Wellington Phoenix off-season scorecard
After a horror 2012-13 season, anticipation is building ahead of the new-look Phoenix's A-League opener against Brisbane Roar at Westpac Stadium on Sunday. The Dominion Post's football writer, Sam Worthington, runs the rule over pre-season progress.
Before recruiting, new coach Ernie Merrick had to first make some hard calls on off-contract players.
Tony Lochhead, Alex Smith, Benjamin Totori, Ian Hogg, Cameron Lindsay, Jimmy Downey and Dani Sanchez have been let go and you couldn't argue with any of those decisions.
Ricki Herbert had already signed former A-League MVP Carlos Hernandez and Kenny Cunningham, Reece Caira, Luke Adams, Josh Brindell-South, Alex Rufer, Lewis Italiano and Albert Riera have since joined him. Of those, only Costa Rican international Cunningham has proven himself at the top level.
Merrick has freshened up the squad but major question marks remain in the central midfield and fullback positions. He has up to three spots left on his roster but they have to be Kiwis or Aussies after unheralded Spanish midfielder Riera was snapped up as the fifth and final import.
The Phoenix have played 10 pre-season games, for six wins, two draws and two losses. However, five of those games were against Central League opponents. The more meaningful results were wins over A-League clubs Sydney FC and Newcastle Jets, and the loss to last year's grand finalists, Western Sydney Wanderers.
Since then they have drawn 1-1 with New Zealand A before a concerning 1-0 loss to Auckland City.
Merrick didn't field a full-strength team at Kiwitea Street, but you would like to think a fully professional outfit could get the better of a semi-pro one.
Still, Merrick probably won't mind that kick up the bum, with the loss a timely reminder of the huge rebuilding job ahead.
After six seasons under Ricki Herbert, Merrick has been a breath of fresh air.
The former Melbourne Victory coach has won two titles but is determined to prove himself all over again after a stint in Hong Kong and being overlooked for the Adelaide United job.
He has engaged with the football community, sponsors and media, and by all reports is a workaholic on and off the pitch. Players respect his track record and are enjoying his desire to play attacking football.His training sessions are full of variety while the younger players are receiving the hands-on tutelage they require to develop.
Fitness is also reportedly at an all-time high, with a few niggly injuries the result of Merrick's ''extraordinary'' pre-season.
OFF THE PITCH: 8/10
The Phoenix's ownership group, Welnix, have had two full seasons in control and it appears they are getting to grips with the football business.
The consortium is made up of successful businessmen and after some teething problems things appear to be humming going into 2013-14.
Huawei has replaced Sony as the major sponsor in what is apparently a more financially lucrative deal. Gareth Morgan has sensibly taken a back seat, leaving general manager David Dome as the spokesman for off-field issues and Merrick the main voice for matters on the pitch.
The club has sensibly aligned itself with Capital Football and the Christchurch-based Asia Pacific Football Academy. And marketing head Kyla Lange has seen the club's visibility around the city increase noticeably.
Those expecting Merrick to be a miracle worker should think again. The core of the 2012-13 side remains, and much hinges on whether the Costa Rican connection can fire. Merrick has said making the top-six finals is a must, and that would be a decent achievement in his first year at the helm.
Long-term, the club's commitment to developing young Kiwi talent is encouraging, and Rufer, Adams, Hamish Watson, Justin Gulley and Joel Stevens are already on the production line. There should be plenty of goals in the 2013-14 side and the arrival of the Costa Ricans will take the pressure off Jeremy Brockie and Paul Ifill.
The only way, literally, is up and fans should be content with steady, rather than spectacular, progress up the ladder and a more attacking style of play.
How do you think the Phoenix will go this season?
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Contact Sam Worthington
The Dominion Post