The Calder connection at the heart of Western United’s grand final push

On Sunday afternoon, Western United will take the field for its first-ever A-League Women grand final; an expansion club, looking to add history to an already momentous debut season in the competition. Needless to say, comes with the territory of being a first-year franchise that they’re giving up a significant experience gap on their opponents when it comes to big one off games.

Well, at this level at least. 

Sunday will mark the sixth-straight grand final that opponents Sydney FC have qualified for and while it can be observed that familiarity doesn’t necessarily correlate with success – they have only won one of their last five appearances on the season’s final day – there is at least a level of comfort that can be drawn from it. 

Nine members of coach Ante Juric’s starting XI that beat Melbourne Victory in last week’s preliminary final also played in their 2-1 loss to Victory in last year’s decider; nine players whom will take the field in Parramatta knowing what it feels like to be in that tunnel, knowing that the next 90 minutes will define their season. 

United, in contrast, will feature just two players in their match-day squad that have experienced grand finals across their ALW careers: left-sided flyer Tyla-Jay Vlajinic and Matildas’ midfielder Chloe Lorgazo. Angie Beard would have provided another but was forced to undergo foot surgery after her side’s 1-0 win over Sydney in this year’s qualifying final, ruling her out. Logarzo, who didn’t feature in that triumph, is also touch and go.

Perhaps to help counter the experience gap and stave off nerves, United’s football department has attempted to make this past week as unremarkable as possible. The squad as a whole flew into Sydney on Saturday morning, leaving the Harboursiders to provide the talent for the traditional grand final breakfast on Friday after spending the week ensconcing most of their squad in a protective cocoon away from the spotlight and media – even at the expense of a few raised eyebrows by APL figures attempting to promote Sunday’s game. 

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But while it would be folly to declare the Harbousiders as having anything over than a significant advantage when it comes to experience, the continuity and foundations of this United team, forged for years in the NPL competition below it, mean that this unit, not just the individuals within it, does have some experience when it comes down to must-win games as Sunday’s contest at Parramatta Stadium will be. 

231 days ago, at the more historic than Parramatta but decidedly less grand venue of Olympic Village, seven members of the United squad started in the grand final of the 2022 NPLW Victoria season, looking to complete a memorable season of their own with Calder United. Taking on FC Bulleen Lions, it was against opposition not close to the level of a looming Sydney FC outfit, but one that did still field noted 2022-23 ALW contributors Paige Zois, Lia Privitelli, Tiff Eliadis, and Alana Jancevski.

Emma Robers, Alana Cerne, Natasha Dakic, Mel Taranto, Aleks Sinclair, Stacey Papadopolous, and Julia Sardo all started that day for Calder. After being crowned the league’s media player of the year earlier that week, Cerne opened the scoring in the 16th minute, before Taranto sealed a 2-0 win in the 75th. Sardo was named best afield and Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson was on hand to present her with her best-on-ground medal, as well the team as a whole with the trophy.

Alana Cerne is mobbed by teammates after opening the scoring in the 2022 NPLW Victoria grand final
Image Credit: Football Victoria

Is it the same thing as an ALW grand final? No. But it’s at least something that can be used as some kind of narrative foundation for a few members of a squad that have made a habit of dyeing the odds this season. 

“We’ve played in finals and won finals a lot,” Robers said. “I know it is on a bigger stage [on Sunday] but I think having experienced it to at least some degree is going to help us. Everyone is up for it and excited about it. 

“Our goal [in United’s debut season] was to make the top four. We wanted to go out and make finals. Did we think we’d be one point off the premiers? Definitely not. 

“But the core, having come from Calder, having that chemistry, it came with us. We’re a team that has played finals before, we have this innate fight and belief in each other and that’s what’s carried us through.”

Mark Torcaso, as he has done throughout Calder’s history, was in the dugout that day, with the result securing he and his side a third Victorian title in five seasons to go along with its second-straight premiership (third overall), and a fifth-straight Nike FC Cup. Most of the above players referenced also played roles in a sizable number of those accomplishments.

Alongside former Calder president Eric Psarianos and now United women’s football manager Amanda Stella, Torcaso was part of a contingent that reached out to United to propose a women’s football partnership almost as soon as it was rewarded an A-Leagues licence, working with its director of football Steve Horvat and chief executive Chris Pehlivanis to secure an ALW licence for the 2022-23 season. 

11 players in United’s squad were subsequently drawn from the ranks of Calder for the debut campaign. Elsewhere, assistant coach Helen Winterburn was brought into the club after winning the 2022 NPLW Victoria Coach of the Year award with the Victorian NTC program and four others were recruited from NPLW Victoria and NSW.

“Some of the finals we’ve played in [as Calder] have brought 1000, 2000 people to those games,” said Torcaso. “Having that experience and even having some of the players that might not be necessarily in the 16 [in Sunday’s matchday squad] that have played in those types of finals that are going to be a really important factor to this weekend for us. 

“We’re looking forward to the celebration of a grand final. We’ll use whatever resources that we’ve got. If it’s players that have played in Nike FC Cup finals or players that have played A-League finals or players that have played in a World Cup. We’ll use every resource we can to get the best out of it.

“To have that Calder – Western pathway will be just an amazing achievement. I didn’t think that it would happen in the first year but we’re here now so we might as well give it a shake. It’s a credit to the foundations that were built at Calder that have led to this right now.

“To be in this situation, having some Calder players and junior Calder players coming to the ground tomorrow is going to be amazing.”

That player from the World Cup Tocaso mentioned is Logarzo, and having not played since January she remains questionable for Sunday’s game. Not set to start, the midfielder underwent further fitness testing in United’s final training session on Saturday afternoon to determine just how many minutes she has in her legs. 

Regardless of how long or how far she can go, however, the Matilda has already identified one of her side’s Calder contingent as a potential difference-maker in the game.

“To be honest, I think that Alana Cerne has played unbelievably this whole entire season and centre-backs do not get the recognition that they deserve,” Logarzo said. “Especially being a young player who’s never played in the league, hasn’t really played at a high level in the NPL, only came into the senior team not that long ago.

“She’s stepped up and done incredible and I think she deserves the recognition. She’s going to absolutely smash their frontline.”

Enjoying Joey’s coverage of Australian sport? Your support helps keep it possible.
You’re seeing this advert because this is an unpaid, self-published piece.

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This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 5cbec633ae2b882fff068659_ko-fi_horizontal.png

Header Image Credit: Football Victoria

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