NPL NSW Preview: New format, new teams, A-Leagues links galore

February means one thing. The NPL is back!

KEEPUP is here to get you up to speed ahead of the commencement of all the different leagues across the country.

The first competition returning to action is NPL New South Wales, which kicks off on Friday night as Wollongong Wolves host APIA Leichhardt at WIN Stadium from 7:30 PM (AEDT).

To take us through what we can expect from top-to-bottom this season, KEEPUP caught up with NPL NSW commentator and producer of SEN’s The Global Game Alex Molchanoff who gave us his insights.

Featured image: Football NSW

What can we expect in NPL NSW this season?

For the first time in three seasons, NPL NSW will have a promotion/relegation race as the competition underwent an expansion to a 16 team, 30 round season in 2023 – where the finals series is now null and void – meaning first past the post is crowned champions.

This means four sides were promoted from League One, while none of the bottom teams were relegated. The relegation format, however, has undergone an overhaul with the wooden spooners automatically relegated, while second-last will take part in a one-game relegation play-off with the 2nd-placed side from League One.

Expect the race for the title to be just as enthralling as it was last season – while at the other end, the battle to escape the drop looks to be just as tight.

“Last year’s premiership was decided on goal difference,” Molchanoff told KEEPUP.

“Manly United fell just a solitary goal short of premiers Sydney Olympic on the final day. It was tight the whole way too with the top four finishing within one point of each other and the top six all within six points of each other.

Image: Football NSW

Down the other end of the table there’s also plenty of uncertainty with teams not having had the opportunity to be promoted, it’s hard to gauge how high the four newly promoted teams could rise in their first season.

“NWS Spirit won the Waratah Cup as a second division side last season and St George City have had a rapid rise through the leagues even with that interruption, beginning their journey in the old State League (4th tier) in 2016 and securing 3 promotions in 7 seasons to dine at the top table in 2023.

“Luke Wilkshire takes over as Central Coast Mariners Academy coach while the Western Sydney Wanderers Academy have finally secured promotion after a 6-year wait.”

The favourites?

As for a favourite this season, it’s almost impossible to predict, with a number of teams loading up over the off-season in both players and coaches- particularly Sydney Olympic.

“If last season is anything to go by there is no clear frontrunner,” Molchanoff said.

“Reigning Premiers Sydney Olympic have had some turnover in both their playing and coaching ranks with Ante Juric stepping away from the head coaching role to be replaced by Labinot Haliti who gets his first crack at a head coaching job in senior football.

Last season’s Gold Medal winner and top scorer Roy O’Donovan joins him as a playing assistant alongside former A-League players Ziggy Gordan and Nick Fitzgerald in a star-studded line-up.”

Image: Football NSW

Reigning champions Blacktown City have retained the majority of their squad, welcoming back gun striker Travis Major, Australia Cup star Danny Choi and ex A-Leagues midfielder Mario Shabow.

As for the rest, Molchanoff believes there are a few who could potentially take the next step this season – including a side helmed by an A-Leagues legend.

“Manly United who were runners up for the premiership (on goal difference) and the championship have retained the bulk of their squad despite losing head coach Adam Griffiths to the Western Sydney Wanderers A-League staff,” he said.

“Patrick Zwaanswijk is his replacement and is gaining a reputation as someone able to work well with youth, something Manly have in abundance.

APIA Leichhardt have strengthened since their Australia Cup run a few years ago and now have club legend Franco Parisi at the helm. Marconi Stallions are looking strong again after finishing just a point off the premiership themselves.

“Sydney United 58 and Rockdale Ilinden are looking to bounce back after disappointing campaigns last time out and have the squads to do just that.”

However, Molchanoff is particularly keen to see how Sydney United bounces back this season, after a disappointing league campaign but an amazing run to the Australia Cup final last year.

But he is also intrigued by how Waratah Cup champions and newly promoted NWS Spirit perform as the “team for the purists”.

“They were just such a rollercoaster ride last season – dreadful for the first three months before mounting a late charge to almost make the finals series and obviously going on the amazing Australia Cup run,” he said.

“They’ve retained the bulk of the squad and Miro Vlastelica, sticks around as permanent head coach with a group of players he’s already won silverware with. Big big dark horses.

“Spirit won the (Waratah) Cup as a second division side and have one of the best young managers in the country in David Perkevic. Play a game that revolves around transition and the ability to counter- punch teams but they’re more than that… can play with the football and dominate games when they need to as well.

“A team for the purists, but have lost long time captain Grant Cornwall to a season ending ACL injury which will affect their defensive stability. Fun team to watch.”

Who goes down?

At the other end, however, the drop is looming ominously for two of last season’s bottom three clubs in Sutherland Sharks and Mt Druitt Town Rangers – along with the four A-Leagues academy teams – who Molchanoff believes are at most risk of being relegated.

“The Sharks went through three coaching teams last season with none able to drag them out of bottom spot,” Molchanoff said.

“Had relegation been in play in either of the last two seasons, the Sharks would, at the very least, have been in the play-off so they’ve got some improving to do under (another) new coach, Damir Prodanovic.

“Mt Druitt Town Rangers spent big last off-season and many of those big signings had left by the time August came around.

“Tarek Elrich has stuck around with coach Stewart Montgomery (and his brother Andy now assistant, after he was moved on by his former club in a season that could be similarly described in League One with Blacktown Spartans).

Tarek Elrich

“To be fair to them they’ve signed a little more astutely this season with Jackson Bandiera making the move over after being a vital cog in Blacktown’s dominant side of the last two seasons, and Stefan Nikolic who looked solid at the Mariners Academy and Marconi in the past.”

Off-season signings to keep an eye on

NPL NSW has been littered with big names coming to ply their trade this season. One of them is from a coaching lens and it’s none other than former Socceroo David Carney who has taken over as Wollongong coach after the departure of former national-team teammate Wilkshire.

Molchanoff believes he has a a big job on his hands as the Wolves look to put a disappointing season behind them and get back up the table with a club steeped in history and with National Second Division (NSD) aspirations.

David Carney (left), Tarek Elrich (centre), Roy O’Donovan (right) – Image: Football NSW

“Big name in a big job in NSW Football and with serious improvement needed, the last thing they want is to be caught in a relegation scrap with the NSD on the horizon,” he said.

“That said, they’ve got the squad to move up the table quickly if it gels. APIA Leichhardt in round one will be a good barometer of how they’ll go this season.”

The new arrivals don’t stop there with three former A-Leagues players landing in NSW, including Fitzgerald and Gordon who have touched down at Olympic ahead of this season, while former Macarthur midfielder Loic Puyo has made the move to Rockdale.

Loic Puyo (right)

Some of the other big moves include Kyle Cimenti, who has made the move from Sydney United to Marconi – where he will come up against his former club on Sunday evening at Edensor Park.

Jack Stewart, who was brilliant for Mt Druitt last season has made the move across town to APIA, bolstering an already strong front-line.

Who could make the leap to A-Leagues level?

We have seen year on year, players making the leap to the Isuzu UTE and Liberty A-Leagues off the back of solid form in the NPL. For instance, the likes of Joe Knowles and Kayla Morrison are players who have made the leap off the back of solid form in the nation-wide second tier.

And in NSW, there are a few players and potentially, a coach who could be next. One of them is none other than Domenic Costanzo, who is no stranger to A-League Men’s level – having already been on Adelaide United’s books.

“Easy to say as he’s already had trials at a number of clubs but was far and away the league’s best creative player last season; by the numbers and the eye test in a team that didn’t play particularly attacking football,” Molchanoff said.

Another is Manly’s Brazilian gun Bruno Mendes. The 28-year-old midfielder was sensational last season, scoring 13 goals and playing a starring role in their run to the finals.

However, his story is all the more incredible.

“He came over as a Brazilian backpacker and was playing amateur football just five years ago,” Molchanoff said.

He has a futsal background and bucket loads of talent. Scored the goal of the season with a bicycle kick against Sutherland and scored the late equaliser against Olympic that eventually saw Manly qualify for the Grand Final.

Bruno Mendes – Image: Football NSW

While in the coaching circles, Molchanoff believes NWS Spirit manager David Perkovic could be one to keep an eye on, singing the praises of his tactical savviness and labelling him one of the “best young managers in the country”.

“Seriously smart guy who operates at a tactical level you don’t normally see in NPL, let alone this tier,” he said.

He has spent time in the Phillipines already and if all goes well over the next couple of years, I think A-League clubs would be silly not to be considering him.

David Perkovic – Image: Football NSW

What can we expect from the four A-Leagues Academy sides

All A-Leagues representatives will be in the top-flight of NPL NSW this season, with Central Coast and Western Sydney’s academy teams earning promotion to the top flight.

Last season, Sydney FC’s side fell only three points shy of making the top four, while Macarthur’s affiliate – Bulls FC Academy – finished second-last.

The Bulls will now be helmed by former Socceroo Zeljko Kalac who has taken over only a week out from the season, after he took over from now Macarthur A-League Men’s coach Mile Sterjovski.

As to whether any of these sides can cause a stir this season, Molchanoff is unsure.

“Sydney FC were strong last year until the end of the campaign – whether they have access to the likes of (Adrian) Segecic, (Jake) Girdwood-Reich and a few others will dictate how long they hang around for,” Molchanoff said.

“But it’s safe to say their academy has been the strongest down the junior leagues of the four A-League clubs for the past few seasons so we can somewhat use that as a predictor.

“Bulls have brought in Zeljko Kalac just a week before the start of the season. How that fairs, let’s say I’m not sold.

“Mariners have also had a controversial change in coaching staff with Luke Wilkshere thrust in just before the final series last season and their former head coach, Andrew Christiansen moved on to Western Sydney Wanderers.

“They meet in round one at Pluim Park so it should be tasty.”


  • Apia Leichhardt
  • Blacktown City
  • Bulls FC Academy
  • Central Coast Mariners Academy
  • Manly United
  • Marconi Stallions
  • Mt Druitt Town Rangers
  • NWS Spirit
  • Rockdale City Ilinden
  • St George City FA
  • Sutherland Sharks
  • Sydney FC Youth
  • Sydney Olympic
  • Sydney United 58
  • Western Sydney Wanderers Academy
  • Wollongong Wolves

Round one fixtures

Friday February 3

Wollongong Wolves vs APIA Leichhardt
Venue: WIN Stadium
Kick-off: 7:45 PM (AEDT)

Saturday February 4

NWS Spirit vs Bulls FC Academy
Venue: Christie Park
Kick-off: 5:30 PM (AEDT)

St George FA vs Rockdale Ilinden
Venue: Penshurst Park
Kick-off: 7:00 PM (AEDT)

Sunday February 5

Sydney Olympic vs Sutherland Sharks
Venue: Belmore Sports Ground
Kick-off: 3:00 PM (AEDT)

Central Coast Mariners Academy vs Western Sydney Wanderers Academy
Venue: Pluim Park
Kick-off: 3:00 PM (AEDT)

Sydney FC Academy vs Mt Druitt Town Rangers
Venue: Valentine Sports Park
Kick-off: 3:00 PM (AEDT)

Blacktown City vs Manly United
Venue: Blacktown City Sports Centre
Kick-off: 5:00 PM (AEDT)

Sydney United 58 vs Marconi Stallions
Venue: Sydney United Sports Centre
Kick-off: 5:00 PM (AEDT)