Waikato teenager Marco Rojas might well be able to call himself a professional footballer by the end of the week after again impressing the Wellington Phoenix.
The 17-year-old played the final 30 minutes of Saturday's 1-1 pre- season draw with Melbourne Victory in Queenstown - firstly on the left and then in the middle when Diego went off - after receiving an SOS with several frontline players injured or ill.
Rojas helped set up Troy Hearfield's equalising goal and generally had a strong game, confirming the talent the Phoenix had seen during his time training with the club earlier this year after being awarded the Yellow Fever supporters club scholarship.
"He's a very good talent, he did very well and impressed [coach] Ricki Herbert, who saw him for the first time," Phoenix boss Tony Pignata said yesterday. "We'll go back and hopefully this week we can progress things forward. I've got to sit down and talk to his father but I'm hoping we can come to some arrangement."
Rojas' signing would fill the mandatory three under-20 player spots, with goalkeeper Reece Crowther and Costa Barbarouses, who also had a good game playing as the lone striker against Melbourne, already on the books.
Otherwise, the priority is securing at least one more striker. Dutch triallist Eddy Putter missed the match with an ankle injury and is to fly home this week.
"If we can keep him for Christchurch [a match against a Mainland XI this Sunday] and see what he can do, then great," Pignata said. "It's going to be hard for us to sign someone who can't trial."
Both the Phoenix and Melbourne had disrupted buildups to Saturday's match - Melbourne had two delayed flights and an unplanned four-hour bus ride from Dunedin after their plane was unable to land in Queenstown - but put on a decent show for the 2000-strong crowd.
Archie Thompson put the A-League champions ahead early in the second half before Hearfield equalised with 13 minutes remaining after some good work by Rojas and Hawke's Bay-based Solomon Islander Joachim Rande, also called in due to the depleted nature of the Phoenix but whom Pignata felt needed a year in the NZFC.
Herbert said: "I was interested to see some of the new players who have come to the club. To see our team, who have essentially done nothing from a game perspective, working together collectively was extremely heartening."
The Phoenix travel to Christchurch on Friday and have almost signed off on three matches in China (July 17, 19 and 21) before playing Central Coast in Dubbo (July 25). The A-League starts on August 6.
Meanwhile, in other friendlies Gold Coast United beat New Caledonia 5-0 in Noumea, Sydney FC beat newcomers North Queensland Fury 4-0 in Cronulla and Adelaide United beat Perth Gory 1-0 in Adelaide.
- The Dominion Post