Wisdom, strength and character: Inside Melbourne Victory's W-League renaissance

Sam Kerr: Australia's home-grown hero (3:53)

Matildas captain and star striker Sam Kerr sits down with ESPN to share her journey from Aussie rules to soccer and what coming home to Perth truly means. (3:53)

For all the joy that it brings, the sinking, empty feeling of defeat is an inevitable part of football -- perhaps even its most common state. Yet, for all the melancholy, defeat also carries with it the best opportunities to learn and, for those willing to take it, a chance to adjust and make amends.

Just over a year ago -- and on a few occasions since -- Melbourne Victory have been presented with that choice.

Head coach Jeff Hopkins' side entered last season off the back of two wooden spoons and a seventh place finish in their previous three W-League campaigns. There were few expectations that they would do much better in 2018-19.

But assumptions be damned. Melbourne Victory upset the established W-League apple cart, storming to the 2019 premiership while crosstown rivals Melbourne City -- whose entry into the competition did more than anything else to kick-start Victory's years in the wilderness -- missed out on the finals altogether.

Striker Natasha Dowie was the talk of the W-League with nine goals, Christine Nairn won the Julie Dolan Medal as the league's most outstanding player and Laura Brock (nee Alleway), Teigen Allen and Emily Gielnik parlayed strong seasons into World Cup selection.

Unfortunately for Dowie and her teammates, though, the newly crowned premiers ran into a Sam Kerr-shaped buzzsaw in the first week of the finals: Just over a week after Victory celebrated sealing their first-ever premiership on Glory's turf, the Matildas' spearhead attained recompense by driving home a hat trick as her Glory came away with a 4-2 semifinal win.

After reaching such unexpected highs, a long offseason wondering what might have been awaited.

"Probably on paper we had a strong team but probably not one with the most high-profile names in the W-League," Dowie told ESPN.

"I think our togetherness and the hard work and the closeness we had on and off the pitch really got us far."

Now, 12 months on and set for another home semifinal, Victory on Saturday will once again seek to win their way through to a W-League Grand Final and, in doing so, capitalise on hard won momentum a year in the making. And unlike a year ago, according to those at AAMI Park, it won't be a naïve and wide-eyed Victory squad that takes the field seeking to book a place in the Grand Final. Instead, Victory are battle-hardened and ready for a fight.

"There were a number of things [Victory learnt from last season's semifinal defeat]," Hopkins told ESPN.

"We had one or two players that had played in finals series, but we had a team of players that mostly hadn't felt the difference between doing things consistently week after week and actually going into a one-off final. I think we needed to experience that.

"I think what we brought out of the whole season was that now we need to be able to handle that sort of pressure, maybe we didn't handle that well.

"But a lot of the girls that went through it last year and are still here this year. We've been through that situation and we'll definitely handle it a lot better this semifinal."

Dowie, who secured a four-way share of the Golden Boot this season, concurrs.

"We're all prepared now," she said. "Every single squad player has had a taste of finals feeling and even the internationals coming in, they're experienced NWSL players.

"Emily Menges plays at Portland in front of 20, 30 thousand every week, Hayley Hanson has represented the U.S. with the national team and Darian Jenkins and the form she's in.

"I don't think [semifinals are] going to faze anyone this year."

Nonetheless, the newfound wisdom Victory is set to carry into this year's finals has been gleaned from classrooms that stretch far past last year's semifinal.

Beyond a finals berth, Victory's premiership also handed them the task of representing the W-League at the inaugural staging of the AFC Women's Club Championship in South Korea last November; competing against the best of Japan, China and South Korea.

Coming just two weeks into the 2019-20 W-League season, the tournament provided another harsh reality check.

While Victory did record a 1-1 draw against Chinese side Jiangsu Suning in their second game, the continental sojourn was bookended with a 4-0 defeat against Korean club Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels and a 5-0 hammering at the hands of Japanese side Nippon TV Beleza.

And though the chance to compete in Asia was supposed to be an added bonus for Victory -- a reward for a standout 2018-19 campaign -- it certainly didn't feel like it.

"At the start of the season we all laughed as a team about how we had the two away games to start with, then we were away on the road together to Korea then we had the Morwell trip," said Dowie, referencing Victory's nominal round four "home" match that was actually played in Victoria's southeast.

"I don't think we had a proper home game in Melbourne until about round six.

"And at the start of the season, I tell you what, we'd seen enough of each other. I don't think we had a day away from each other for probably the first month or two months of the season.

"It was a tough, tough, tough start and I think we all felt like we needed a holiday."

Nonetheless, just over three months on and with that most luxurious benefit of hindsight, the difficult trip to Korea is shaping as perhaps the defining moment of Victory's season.

The club's winning form throughout the second-half of the W-League campaign -- post-Korea trip -- has been categorized by a midseason change in approach, the most notable a switch from a long-deployed 4-3-3 formation to a 3-5-2.

In part, this shift was driven by personnel demands as Hopkins looked to find a way to get his strong centre-back trio of Menges, Brock and Jenna McCormick on the field at the same time whilst also maximizing the talents the talismanic Dowie, Jenkins, Angie Beard and Melina Ayres.

However, the alterations also draw a not insignificant part of their genesis to the insights Hopkins was able to derive as he watched his side slog it out in freezing conditions in Yongin.

Because although not much went his side's way during their Korean adventure -- even the Starbucks he and his staff co-opted as a makeshift HQ failed to get Hopkins' order right once -- it certainly provided the Victory boss with plenty of food for thought.

"Some of the things that we picked up over there, in terms of our quality and our strengths and weaknesses, really helped me and our coaching staff to shape the rest of the season," he told ESPN.

"We realised that maybe there were certain areas that we needed to improve on and improve quickly on if we were going to be able to challenge in the W-League.

"We changed our formation to suit the players that we had, but also, we changed the way that we trained -- giving the girls more technical work and slightly less tactical work.

"For me, I think that competition was really valuable.

"We sat down after when we came back and within a couple of games we changed things around; we changed our style of play slightly, which I think suited our players and we changed our formation, which I think definitely suited us.

"In the big picture, there may have been one or two little negative things [from the Korea trip] at the beginning but over the season that competition was a really valuable experience for me and for the rest of the group."

Indeed, as Hopkins says, the subsequent proof of the move's veracity is in the second-placed pudding.

"I think [learning is] an ongoing thing," the 55-year-old Welshman explained.

This willingness to adjust by the 2019 W-League Coach of the Year has paid dividends for Victory; a second-half renaissance born of a willingness to learn from mistakes, meet the demands created by a shifting squad and respond to feedback from his playing group.

"Jeff, he will admit, sometimes he can be a bit stubborn," said Dowie. "All managers can be when they have something in their heads.

"But Jeff's also very good at listening to feedback from players and that's why he brings in... that's one of Jeff's biggest strengths, the players that he brings in.

"He doesn't care about what they've achieved footballing wise, it's all about the character: What type of person they are and are they going to fit into the Melbourne Victory philosophy?

"That comes before everything else.

"I don't think there's many players in the women's game that don't really like Jeff and don't speak highly of him.

"Players want to play for him, and I think that's a credit to him that so many players respect him and what he's done in the women's game."