Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson insisted age is just a number as he lauded A-Leagues legend Michelle Heyman following her return to the international fold after a six-year absence.
Gustavsson named his 23-player squad for the 2024 Olympic Games qualifying play-off against Uzbekistan on Wednesday, with the return of Heyman after six years away from the national team setup the standout story.
A 61-time Australia international, the 35-year-old has not represented the Matildas since 2018 having retired from the national team the following year.
But with superstar captain Sam Kerr injured and Heyman lighting up the Liberty A-League with a competition-best 10 goals in 14 matches this season, she has played her way back into the Matildas team for a two-legged showdown with Uzbekistan on February 24 and 28.
“With Sam Kerr unavailable, Kyah (Simon) coming back from injury, (Holly) McNamara injured and so forth. We’re looking at who is the next best no.9,” Gustavsson told reporters.
“The way Michelle’s played, she deserves to be selected. It’s purely performance.
“I’ve said that a lot of times throughout these three years – for me it’s not about age in the Matildas, it’s about the quality you have as a footballer.
“Whether you’re 17 or 35, it doesn’t matter. If you have the quality, you deserve to be selected.
“Heyman had played herself into this team, the way she plays. She is in tremendous form, she is scoring for fun and we also feel playing these type of qualifiers – against a very, very well organised Uzbekistan, it’s going to be difficult to get in behind.
“We need an out-and-out pure number nine in the box that needs half a chance to score and that’s Michelle, the form she’s playing with right now.
“I’m really happy for her because she had pushed herself back into this team because of her performances.”
Heyman stands atop the Liberty A-League’s Golden Boot standings heading into Round 16.
The evergreen striker surpassed Kerr as the league’s all-time scorer and became the first player to score 100 Liberty A-League goals in January.
Gustavsson added: “I understand it might be a headline and Michelle is back again and she is 35 but I want to be very clear about this one – I think we should be excited about players who extend their career.
“We talked about Aivi (Luik) last time. Look at her journey and when she plays Champions League and maybe the best football of her career at her age.
“For me, it’s about being as excited as a 17-year-old debutant coming through as it is for a professional at 35 like Michelle to play one of the best football she has ever played at that age is impressive.
“It’s her performances on the park as a forward scoring goals that has got her selected.”
Heyman is one of five Liberty A-League players in the squad for this month’s qualifiers, which will decide who reaches the Paris Games later this year.
Sydney FC duo Cortnee Vine and Jada Whyman are part of the squad, as is Brisbane Roar’s Tameka Yallop.
There is also a Matildas return for Western United star Chloe Logarzo.
Logarzo is back after an agonising absence through injury, missing out on selection for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in 2023 after an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, followed by plantar fasciitis in her left foot.
The 29-year-old – capped 55 times by the Matildas – has scored a career-high five goals for Western this season.
“I’m really excited that Chloe is back being Chloe,” Gustavsson said. “When she gets into that mindset and she has the physical capacity to be Chloe 100%, you can see how she performs right now.
“Her runs off the ball, her tackles, her one-v-one defending and attacking, her scoring ability, her ability to get into the box, her runs in behind the backline and also if you look at the opponent we’re playing now who are very well organised and physical, we need players on the park who can get into the box and be first on the ball.
“All the rebounds, the loose balls in the box. She is going to be there to poach on every single ball if she gets on the park.
“She has worked a long time to get back to where she needed to be and her professionalism and character have gotten her back to where she is now.
“I’m really happy to bring Chloe back in. She also knows the identity of the team, she knows the playing style. so she is going to integrate quickly.
“Now her step is to bring it from club to international football in terms of intensity and football. But she has been there before and knows what it takes.”
Former Melbourne City star Kaitlyn Torpey has also earned a spot in the team to cap a memorable week for the “intriguing” full-back.
Her inclusion led to Gustavsson – who is in London meeting with WSL-based players as he prepares to visit Tottenham boss and Australian trailblazer Ange Postecoglou for “inspiration” – heaping praise on the A-Leagues.
“Her performances – a combination of A-League and youth 23,” he said. “I want to come back to the youth 23 space. The Matildas can’t be a development platform, it has to be a performance platform. That’s why the youth national team and the youth 23 space is massively important.
“That we keep investing in that program for those players to get a taste of international football. We get to implement the training philosophy and playing style. So when she comes up to us now, she’s heard the terminology, she knows the principles.
“The second part is the A-League and I really want to credit the coaches of the A-League for what they’ve done in terms of developing players. There’s so many players there now who are developing fast, really fast.
“Her performances and improved performances – we kept an eye on her for a long time, but her improvement over the last year especially when she came back from injury has been phenomenal.
“She has a profile as a player that’s intriguing for the way we play. She has the speed with technique. She can play the 7-11 out wide, she can play as an attacking outside back for us. She is confident on the ball, she is aggressive and she has speed.
“I think Torpey deserved to get the opportunity. The next step is to see if she can bring it to international level because everything is faster now.”