You wouldn't have thought Adelaide United would be one of our most exciting teams to watch in W-League 2019/20 season. But there's a lot to look forward to here...
Coming in luke-warm of another missed finals campaign, you could be forgiven for lowering your Adelaide expectations this season.
But we'll skip straight to the good bits: the Reds have locked-in some of the hottest young talent in the league this season and coach Ivan Karlovic has reason to be excited, he's got the prodigy "everybody wanted" in his team and she's going to put bums on seats this season if nothing else.
Entering their 12th season without a finals appearance to show for their efforts, Adelaide are still undergoing a renaissance of sorts under Karlovic, now in his fifth season with the club.
He took them from wooden spooners the year before to an unbeaten finals contender by the start of December but that January collapse all-but-ended those big hopes at the key stage of the season.
Now reeling from another sixth-place and with more pressure on the coach than ever before, you'd expect things to be getting a little tight in the City of Churches. But there's a degree of confidence around the club that can't be ignored.
Adelaide are one of our ones-to-watch this season. Here's why...
WHAT DID WE LEARN FROM LAST SEASON?
Adelaide's blistering form at the beginning of last season hinged on strong away performances, such as a nail-biting win up in Brisbane in round three, that set the tone for improved showings across all areas of the pitch.
They found a way of grinding out results and nicking important goals against the big clubs, backed up by a strong defence that featured the now-absent likes of Emma Checker and a lethal one-woman strikeforce named Veronica Latsko. Also gone.
So why are we tipping the Reds to remain in the hunt, you ask?
Overall they finished up with largely stalemate records both home and away, a solid outing for a club that weren't considered competitive at the beginning of the season and ended up being exactly that.
Most enticing are the re-arrivals of key up-and-comers, now with extensive experience under their belts. Emily Condon, Georgia Campagnale, Emily Hodgson, Isabel Hodgson, Chelsie Dawber...all these names are increasingly significant in Adelaide and Karlovic has proven adept at ensuring continued progression from his young talent.
The other big change in the Adelaide setup are the clubs new owners, who Karlovic says have clearly valued the W-league side.
"Obviously we said about trying to improve the performances," Karlovic said.
"But I think fundamentally, a lot of that comes from putting a lot of hard work in the background, getting the program to where it needs to be, which which we have.
"The new owners are just providing that greater resources to the coaching staff, which is then able to be reflected on to the players."
Strength in unity is a big one as we look towards another stint under one of the most settled coaches in the competition. They've got bags of talent to pick from in the South Australian NPLW as well, with Adelaide City developing some excellent young stars lately.
But even when things have gone badly for Adelaide, their overall style and system structure generally remains on-point.
We remember two seasons ago when they finished bottom-of-the-pile, we still watched Adelaide games with a sense of excitiement because you knew they were going to be well-drilled, organised and create chances.
"Increased professionalism keeps evolving every component of a W-League side, it's not just about having a coach and an assistant coach," Karlovic said.
"There's a lot more to it now. Our program pretty much reflects the elite program now and it goes in really good hands.
"It's a credit to the club, because they obviously want to see it progress."
This carried into last season and it was no surprise to see Adelaide emerge as confidently as they did, something we expect to see again in 2019/20.
For the brunt of last season, Karlovic's squad were hard to beat, pure and simple. The crux of that pedigreed talent has now left the team, but the overall approach was based on improving the players that the Reds had at their disposal. And they do have exciting new faces, that we'll touch on later.
In one off-season they evolved from a squad that repetitively lost close matches to become steely and resolute, with talent-spotting a key factor behind the side's success.
These are traits that should survive them with another solid off-season under their belt. While finals may be a bridge too far for Adelaide this season, the key is to keep a close eye on their development as a unit. Because that's how they'll play their games.
The lack of experience in this squad is a concern and generally speaking, always has been. It's the reason they fall away at key parts of the season and it's the reason, despite developing excellent talent, they miss out on finals time-after-time.
So what does Karlovic want to see improve?
"I felt last season we struggled in the games that we were favourites to win," he said.
"It's something the group hasn't come across recently, so we want to change that and have the confidence to go into games knowing we can get a result."
Adelaide are doing what is in their financial capacity to do. But with new owners who have shown a willingness to invest in their A-League side, fans have the right to expect greater backing (and subsequent pressure) for Karlovic in the future.
This season, we feel a little bit of deja vu in pointing out the same fragilities, namely the lack of proven goalscoring talent. Add to that the concern about Checker leaving, who Karlovic is a big blow for the club, and suddenly they seem lacking at both ends of the pitch.
But once again, the more they tend to rely on unheralded talent the better that talent appear to get. One look at the likes of Sarah Willacy's performances affirm this.
Like Newcastle, Adelaide have gone down the development route with strong results. But there will have to be a hell of a lot of development in a short period of time to get this side competing against the big powers in this league.
The clubs they grinded out results against last time have invested bigger and better, as have the clubs that finished below them.
WHAT KARLOVIC SAID
"The new owners have continued to help me develop and increase the professionalism within our program.
"They haven't changed the way they treat the W-League side, but it's been treated with the respect it deserves from the moment they walked in. They're constantly supportive of me being able to improve the program, which is all I can ask for.
"Being in Adelaide, from a population point of view, we don't have the numbers. So it's trying to work closely with our local association to improve the pathway and the coaching and resources to the players at a younger age group.
"We'll add more experience to the side, get some of our internationals in. They're young, but a lot of our girls are now into their fourth or fifth W-League season, because they're no longer first year players so they need to continue playing on like they are experienced players."
THE 16-YEAR-OLD SUPERSTAR IN THE ROOM
So much of our excitement around Adelaide - and the W-League - this season comes down to the most exciting young talent in Australian football, who will proudly don the Red shirt this season alongside her similarly talented sister.
Mary Fowler enters the W-League season fresh from an electric spell in the AFC U/19 Championships, where she's scored three goals in her last two matches (absolute crackers as well).
"She's a natural goalscorer," Karlovic says.
"It's hard to find in the men's and women's game. You've got fantastic natural instincts in front of goal and although she's experienced a lot from an international point of view, she's still relatively raw in a professional sense.
"We're mindful of that, we have to look after her and help develop her into the player we all think she can become.
"She's had enough experiences now, a lot more than some of the other players have. She knows a lot of the girls from the Young Matildas. From our point of view, we just don't want to put that much pressure on her."
Given how important her goal scoring is teed up to be for Adelaide this season, the Reds' toughest task may be not putting all their hopes on Fowler.
Reds' US import Weber burst onto the scene at US College team Penn State, where she scored a whopping 36 goals in 100 appearances to become one of the most prolific strikers in the team's history.
By 2013 she was a regular for the US U/20 national team, going on to spend three years moving up all the way into the U/23 squad.
She was drafted unexpectedly late in the 2016 NWSL draft but bounced back with a trade to league powerhouses Portland Thorns, winning the 2016 NWSL Shield and 2017 NWSL Championship is quick succession.
Now she's been brought in to add international experience to a squad that desparately needs it and if anyone can, she'll be the one to take the pressure off Fowler.
For the first two months of the season, Willacy was arguably the standout goalkeeper in the competition and central to Adelaide's competitiveness.
Now 24-years-old and entering her fifth year at the club, her performances haven't gone unnoticed outside of Adelaide and this will be a key year for her.
If she can cement the consistency needed to propel Adelaide to a strong finish this year, it will put her firmly in the shop window among the league's fastest-rising goalkeepers.
Adelaide United have bolstered their attacking stocks with the re-signing of attacker Isabel Hodgson, who returns from the US College system.
Hodgson has now made over 20 appearances for Adelaide and brings another option to Ivan Karlovic's side, who are beginning to form a wealth of young stars in their attacking positions.
“Isabel showed last season she is more than capable of playing at the W-League level after coming back from America,” Karlovic said.
“She will provide us good competition in attack and I’m looking forward to seeing her continue her development."