lead with a bullet header in the 70th minute.
Victory pulled one back through substitute Ella O’Grady in second-half stoppage time, who marked her debut with a goal, but it wasn’t enough to spark a late fightback as Brisbane held on to all three points.
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A solid crowd braved the elements in Melbourne’s north to witness the first match at the state-of-the-art-venue, which was declared a sell-out to the general public.
Before a ball was kicked, new Victory signing and Matildas goalkeeper Lydia Williams received a rousing reception from the home fans on her A-League Women’s return, along with a guard of honour and commemorative artwork for her efforts in Australia’s World Cup campaign.
Fellow returning Matildas Emily Gielnik and Tameka Yallop were both absent from the contest, along with Victory’s Elise Kellond-Knight.
Victory started strongly and had two efforts cleared off the line from both McKenzie Weinert and Rachel Lowe in the same play.
Their new look front-line, with the likes of Kurea Okino, the aforementioned duo and Beattie Goad pushed and prodded in the opening half but were unable to find the breakthrough.
Brisbane weathered the early storm and were dangerous in transition through new signing Mia Corbin and Sharn Freier – with the latter causing all sorts of headaches down the left-flank.
It was Freier’s work down the left that eventually turned to gold after half-time, when her cross was diverted into the back of the net by Kuilamu to open the scoring.
Victory thought they were level shortly after when Mackenzie Weinert fired home after a mazy run, but the assistant referee raised her flag, denying an equaliser – although the American looked to have received the ball in an onside position.
It was later confirmed by Football Australia that the goal was disallowed due to Rachel Lowe obstructing the view of Roar keeper Jordan Silkoitwz while in an offside position, as Weinert got the shot away.
The job became all the more difficult for Victory when they were undone from a set piece, as Hollie Palmer’s free-kick was nodded home by McCormick in her first game for the club in five years.
With seconds to go, Victory pulled back what would only be a consolation after Weinert knocked it down to O’Grady who converted from just inside the area.
The Talking Point
It was the moment that almost swung the trajectory back in Melbourne Victory’s favour.
McKenzie Weinert thought she had brought Victory level moments after Grace Kuilamu’s go-ahead goal, when she capped off a brilliant solo run with a tidy finish past Jordan Silkowitz.
However, assistant referee denied the American attacker a debut goal, although it looked as if Weinert received the ball in an offside position. Referee Anna-Marie Keighley liaised with her assistant following the offside call and the decision was upheld.
After initial confusion, it was confirmed by Football Australia that the goal was disallowed as a result of Rachel Lowe standing in an offside position and obstructing the view of Silkoitwz when Weinert got the shot away.
16-year-old Grace Kuilamu stole all the headlines on Sunday afternoon.
Kuilamu repaid coach Garrath McPherson’s faith when she bundled home the opener just after half-time, capping off a debut to remember for the youngster.
The attacker only signed a scholarship deal with the club in September, after impressing at NPLW level with the Queensland Academy of Sport.
She was spotted by McPherson at a Junior Matilda’s camp in South Korea, who signed her to a deal ahead of the new season.
Throughout her debut, Kuilamu played with maturity beyond her years and wasn’t phased by the task of going up against capped Matilda Jamilla Rankin.
She was eventually taken off in the 78th minute as Roar looked to preserve their lead.
What they said
Melbourne Victory coach Jeff Hopkins said: “We are disappointed with the result, but just as disappointed with the performance as well. I thought we started ok and we started the way that we wanted to and we got the ball into the area we wanted to.
“We just lacked quality and the ability to finish and I think we had a couple of good chances early on to go into the lead, but after that I thought in general we weren’t good enough in most areas in terms of the way that we competed.
“We had a good chat there and it’s nothing to to worry about, but it’s something we’ve got to put right.
“The goal (Weinert’s)? I didn’t see. I’ll have to have a look at that before I give an opinion… I haven’t seen it.”
Brisbane Roar coach Garrath McPherson said: “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.
“She’s trained too well to leave out. She just keeps going up another gear and a well taken finish and she defends… She’s just in the rooms, eating a sandwich at the moment, thinking about school tomorrow. She’s such a humble kid. I’m really happy for her.
“She has to miss training on Friday because she’s got her English assessment. We just play it by ear with her. She actually is a really academic student and she has quite a heavy academic workload.
“Leah (Scarpelli) and Mia (Corbin) actually drop her to school. When they leave training, they drop her to school on the way back to their place because Grace’s parents are working. We train mornings so she misses session one and then I think, stays behind at the end of the day.
“But it’s quite funny seeing her drive off in the car with the two old Americans in the front and then Grace is just in the back seat with her school uniform on, sitting there on the way to school.”
What it means
The victory means Brisbane are back on the winner’s list after a difficult end to the 2022-23 campaign.
Roar had only beaten Victory once in their last five meetings heading into the contest as well.
Brisbane missed Ayesha Norrie and Yallop, and could be boosted by their returns next weekend, when they return home to face reigning champions Sydney FC at Ballymore Park next Saturday.
Meanwhile, Victory will go back to the drawing board after a second consecutive season with an opening round defeat – having lost to Western United in their Round One contest last campaign.
They in fact, face Western next Sunday at City Vista Reserve – who are also looking to bounce back after a round one defeat.
In an added boost, Hopkins said both Kellond-Knight and Gielnik are “very close” to returning. However, winger Lia Privitelli “is a little further away”.