Fresh look to Team Wellington as they seek a national league three-peat
A new-look Team Wellington face a tough first-up test in their quest for a national league three-peat.
The two-time defending champions have turned over almost half of their 20-odd players during the off-season.
A lot of those moves have been enforced. Captain Bill Robertson has stayed home this year in Napier with Hawke's Bay United. Centre back Guillermo Moretti and striker Ben Harris returned to Argentina and England respectively, full back Josh Margetts moved to Auckland to work for New Zealand Football and midfielder Niko Kirwan was signed by third-tier Italian club A.C. Mestre.
The notable replacements have been centre backs Erik Panzer (overseas) and Scott Hilliar (Waitakere United), midfielders Mario Ilich (Auckland City) and Eric Molloy (Southern United), and attackers Louis Fenton (Wellington Phoenix) and Angus Kilkolly (Hawke's Bay).
They have also retained standouts from last season in Joel Stevens, Scott Basalaj, Andy Bevin and Tom Jackson, with Justin Gulley to captain the side.
All the ins and outs does add up to a sense of uncertainty heading into their season opener against Auckland City at David Farrington Park on Sunday. The match doubles as the Charity Cup and is a week before the season proper of the ISPS Handa Premiership.
Pre-season results have been up-and-down for Team Wellington, with an 8-1 loss to the Phoenix first team, a 3-1 loss to the Phoenix reserves and a 0-0 draw with Hawke's Bay last weekend.
Their coach, Jose Figueira, was happy with how they have progressed and begun to gel.
"Last year we had one competitive game in pre-season, whereas this year we had three. Two of those against the Phoenix and in two halves of each of those games I was really pleased with what the team put out, still being a bit held back with people being away and people with niggles off the winter season.
"I wanted this pre-season to be challenging. It certainly has been and it's going to put us in really good stead to not only start well on Sunday, but for what I think is going to be an even more competitive season this year."
The elephant at the park this weekend will be the fact four of Western Suburbs' Central League-winning team signed for Auckland City in the off-season. Ole Academy, who play under the Wests banner, felt it would be more beneficial for the development of Owen Parker-Price, Callum McCowatt, Dalton Wilkins and Harry Edge for them to be training and playing with Auckland over the summer.
Ole pay a fee to coach and operate Team Wellington's youth team, but the relationship does not extend to senior football.
Figueira said he was comfortable with the situation and happy with the squad he has at his disposal.
"At the end of the day, the players and the guys who look after them make the decisions and we support whatever they want to do.
"We can't force them to do anything. They've chosen to go to Auckland for their own reasons. They're young up-and-coming players and I hope them going there, they do get on the field and do get to play, which they have been in pre-season."
Team Wellington's approach will be much the same as last season, where they look to dominate possession and control games.
The one big improvement they need will be defensively after shipping 39 goals in 20 league games, including the finals, where they had a 6-6 extra-time draw in the semifinal against Waitakere United.
"That has been a focus in pre-season and the players we're bringing in allow us to maintain that attacking threat and wanting the ball and dominating, but also being able to live without the ball as well and be a little bit more secure."
AT A GLANCE
What: ISPS Handa Premiership and Charity Cup
Who: Team Wellington v Auckland City
Where and when: David Farrington Park, Sunday 2pm