Hot goalkeeping prospect Scott Basalaj has been named in the inaugural intake at Wellington Phoenix's "footballing school of excellence".
The 18-year-old from Lower Hutt starred for New Zealand at last year's under-17 World Cup and is one of eight youngsters who will live in Wellington and train with the Phoenix.
Fellow Team Wellington players Luke Rowe, Louis Fenton and Justin Gulley have also been included after impressive performances in the ASB Premiership, while Alec Solomons, Tom Doyle, Tom Biss and Tyler Boyd round out the group.
Since they joined the A-League in 2007 the Phoenix have been hampered by not having a team in Australia's national youth league.
The school of excellence is the brainchild of Gareth Morgan, a member of the Welnix ownership consortium which took control of the Phoenix licence in September last year.
"It was quickly apparent that there wasn't a pathway between amateur and professional football in New Zealand," Morgan said.
"Young players had to look beyond New Zealand, which wasn't the best situation. What we are establishing is a two-way street. It gives the Phoenix a pool of talent and enables young players to become familiar with the Phoenix training methods and the team structure. It also exposes them to a high level of coaching and is a win-win situation for everyone.
"What amazed me was that football is the biggest code in the world and the largest participation sport in New Zealand yet the All Whites have been so lowly-ranked internationally. Anything that helps to change that is good for football in this country."
The Phoenix consulted national age-group and ASB Premiership coaches before making their selections.
Englishman Chris Greenacre is expected to play a major role in developing the youngsters, who will also be available to play for Team Wellington.
The Phoenix' signing of Solomon Islands striker Benjamin Totori on Tuesday firmed up Greenacre's transition from player to coach.
Greenacre is yet to sign a new deal with the Phoenix but is expected to be Ricki Herbert's assistant coach as well as guide the non A-League academy players.
Phoenix general manager David Dome said the club had not ruled out signing another import and/or striker.
There are three squad places to fill – including two under-21 positions – and Herbert has signalled he wants a senior right back, an under-21 centre back and an under-21 midfielder.
Dome said the club had a flexible attitude towards rounding out the squad.
"With a squad of 20 we're looking at filling those spots where there is a bit of weakness. But we're reasonably confident we've got most spots covered and we do have players who can play in those positions," Dome said.
"We're looking at not just filling a hole but players that are good value. The balance of the squad is getting there and potentially we may be full in terms of strikers. But we're always open and looking for a bargain and someone who could add something special."
On the back of the Totori signing, Dome said the Phoenix wanted to continue growing their connections with Pacific Island countries.
"It's a largely untapped area and we're looking at developing our ties in general."
The Phoenix begin pre-season training next week and have lured back well-credentialed Englishman Ed Baranowski to head up their medical team.
Baranowski, who had a previous stint as the Phoenix's strength and conditioning coach, will take on the role of sports science manager.
Wayne Roberts will remain as physio but the Phoenix are hunting for a new strength and conditioning coach with Lee Taylor having returned to England fro family reasons..
- © Fairfax NZ News
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