What do Australia's best and brightest need to do to go to Tokyo? To week off or not week off? Why aren't A-League clubs heading to Asia? For all that, and more, it's the ESPN Australia and New Zealand Football Wrap.
Maclaren set to be unleashed
Australian national team coach Graham Arnold provided a hint for the Socceroos future in naming his extended squad for their World Cup qualifiers. And the future, it appears, is now.
Declaring after his side's 3-0 win over Kuwait that he hadn't brought a large squad to simply have them watch, Arnold revealed on Sunday evening that a number of changes to his XI would be forthcoming for what is a low-risk, experimentation friendly clash against 141st ranked Taiwan.
Amongst these are set to be a number of A-League players that, barring the emergency deployment of Sydney FC defender Ryan McGowan, arrived too late in preparations to take on a major role against the Kuwaitis.
"The plan is to freshen the squad up," Arnold said. "The boys did a great job against Kuwait and I expect an even better performance.
"The late arrivals have only been here for four or five days and every day is important for them to be connected to the family.
"I think you can expect a few A-League players to play."
While the chances of Connor Metcalfe, Denis Genreau and Ruon Tongyik making their international debuts may be strengthening, players Arnold indicated are definitely set to start are Harry Souttar, Trent Sainsbury and Jamie Maclaren.
The latter scored 25 goals and added five assists across 24 games this season, powering Melbourne City to a maiden premiership and claiming his third A-League Golden Boot. Foreign suitors likely watching, he'll be relied upon to boost an Australian attack that, although scoring three goals, left their coach wanting more.
"Jamie at this moment will start," said Arnold. "He's got great confidence, a great belief at the moment and he'll carry that into a Socceroos jersey.
"When I watched the [Kuwait] game back we could have been up 6-0 after 39 minutes. It's about being more ruthless. When you get those chances, I expect the boys to take those chances."
The Socceroos undefeated across the second phase of World Cup qualifying, a win over Taiwan on Monday would all but seal their progression to the next phase of qualification.
The ever-bombastic Arnold, however, isn't entertaining thoughts of ranking permutations or the difficulties of future opponents.
"I only know how to win," he said. "It doesn't matter what opposition we face. It's all about us.
"I always look at our team. And I expect the one-percenters and improvements in every game.
Form or Rest?
With the regular season all over bar the shouting, attention can now turn to one of the peculiarities of the A-League in a global context: the finals.
A fairytale regular-season ending in a third, Central Coast Mariners are set to host sixth-placed expansion side Macarthur FC on Saturday evening -- a battle of a team that doesn't want the ball against one that craves it. Fourth-place championship dark-horses Brisbane Roar will then host young, fifth-placed Adelaide United on Sunday.
While opposition coaches would never publicly admit they'd prefer one opposition over another come finals time, there will likely be a few sighs of relief that Wellington Phoenix -- undefeated in their last 11 matches -- ended up missing out on the playoffs by a single point.
Thanks to their top-two finish, Melbourne City and Sydney FC will nominally have a week off before they host the semifinals -- nominally as City will likely have to play an outstanding, COVID-delayed regular-season fixture against Newcastle Jets next Friday.
Though ostensibly a reward for strong performances across the regular season, there does exist some level of debate -- across multiple codes -- surrounding whether or not a week off is actually a help or a hindrance to the final's chances of the side that has earned it.
On one level, a bye week provides teams with a chance to rest, recuperate and recalibrate after a long and gruelling season -- the challenges of the COVID magnifying this in 2020-21 -- before they are plunged into a series of sudden-death elimination games.
"We'll play an in-house game probably sometime next weekend just to make sure the boys are working hard. It's about continuity with the players and the players stepping in to make sure they know their roles.
"But it's good to play together and that's what we'll do next week to make sure we're set for the semi-final the week after."
Yet at the same time, a week in the stands carries with it the potential to sap a side of crucial momentum and sharpness and sets them up to potentially face a side riding the emotional wave of winning an elimination final.
"Having a week off is not always an advantage," said Roar coach Warren Moon. "We had an 18-day break when COVID hit at the start of the season, going into the Newcastle game, and I don't think that helped us.
"I don't necessarily think [a week off is] a good thing. We're quite happy to be playing and to have a week's preparation heading into a match is something we're quite fine with."
In reality, there's no definitive answer to questions of byes; a best scenario highly dependent on individual team, historical and situational factors. Sydney having a bye and the Roar not, in the end, might just be a win-win for both.
Good Social Media Thing of the Week
Twist and shout, indeed.
when they say football is an art form, this is what i dream of... pic.twitter.com/hMoOt6MLEw— Evan Morgan Grahame (@Evan_M_G) June 6, 2021
Under-23s needing to 'step up'
Arnold's Socceroos aren't the only men's national side currently in action. Over in Spain, a squad of 24 players eligible for Australia's under-23 side, the Olyroos, are competing in a series of fixtures ahead of this year's Olympics.
Beginning with a 2-1 loss to Ireland's U21 side, a COVID case in the Saudi Arabian delegation forced the cancellation of the two side's meeting on Friday night, leaving the Olyroos with games against Olympics-bound Romania and Mexico to come.
Nominally, those assembled under the eye of Young Socceroos boss Gary van Egmond and national technical director Trevor Morgan are competing for one of 18 places in the Olyroos' squad in Tokyo.
Their actual odds, however, are likely shorter than that.
Part of the current Socceroos squad, Genreau, Souttar, Metcalfe and Riley McGree would loom as near certainties to accompany their coach -- who has made no bones about his desire to see Australia medal at the Games -- straight from the Gulf to preparations for the Olympics.
Should Olyroo captain Thomas Deng, who recently returned to action for Urawa Red Diamonds in the J.League Cup and has been on the bench in league play, be passed fully fit after a long injury lay-off, he too will likely link up with his teammates when they arrive in Japan.
If that scenario comes to pass, then the team assembled in Spain, and those eligible players who have remained with their A-League sides, are now competing for 11 slots.
Thus, assuming the Olympics go ahead (a question that carries significant health, logistical and ethical questions) the number of seats on the plane has ostensibly shrinking even before Arnold, Van Egmond and Morgan sit down to nail down the team.
"I think if you look at the level of the opponents [in Spain], they're opponents that have qualified for the Olympic Games," Morgan told ESPN. "If it's not their full Olympic squad, it's not far off.
"This is where our players show that they can perform to that level, in these games. And then maybe the next thing is can they play more than one position? Are they a little bit versatile?
"Because Graham can only take a small squad, that means he needs people in good form and possibly can do a top job for him in one position but also in another.
"With the games against Mexico and Romania to come, both of those opponents are very good. So it's very clear that the boys need to step up and perform at that level and show Graham that they could bring something to the team."
Good Football Thing of the Week
Not just a good football thing of the week -- a good football thing for two decades. Thanks, Andrew Durante.
The A-League's ACL withdrawal
In a short statement on Friday, the Asian Football Confederation confirmed what had long been speculated.
"The AFC has taken note of Football Australia's confirmation of the withdrawals of Sydney FC, Melbourne City FC and Brisbane Roar from the Group, Playoff and Preliminary stages of the 2021 AFC Champions League respectively," the federation said in a statement.
"The matter will now be referred to the relevant AFC Committees, with a decision to be communicated in due course."
While there had been some lingering confusion, given that competing in continental competitions remains the jurisdiction of Football Australia, the writing had appeared on the wall for the three side's campaign when the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) released a finals schedule that directly clashed with the ACL's earmarked dates.
"Qualification for the ACL is a significant driver of competition in Australian domestic competitions and Australian Clubs remain committed to participating and performing well in the ACL," the APL said in a response to a request for comment by ESPN.
"Despite exhaustive efforts to overcome the impact of COVID related issues, it has become clear that Brisbane Roar, Melbourne City and Sydney FC will regrettably be unable to attend their respective hubs in this year's tournament.
"The decision comes after extensive consultation with all stakeholders, including medical advisors, the PFA and government agencies. Football Australia has informed the AFC of the Clubs' withdrawal."
Sources have indicated to ESPN that concerns around the health and safety of players and team staff were the biggest driver in the decision.
Last week, PFA co-chief executive Beau Busch told ESPN that the player's union was uneasy with the health risks associated with the three sides travelling to the competition. Thailand -- site of City and Roar's play-in games and potential hubs -- recorded 24,990 cases of COVID between May 31 and June 6, while Uzbekistan -- site of Sydney's group -- logged 1,592.
"AFC continues to refuse to meaningfully engage with the players across the region," said Busch. "Highlighting how they continue to value their economic interests above the health and safety of the very players they are reliant on to run their competitions."
Of course, looming deadlines surrounding the end of the Fox Sports broadcasting deal, players contracts and other logistical challenges likely didn't add much urgency towards attempting to find a workaround.
While none of the coaches that were set to lead A-League sides into the ACL provided any further clarity for the reasons behind their withdrawal, they did express disappointment about not being able to compete.
"I think you always want to try yourself against the best," said City coach Patrick Kisnorbo.
"That's why we work so hard, to get ourselves in that position. Sometimes maybe health is a bit more important. At the moment, through this pandemic, it's so volatile and up and down that you don't know what's going to happen.
"It's always nice to [test yourself against the best] but sometimes when you look back, there's something greater than maybe the sport itself and that's human life and human wellbeing.
"We just need to understand that it is what it is and we hopefully get the same... we get the opportunity next season to do so."