The W-League is preparing for life without its biggest drawcard, with Matildas captain Sam Kerr informing officials she is pursuing a contract outside of Australia this summer.
“We haven’t been able to retain Sam Kerr,” FFA head of leagues Greg O’Rourke told the ABC.
The 26-year-old, who was named Australian captain in the lead-up to the Women’s World Cup in France held in June and July, has been a staple of the W-League since her debut with Perth in 2009.
O’Rourke said the FFA did not expect Kerr to take part in the W-League this season, given her rising value overseas and the fact that it is the first year of a new World Cup cycle.
“Sam spoke to us about last season and she spoke about her want to be part of Perth Glory and the W-League leading into the FIFA Women’s World Cup,” O’Rourke said.
“We worked through that with nearly an unsaid acceptance that the following year she would like to challenge herself in the world market place.
“Wherever Sam lands, she will do really well,” he added.
Canberra United coach Heather Garriock, a former Matildas captain, said Kerr’s omission from the W-League this season would leave big shoes to fill.
“It’s going to be hard not seeing a player like Sam in the W-League,” Garriock said.
“In saying that, what’s best for the national team is for players like Sam to go over and ply their trade in a completely different style of play.
“It could be a positive as it’s going to give opportunity to our youth.
The opportunity to develop new skills appears to be the motivating factor for Kerr.
She benefited substantially from the FFA’s marquee player allowance last season.
As part of the agreement, the league used Kerr heavily, leveraging her name to promote the sport to boys and girls.
While a move to Europe could still prove lucrative, Garriock believes Kerr’s decision to pursue a playing contract in Europe is about testing her ability.
“I think she knows – and any football person knows – that she needs to prove herself in Europe,” Garriock said.
“I think it’s a great move for her.”
Kerr has consistently led goal-scoring charts in the United States and has netted no less than 77 goals for her team, Chicago Red Stars.
See how @chiredstarsPR took an early lead.
— NWSL (@NWSL) October 20, 2019
More leading Matildas players have been eyeing off playing opportunities across Europe, after the success of last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Record audiences around the world fuelled the appetite of some of soccer’s biggest clubs, which are now investing in their women’s football programs.
“Events like the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France actually saw clubs in Europe say ‘you know what, we have got to be part of this’,” O’Rourke said.
A number of senior Matildas players will also miss this year’s W-League season.
Striker Lisa De Vanna has signed with Fiorentina in Italy, while Emily Gielnik will also sit it out, having signed for Bayern Munich in Germany.
The rise of Europe could be a significant hurdle for the Australian W-League, which is positioning itself as a complimentary league to the star-studded NWSL in the United States.
The FFA is working on formalising an agreement with the NWSL to allow leading female players the chance to easily transition between playing in the US and Australia through the year.
“[It] will be a strategy that allows the female athletes that want to play in our code to spend half the year in their home town,” O’Rourke said.
“They will come off the playoffs [in the US] and they will come into our pre-season after a short rest. They will do the same [in Australia], then they will have a rest, and then they can go back.”
“The alternate model is what Sam has done, is to actually move away to the two, half-season model, to the one full-season model in Europe.”
Garriock, who is heading into her third season in charge of Canberra United, has called for caution when it comes to aligning the Australian W-League with the US.
“We need to decide whether we want to be a force or whether we are just happy to play second fiddle to the NWSL,” she said.
“I think investment is the key for the W-League to go to the next level.”
O’Rourke is expected to stay in charge of Australia’s domestic leagues after the new ownership model is formalised, which will grant more financial control to the clubs.
He said more of the FFA’s marquee player allowance was going to be diverted to getting stars of the women’s game in the W-League in the future.
“One [strategy] is about retention of our best Matildas and the other one is about attracting international players, that our Matildas will play on the world stage,” he said.
“But we shouldn’t be trying to hold onto the Sams of the world in my opinion, because challenging herself on the world stage will be great for her.”