Short-term deals with Kiwis prop up Phoenix
A quartet of young Kiwi players have earned short-term Phoenix contracts for the start of the A-League season.
Midfielder Jason Hicks and goalkeeper Jacob Spoonley have both signed as injury replacement players, while striker Hamish Watson and goalkeeper James McPeake are on one-week deals as cover for the absent All Whites.
The Phoenix kick off their season on Sunday against the Brisbane Roar at Westpac Stadium.
They are light on numbers without Andrew Durante, Jeremy Brockie, Glen Moss, Leo Bertos and Alex Rufer (international duty) and the injured Louis Fenton and Lewis Italiano. Hicks and Spoonley will be with the Phoenix as injury cover for 3-4 weeks.
Spoonley will start in goal against the Roar, while Hicks could earn a permanent deal if he continues to impress coach Ernie Merrick.
The diminutive Hicks, a 23-year-old from Team Wellington, caught Merrick's eye playing for New Zealand A against the Phoenix last month before backing it up in Sunday's intra-squad game.
"Jason has got good all-round skills; you can see why he's represented New Zealand at a number of age-groups," Merrick said.
"He can play defensively or push forward, he's very flexible, he's got a range of positions he could play.
"He could play on the left-hand side as well and he can play No 10."
The news isn't so good for Justin Gulley. The New Zealand under-20 rep had been viewed as the front-runner to fill Fenton's boots at right back against the Roar but Merrick has decided he is not quite ready.
National under-20 captain Luke Adams and young Australian Josh Brindell-South are now in a head-to-head battle for the position.
Merrick said Gulley needed to improve his game sense before stepping up against the likes of Thomas Broich and Besart Berisha.
"Justin's got all the skills, pace, tackling, passing, but I just don't feel as though he's had enough games under his belt."
New signing Albert Riera will be on the bench on Sunday with Manny Muscat and Vince Lia retaining their defensive midfield berths.
And attacking trio Carlos Hernandez, Paul Ifill and Kenny Cunningham are all set to be in the match-day squad after recovering from injury.
"They've got [today] off and then we're training Friday, Saturday so as long as I'm happy with that they'll be in the squad." Merrick said it was too soon to say whether all three would start the match.
He also waved away concerns about the pedigree of Riera, a 29-year-old Spanish paramedic who has played only semi-professional football and arrived in Auckland initially on a holiday.
Merrick backs his ability to identify talent and said the Moneyballapproach had proven success.
"I spent a week with Terry Butcher [former England captain and Sydney FC coach] last November at Inverness Caledonian.
"They were second in the [Scottish Premier] league then and they're second this year. It was a real eye-opener, how he's put together a squad on a shoestring. Some rejects from other clubs, up-and-coming youngsters and over the last couple of years they've been consistently up in the top four. Last year the Wanderers picked up players that were discarded by other clubs and finished up winning the Premiers Plate and competing in the grand final. So I'm very careful to never write players off; I look for skills and ability. Albert is very slim, but muscly, agile and quick.
"You're not paying big money and he's been impressive."