Sydney FC still the benchmark as A-League season begins amid uncertainty

It's fitting after 12 months like no other that the A-League's return provides a timely reminder of Australian football's No. 1 rule: Nothing is ever done easily.

Just when it appeared that the guarded optimism surrounding the beginning of a new A-League and W-League season was about to come to fruition, a fresh outbreak of cases of COVID-19 on Sydney's Northern Beaches threw the schedule into the shade. Though testing numbers from the Harbour City give hope that the flashpoint is more speed bump than death sentence for the 2020-21 season, the outbreak is a fresh reminder both of the uncertain landscape in which sports around the globe are operating, and the still parlous state of the league's footing.

Displaying "agility" and "adaptability", as one of their press releases would put it, league officials on Tuesday pushed out an amended fixture list that took into account the rapidly evolving situation in the ground -- bringing forward matches between two NSW-based clubs and those betwixt two non-NSW clubs, and pushing back contests that would have involved one of the parties entering or leaving the state.

- A-League on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. Only)
- A-League Tipping: Create a comp and test yourself against the best!

Although the fixtures produced will necessitate a frantic run home, it's a step they have to take; the end of A-League and W-League's deal with broadcaster Fox Sports on July 31 represents something of a hard deadline for the competition's conclusion. Having already tried to cut a hasty dash for the exit once, the prospect of the network allowing a last-minute renegotiation to extend the broadcast deal without extracting significant concession is highly remote. Thus, organisers will, should travel restrictions into and out of NSW continue for a sustained period, need to figure a way to cobble together a full season using an assortment of midweek fixtures and double-headers while perhaps also examining some sort of conference arrangement until restrictions ease and we're treated to an onslaught of games between NSW clubs (and the Wollongong-based Wellington Phoenix) and the rest of the country.

And somehow, in all of this, just when their job seemingly couldn't get any harder, league officials need also to find a solution to the challenge that was staring them down even before this latest brush with coronavirus: How do they get people to care about the A-League again?

Whereas 2020 delivered a shining beacon of hope for the local game, when Australia and New Zealand were awarded hosting rights for the 2023 Women's World Cup, interest in the A-League has been undergoing a steady decline. It seems like a long time since the lair was riding the high of the Western Sydney Wanderers' introduction, Melbourne Victory regularly filling AAMI Park and Marvel Stadium, and players such as Alessandro Del Piero, Emile Heskey and Shinji Ono stalking pitches across the nation.

The reasons behind this decline are numerous -- active support overpoliced and marginalized, governance chaos, a fractured community as mistrustful of each other as they are disconnected, a paywall between almost every game and the general public, stagnation in the league's fixture and a lack of stakes, and much more -- but add up to a situation where it feels like the only people that still live and breath the competition are the diehard, and, peculiarly, those that wish it would die, hard.

That's not to say the A-League isn't without positives. It remains host to Australia's best football teams and players, and possesses a unique charm that, though often frustrating, makes it quintessentially "our own." And ignoring all the background noise, there remains few earthly delights better than joining friends, family and fellow members of your tribe in watching your club compete -- riding the highs and lows as part of this collective ecstasy and agony that is being a football fan.

Yet, despite these strengths, the league has failed to lay forth an engaging narrative as to just why it deserves the spotlight, while also making the going tough for those who try. Not the best position to be in when you need to find a new broadcast partner in the very near future.

Some of these maladies were presumably set to be addressed by planned changes in governance: 2020-21 the first season in which the leagues were set to transition from the control of Football Australia to its participatory clubs.

- A-League Season Preview: Club-by-club guide
- W-League Season Preview: Club-by-club guide

This was supposed to be a triumph for club bosses who helped to form the coalition that staged a bloodless coup against Steven Lowy's FFA board in 2018. But, just days out from the new season, there remains no formal announcement of the completion of this process.

Parties involved have urged patience, talking of the Daedalian legal complications that need to be overcome and saying that the logistics of the transition have effectively been sealed in all but name. Yet time and time again expected announcement dates of the completion of the unbundling have come and gone unmarked. Complicated as the process may be, the ongoing nature of the talks represents a failure as per the expectations of one of the processes' own key stakeholders, Football Australia chief executive James Johnson, who told Optus Sport in October that "if it's not done by the start of the new season, we should all go home and keep everything the same."

Unfortunately, with the keys still not formally handed over, the mooted investment and plans for a digital-first approach to engagement and content that was set to accompany the agreement will likely have little effect on the coming campaign; this one a season of transition instead of revolution.

The lack of clarity surrounding who is in control of the leagues also extends to its clubs.

Newcastle Jets, with absent owner Martin Lee having not put a cent into the club in more thab 12 months, and being hammered by a lack of transfer fees, are still looking for a buyer and have had to be bailed out by other A-League clubs. Central Coast Mariners, too, are looking for a new investor, although owner Mike Charlesworth's commitment to funding the club until a new one is installed makes the situation more manageable than that of their F3 Derby rivals.

Though Perth Glory are not officially on the market right now, it's less than 12 months since the club appeared set to sell a large stake to a London-based digital currency baron and his company -- only for Perth media to then reveal the investor was a convicted fraudster.

It's in this less than auspicious environment that Macarthur FC, under the stewardship of former Matildas boss Ante Milicic, will finally bring the A-League to 12 teams this season -- albeit with the fixture remaining stubbornly stuck at 27 games rather than 33; then again maybe that's for the best given the aforementioned problems facing 2020-21.

The arrival of the Bulls brings the number of teams in Australia's two major cities to three apiece, Sydney now hosting the Bulls, Western Sydney Wanderers and Sydney FC, and Melbourne home of Western United, Melbourne City and the Victory. It no doubt frustrates those who want the league to carry a nationwide scope but, in a league in which it takes more than sporting merit to win access, both Melbourne and Sydney should easily be able to support three teams. Traditional hotbeds of the game in Australia, they both boast sufficient population and economic bases to make it work.

Indeed, in a sport in which derbies serve as a lifeblood, it is remarkable that the competition took until its sixth season to add a second side to the Melbourne market (and a further 10 years for them to find their way to where they probably should have been to begin with), and its eighth for a local rival for Sydney FC to launch. Now, in its 16th season, the league has hopefully found the right balance.

- Sydney FC targeting A-League history in key season
- Jamieson: Calling A-League a development league is 'disrespectful'
- Western Sydney Wanderers swoop on Ibini, Gordon

On the park, the A-League remains one dominated by periods of transition and physicality; Melbourne Victory signing Rudy Gestede echoed sentiments expressed by a long line of imports when he observed: "It's a physical league, everyone is working together. Tactically and technically it is not as good as Europe, but the quality is getting much better."

Born out of economic and logistical realities enforced by the pandemic, a higher proportion of youngsters will likely see minutes across the campaign -- especially at the more cash-poor clubs in the league -- as well as a number of players from the National Premier Leagues. With the Y-League, as ESPN has consistently reported throughout the offseason, all but certain to be cancelled this season, and a full year of NPL football lost to many youngsters, these opportunities will be vital in ensuring that player development doesn't completely grind to a halt due to COVID.

Australia's ability to weather the pandemic (in a global context, the Northern Beaches outbreak pales into insignificance) has also helped to lure a number of high-quality overseas player to the league despite salary cap contraction: Gestede, Masato Kudo, Markel Susaeta, Benat Etxebarria, Ryan Shotton, Kosuke Ota, Tomer Hemed, and Graham Dorrans are all set to make Australia home in 2021.

Defending champions Sydney FC may not have brought in foreign reinforcements, or be the most dynamic of sides in the A-League -- the formula that brought them so much success under Graham Arnold has largely continued under his apprentice, Steve Corica -- but they remain the A-League's favourites until one of the other 11 teams provide a reason as to why they shouldn't.

Born out of stability in coaching and its playing group, consistent success, and a clearly defined philosophy, Sydney player's ability to commit to, and have confidence in, their approach consistently allows them to take points from games in which they didn't perform that well. Any moment of weakness against the Sky Blues is one that is liable to be seized upon and, in one quick motion, dispatched up the other end. There are ways to counter this -- see the Jets' win over the Harboursiders during the hub-based run home to 2019-20 -- but as yet no side has done it consistently enough to knock them off their perch.

Perennial also-rans Melbourne City, who last year upgraded to bridesmaids, once again loom as the most likely challenger to the Sky Blues' dominant grip on the league, with the City Football Group-owned club adding Andrew Nabbout and Aiden O'Neill in the quest to prove that it's not just City's women who know how to win trophies.

Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney Wanderers, as ever, will enter the season feeling this is the year in which they re-assert themselves -- regaining the respect they feel they are owed, even if it doesn't come with a title. Notwithstanding that, both clubs in recent years have done a much better job at presenting an off-field facsimile of a big club while failing to act like one on it.

Of course, with the A-League being the A-League, clubs theoretically need only make the finals to still be in with a chance to win the championship, and the parity across the league -- enforced by a combination of realities of post-pandemic football and the general stagnation of the league -- means that nearly every club (with apologies to the Jets and Mariners) will likely fancy their chances of making a late-season charge for the toilet seat.

It's crazy, chaotic, and very much in flux. But the A-League is ours. Bring it on.