Macarthur South West Sydney. Western Melbourne. It’s not the perfect combination of A-League expansion bids – Brisbane is crying out for a derby, Canberra just for a team – but it’s a considerable step in the right direction.
Everyone is well aware of the staleness which has plagued the competition in recent years. There’s no point going over that narrative again, particularly given today’s decision will go some way to correcting it.
By the 2020-21 season, the A-League will have four new derbies and a season freshened up by two new fixtures for each current side. It will be invigorated by two new fan-bases. And it will no longer have a finals system for which more teams qualify than miss out on.
As for the decision to go with Western Melbourne Group and Macarthur South West Sydney, there can’t be too many complaints. Yes, it would have been nice to see the A-League enter a new market – let’s call it Canberra – but given how the Wanderers benefitted from having a cross-town rival when they entered the competition, it’s hard to fault the new FFA board for choosing two teams who will both have multiple local derbies from their inception.
That the successful Sydney bid can jump straight into Campbeltown Stadium from the get-go is another positive (more on why they aren’t doing just that next year later), but Western Melbourne Group’s stadium situation is of far more interest.
WMG’s success at last night’s board meeting was no doubt due in part to their commitment to build and fund a 15,000-seat stadium, as opposed to Team 11’s reliance on Victorian government funding for their proposed arena.
Teams funding and owning their own home grounds is hardly a new phenomenon – Major League Soccer is an oft-mentioned example of how well they can work – but WMG’s will be the first such case in the A-League. Will it lead to more bids promising their own purpose-built stadiums when expansion rolls around next time?
If it does, hopefully any such expansion teams will be able to have their new stadiums ready to go in time for their debut seasons, and not subjected to years at a pre-existing and not particularly well-suited venue in the interim.
That’s the scenario facing WMG, who will play their home games in Geelong until construction in Tarneit is complete. Despite initially being promised to take less than three years, FFA CEO David Gallop revealed the project is expected to be ready in time for the 2022-23 season.
It’s therefore pretty bizarre that the Victorian team will be the first of the two new sides to enter the competition next year. With Campbeltown Stadium a ready-to-use home ground, it would have made far more sense to bring Macarthur South West Sydney into the A-League in 2019 and their Victorian counterparts the following season.
Plenty has been made of the Wanderers’ concerns about having to compete with a new team in Western Sydney during their first year playing out of the revamped Parramatta Stadium, but they should have been given little consideration. After all, a new Western Sydney derby would benefit the existing side as much as the new one.
Other than that bugbear, there are few issues with today’s expansion announcement. Canberrans will be justifiably unhappy, but given Wellington’s precarious position in the league at the moment, and FFA chairman Chris Nikou’s admission that the capital is “an attractive opportunity for potential future expansion,” there is reason for optimism on that front.
More promising, though, was Nikou making all the right noises about future A-League expansion, and not just where Canberra is concerned.
The A-League can ill afford another stagnant period once these two new teams settle in. Future expansion plans must be proactive, continually improving the league rather than being introduced as an antidote to whatever woes have been allowed to build up.
Nikou seems to be well aware of this, saying he wants to keep expansion on the agenda and revealing the establishment of a second division working group, with more details to be revealed on that front next week.
Words are cheap, but it’s a start.
There’s little doubt the next teams to enter the A-League can’t just be plucked from Sydney or Melbourne. Canberra must surely be the next cab off the rank, and a second Brisbane team not too long after.
And beyond that, who knows? Maybe we’ll be ready for a second division by then, or maybe a couple more A-League teams will be a better option.
But, for today’s decision, it’s worth saying something unheard of in the last few years: to the FFA board, well done. The decision isn’t going to please everyone, and plenty of fans will be downright pissed off. But expansion was needed, and it’s been delivered.
Just don’t stop now.