23 under 23: A-League Women’s players to watch as the 2023 Women’s World Cup approaches

Australia’s top professional women’s competition has long been a greenhouse for producing some of the most exciting talent in world football.

The A-League Women’s former iteration, the W-League, was home to players like Sam Kerr, Kyah Simon, Steph Catley and Alanna Kennedy, who would go on to play not only for the senior Matildas, but also for some of the biggest domestic clubs in the world like Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester City.

So as the Australian competition enters its new, independent era under the Australian Professional Leagues, it has once again become the shop window for young, exciting players who could go on to become the next Kerr, Simon, Catley, or Kennedy.

And with the 2023 Women’s World Cup on the horizon, there are few seasons quite as important as this one for spotting the next big superstar who could make an impact on home soil in 18 months’ time.

So who are some of the young players to keep an eye on for the 2021/22 A-League Women’s season?

Annalee Grove

Young Matilda Annalee Grove has a point to prove at Adelaide United.(Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images)

Club: Adelaide United
Age: 20
Position: Goalkeeper

Touted as one of the most promising young goalkeepers in Australia, Annalee Grove finally has a chance to cement herself as Adelaide’s first-choice shot-stopper after spending the majority of her career to date on the bench. Having joined the league in 2016, Grove only made her senior debut last season, helping the Reds concede the equal third-fewest goals across the competition. Now, with veteran Sian Fryer-McLaren moving on and youngster Miranda Templeman coming in behind her, the Young Matildas glove-woman is primed to earn some consistent match minutes and prove why she has been part of the youth national team ranks for so long.

Chelsie Dawber

Chelsie Dawber Celebrates A Goal.
Chelsie Dawber is becoming one of the league’s most lethal strikers.(Photo by James Elsby/Getty Images)

Club: Adelaide United
Age: 21
Position: Winger/striker

After being named the W-League Rising Star in 2019/20, South Australian striker Chelsie Dawber had her most prolific campaign for the Reds, scoring five goals and assisting two more in eight games to clinch Adelaide’s Golden Boot last season. That break-out performance came off the back of two stand-out campaigns in the SA National Premier League, where Dawber bagged more than 60 goals for Adelaide City. With 16 more now under her belt in 2021, Dawber returns to United in red-hot form and will likely become the club’s starting centre-forward following the loss of Chilean international Maria Cote Rojas to Sydney. Quick, physical, and increasingly lethal, it’s only a matter of time before Dawber pulls on the green and gold.

Shadeene Evans

Shadeene Evans Wears A Light Blue Soccer Shirt With The Number 17 On It, And Looks Into The Camera While Standing On A Field.
Shadeene Evans is one of the first products to emerge from the John Moriarty Football Foundation program.(ABC News: Mitchell Woolnough)

Club: Adelaide United
Age: 20
Position: Winger/striker

As one of the first players to emerge from the famous John Moriarty Football Foundation, which provides training and pathways for First Nations footballers, Shadeene Evans already has big wraps around her. However, despite being capped for the Young Matildas, Evans only received a handful of minutes during her first two senior league seasons, which she spent with Sydney FC. The striker then opted out of the 2020/21 season altogether, instead returning home to Borroloola in the Northern Territory to see out the pandemic. Easing back into football with the Northern Tigers in the most recent New South Wales NPL competition, scoring five times in 12 games, the young Marra woman has now signed with Adelaide and, alongside Dawber, will be aiming to help them reach their first finals spot in club history.

Jamilla Rankin

Jamilla Rankin Passes The Ball.
Jamilla Rankin has put her hand up to succeed Steph Catley as the future Matildas left-back.(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Club: Brisbane Roar
Age: 18
Position: Defender

Nominated for the 2020/21 W-League Young Footballer of the Year after playing almost every minute last season, including scoring twice and assisting twice more, the prodigious full-back returns to Brisbane following her first senior Matildas call-up back in October. The athletic defender reunites with former Queensland Academy of Sport head coach Garrath McPherson, who will continue his developmental role with a player widely regarded as the heir to Australian vice-captain Steph Catley. Her defensive soundness, uncompromising physicality, and deadly left-foot – particularly over a dead ball – have already made her one of the league’s most exciting modern full-backs.

Hollie Palmer

Hollie Palmer Passes A Ball.
After a solid season down south, Palmer returns to her hometown club where she hopes to secure a starting midfield spot.(Photo by David Neilson/Getty Images)

Club: Brisbane Roar
Age: 20
Position: Midfielder

Having made her league debut for Brisbane as a 16-year-old back in 2017/18, making 27 appearances across three seasons, Young Matilda Hollie Palmer now returns to the club following an understated season with Melbourne City last term. The flexible, hard-working midfielder flew under the radar at City given the club’s underwhelming results, but grew into her role to become one of their most consistent central players. She’ll be looking to build upon her advanced reading of space and mature passing vision while surrounded by former teammates and coaching staff from her earlier Queensland days.

Emma Ilijoski

Emma Ilijoski Wrestles For The Ball.
She may be pint-sized, but that hasn’t stopped Emma Ilijoski from becoming one of the most well-rounded defenders in the league.(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Club: Canberra United
Age: 18
Position: Defender

Starting every match after her debut in round 5 of the 2020/21 season, Young Matildas full-back Emma Ilijoski returns to the club she grew up supporting for her second consecutive stint under Vicki Linton. Following on from captaining Australia at under-17 level, as well as her invitation to the Matildas Talent Identification Camp in November last year, the tenacious defender will – like many young players – be using the next two seasons as a springboard to senior national team selection ahead of the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Despite her unassuming height, Ilijoski’s natural balance, off-ball movement, and mature use of her body in one-on-one situations makes her a formidable defensive player no matter the size of her opponent.

Laura Hughes

Laura Hughes Controls The Ball.
She was one of the most consistent midfielders last season. Can Laura Hughes take her game to the next level?(Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

Club: Canberra United
Age: 20
Position: Midfielder

Although just 20 years old, Laura Hughes has been in and around the senior league for several seasons, making her debut for Canberra as a 15-year old in 2016. She had her most impressive campaign to date last year, starting almost every game for Canberra while also adding goals and assists to her repertoire. In fact, Hughes was in last season’s top 20 for major chances created (15) and led the league for the highest completion rate for passes in the opposition half (79.5 per cent). The busy, intelligent central midfielder has the spatial awareness and passing abilities of a player twice her age, and with a call-up to the Talent ID Camp last year, is edging ever closer to a senior Matildas debut.

Chelsea Blissett

Chelsea Blissett Passes The Ball.
With her injury woes behind her, Chelsea Blissett is hoping to follow in Ellie Carpenter’s rapid footsteps.(Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

Club: Melbourne City
Age: 20
Position: Defender

After being ruled out of last season with an ACL injury, Young Matildas full-back Chelsea Blissett has re-signed for Melbourne City to gain back some of the ground she started treading in 2018/19. With shades of Ellie Carpenter to her style, Blissett has an equally impressive engine, able to get up and down the field in the modern attacking full-back role. Her unapologetic defensive approach and bucketloads of potential have seen City hand Blissett a three-year contract, proof of their confidence in her trajectory over the next World Cup cycle.

Leah Davidson

Leah Davidson Looks Up.
A quiet achiever, Leah Davidson could be the glue that holds Melbourne City together this year.(Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

Club: Melbourne City
Age: 20
Position: Midfielder/defender

This will be Davidson’s second season at Melbourne City after making 11 appearances for Brisbane Roar between 2018 and 2020. The Young Matilda was one of City’s most consistent players in their most recent season, playing all but four minutes and winning the Coaches Award by campaign’s end. Understated and adaptable, Davidson can transition seamlessly from defensive to attacking rhythms, shown in last season’s statistics where she made 12 clearances and 16 interceptions in addition to nine key attacking passes. With more experience under her belt, she’s expected to be one of City’s most valuable regular starters this season.

Polly Doran

Polly Doran (Left) Kicks The Ball.
Polly Doran (left) was one of Melbourne Victory’s stand-out players last season.(Photo by Mike Owen/Getty Images)

Club: Melbourne Victory
Age: 20
Position: Defender

Having impressed at state level for several years, full-back Polly Doran finally made her senior league debut in 2019, but only received a scattering of minutes off the bench. Fuelled by that brief glimpse, Doran returned to Victory last season a whole new player, starting almost every game for the title-winning team and earning praise from head coach Jeff Hopkins as one of the club’s most improved and most valuable players. The full-back’s no-nonsense style, coupled with her sound spatial awareness and passing accuracy (Doran finished third overall for pass completion last season), have turned the unassuming defender into a force to be reckoned with.

Kyra Cooney-Cross

Kyra Cooney-Cross Keeps Her Eye On The Ball.
The sky’s the limit for this talented teen, who secured Victory their Championship trophy with an Olimpico goal last year.(Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

Club: Melbourne Victory
Age: 19
Position: Midfielder

Like Ellie Carpenter before her, Kyra Cooney-Cross has quickly become the poster child for Australia’s top women’s league. Following her breakout season with Western Sydney, Cooney-Cross returned to her parent club Melbourne Victory last year and put on an absolute clinic, finishing their Championship-winning campaign with five goals and four assists, while also finishing in the top five for most shot attempts (43) and chances created (36) across the competition. Her stellar form saw her called up to the senior Matildas, where she cemented her starting spot in midfield throughout the Tokyo Olympics as well as surrounding friendlies. A big-club move is likely on the horizon for the talented teen, so watch her in your own backyard while you still can.

Courtney Nevin

Courtney Nevin Focuses On The Ball.
Injury kept the full-back out of the frame last season, but with the wind of Matildas call-ups in her sails, can Nevin continue on course?(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Club: Melbourne Victory
Age: 19
Position: Defender

Joining Victory from the Wanderers in the off-season, young defender Courtney Nevin has a lot of competition when it comes to the left side of defence. Making her mark in the 2019/20 campaign, where she started every game and demonstrated her lethal left-footed abilities from corners and free kicks, Nevin’s most recent club season was hampered by injuries, but her call-up to the Matildas in Tokyo and recent friendlies showed the work she’d been putting in behind the scenes. She slotted in almost seamlessly as a Steph Catley replacement, while also showing her versatility as a wide or central defender in a back three. A transfer to the reigning champions only further confirms her qualities as one of Australia’s most exciting young defenders.

Sophie Harding

Newcastle Jets Striker Sophie Harding (Right) Challenges Charlotte Mclean For The Ball.
Jets striker Sophie Harding will look to add more goals to her CV this season.(Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

Club: Newcastle Jets
Age: 22
Position: Winger/striker

After an impressive first outing at senior level with Newcastle last season, where she made 11 appearances across 12 games, lightning-quick attacker Sophie Harding returns for a second stint in blue for the 2021/22 season. Making the leap from the New South Wales NPL, where she was a constant threat for the North-West Sydney Koalas, Harding’s ferocious speed made her a menace last season for Newcastle, regularly getting behind defensive lines and sparking counter-attacks. If she can add more goals and assists to her exciting build-up play, Harding could become one of the league’s deadliest weapons.

Kirsty Fenton

Kirsty Fenton Runs Around A Post.
Kirsty Fenton’s first senior league season with Newcastle could be a baptism of fire.(Newcastle Jets)

Club: Newcastle Jets
Age: 17
Position: Defender

Fenton is the latest player to emerge from Newcastle’s long-running women’s academy, having joined the club at the under-13s level and representing the senior development team in the NPL in recent years. With Junior and Young Matildas experience under her belt, Fenton steps into the boots left by fellow academy player Tessa Tamplin, who used her most recent season with the Jets as a springboard to club football overseas, most recently appearing in the Champions League with Swiss side Servette. For Fenton, the raw talent is there but consistent minutes at senior level are needed before she’s able to follow Tamplin to those great heights.

Hana Lowry

Hana Lowry Focuses On The Ball.
With shades of Emily Van Egmond to her style (all the lanky limbs, too), Hana Lowry is regarded as a future star in the Matildas’ midfield.(Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

Club: Perth Glory
Age: 18
Position: Midfielder

Hana Lowry has been the talk of Australian youth development circles for some time, emerging from Western Australia to become one of the most technically gifted attacking midfielders in the game. Her on-field vision, technical ability, and passing range is almost unparalleled for her age, and after her breakout season with Perth Glory last year – where she scored a handful of goals and became a regular starter – the Young Matilda is looking physically stronger and ready to fulfil more of her huge potential.

Claudia Mihocic

Claudia Mihocic Looks Up.
Can emerging central defender Claudia Mihocic be the answer to the senior Matildas’ defensive woes?(Gold Leaf Creative)

Club: Perth Glory
Age: 18
Position: Defender/Midfielder

Fresh off captaining Victoria’s National Training Centre side, FV Emerging, central defender Claudia Mihocic is taking her first step into senior league football. Seen by many as the next Clare Polkinghorne in the heart of defence for the senior national team, Mihocic has already been capped at Junior and Young Matildas level to much acclaim from national team staff. She previously worked with Melbourne Victory as a train-on player, but this will be the first of many seasons for Mihocic at the top level after Perth signed her to a long-term deal back in June. Flanked by veteran defenders Kim Carroll and Glory captain Natasha Rigby, it will be a steep learning curve for the teenager, but one which she will certainly embrace as she continues to hone her craft.

Jessika Nash

Jessika Nash (Right) Keeps Her Eye On The Ball.
Former Canberra United centre-back Jessika Nash (right) has been tipped as a future Matildas captain.(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Club: Sydney FC
Age: 17
Position: Defender

Alongside Mihocic, another emerging Australian centre-back who has been on national team radars is Jessika Nash. Already with a senior club season under her belt, having debuted and started regularly for Canberra United last year, the Young Footballer of the Year nominee for 2020/21 has moved to reigning premiers Sydney FC for the upcoming season. Nash’s defensive maturity, natural leadership, and calmness on the ball resulted in her captaining the Junior Matildas at the 2019 AFC U-16 Women’s Championships, as well as her first senior call-up against the USA in this month’s friendlies. With veteran Sky Blues defender Ellie Brush stepping away after re-injuring her ACL, Nash will likely be Sydney’s starting centre-back: a role that will truly test whether, as many believe, Nash is a future Matildas captain and anchor of Australia’s central defence.

Taylor Ray

Taylor Ray Controls The Ball.
Stepping into the shoes of Teresa Polias is no easy task, but Young Matilda Taylor Ray has been waiting in the wings for some time to do just that.(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Club: Sydney FC
Age: 20
Position: Midfielder

After returning from two season-ending knee injuries, and having been the understudy of former club captain Teresa Polias for several seasons, Young Matilda Taylor Ray now has the clear air of Polias’s maternity absence to cement herself as Sydney FC’s starting defensive midfielder. Indeed, Ray has developed many of the attributes that have made Polias a legend of the Australian women’s game: an indefatigable motor, an advanced reading of space, calmness under pressure, and the ability to control a game’s tempo. With more competitive minutes under her belt, it is likely Ray will become a serious contender as thoughts turn to who will succeed the retired Aivi Luik and injury-prone Elise Kellond-Knight at the base of senior Matildas midfield into the future.

Remy Siemsen

Remy Siemsen Focuses On The Ball.
A veteran at 22, Siemsen will soon be entering her peak performance age. Can she build upon her promising last season?(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Club: Sydney FC
Age: 22
Position: Striker

Despite her age, Sydney-born striker Remy Siemsen has several seasons’ worth of top-flight club experience on her CV. Debuting with Sydney FC in 2016, she won the W-League Young Footballer of the Year award in her first year, having also finished as the club’s top scorer. The classic Young Matildas striker has continued to mature and add elements to her game such as hold-up and combination play, as well as becoming one of the league’s most clinical finishers, finishing fourth in last season’s Golden Boot race. Her form led to a first senior Matildas cap against Brazil in October; a look-in that she will almost certainly use as inspiration to make the upcoming season one of her most lethal yet.

Kelli Brown

Kelli Brown Looks At The Ball.
If Kelli Brown can do to A-League Women’s teams what she did to Oceania nations over recent years, Wellington could find themselves in a finals spot.(Photo by Maddie Meyer – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Club: Wellington Phoenix
Age: 20
Position: Winger/striker

She’s been scoring goals for fun at youth national team level, winning the Golden Boot at various Oceania competitions over the past few years (including 21 goals at the OFC U-19 Championships), but Kiwi striker Kelli Brown has yet to crack into the senior Ferns team. She was crucial in New Zealand’s historic bronze medal at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2018, alongside fellow Phoenix striker Grace Wisnewski, the latter of whom scored a brace against Canada in the deciding match. Together, the two strikers are seen as the future of the Ferns’ attack, and will use their debut professional season with New Zealand’s first women’s team to accelerate that trajectory.

Te Reremoana Walker

Te Reremoana Walker Controls The Ball.
Te Reremoana Walker’s first senior league season could determine her national team allegiance. (Wellington Phoenix)

Club: Wellington Phoenix
Age: 17
Position: Midfielder

It’s fitting that a club made up of an eclectic mix of New Zealand and Australian players should sign a Kiwi midfielder who has grown up playing football in Australia. Having moved to northern NSW when she was five, Te Reremoana Walker, the former captain of New Zealand’s U-17 national team, has been plying her trade with the Newcastle Jets academy in the NPL. On the cusp of making her senior Jets debut this season, Wellington came knocking instead. Walker, who also has caps for the Aotearoa Māori Women’s team, jumped at the chance to represent the nation of her birth. The sturdy, tidy midfielder has not yet been capped at senior level, and her form this season could pose an interesting tug-of-war between the two nations as their joint-World Cup draws near.

Bryleeh Henry

Bryleeh Henry Focuses On The Ball.
With veteran striker Leena Khamis departing, the Young Matildas striker is looking like Western Sydney’s new starting number nine.(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Club: Western Sydney Wanderers
Age: 18
Position: Winger/striker

She was one of the unexpected call-ups to the senior Matildas squad that took on Brazil in October’s friendlies, but for those familiar with teenage striker Bryleeh Henry at youth level, her call-up was far from a shock. The intense, pacey forward caught the attention of national team head coaches while terrorising defences in the NSW NPL, working her way through the age groups before making her senior club debut with Western Sydney last year. She scored two goals in six appearances then, and now under the wing of former Matilda Catherine Cannuli – and with the wind in her senior Matildas sails – Henry will be building upon that promising first dip into professional football to secure her spot as the club’s starting striker.

Bianca Galic

Bianca Galic (Left) Passes The Ball Away From Mackenzie Hawkesby (Right).
She was the metronome for Sydney University and showed her qualities for Canberra, but can Bianca Galic prove herself where it all began?(Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

Club: Western Sydney Wanderers
Age: 21
Position: Midfielder

One of the most consistent and technically gifted central midfielders in the NSW NPL, plying her trade with powerhouse club Sydney University since she was 14, Bianca Galic made her senior league debut with Canberra last season. Scoring once and assisting another in her six appearances in green, Galic made the move back to Sydney in the off-season to connect with the club she trained with in 2019. Her sparkling technical abilities have been informed by her experience playing futsal, giving her some unparalleled close ball control and awareness in tight spaces, making her a nifty pick-up for the Wanderers.

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23 under 23: A-League Women's players to watch as the 2023 Women's World Cup approaches 48

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