How the Football Ferns’ World Cup squad is coming together
Jitka Klimkova´ will name the 10th Football Ferns squad of her tenure this week, for friendlies against Portugal and Argentina in Hamilton and Auckland between February 17 and 23.
But it’s the 12th squad that will matter most – the one she will name in late June or early July to take part in a Fifa Women’s World Cup campaign on home soil.
With less than six months to go before their tournament opener, against Norway at Eden Park in Auckland on July 20, there don’t appear to be too many spots up for grabs in the Ferns’ final 23.
The bigger questions surround the makeup of Klimkova´ ’s firstchoice XI – and the extent to which two midfielders on the comeback from anterior cruciate ligament injuries, Ria Percival and Annalie Longo, will be fit.
Ahead of this week’s squad naming, Sunday News has broken down each position into those who are locks and should feel secure; those who are strong contenders to join them; and those who are in the mix, but have work to do, which makes them potential bolters.
Locks: Indiah-Paige Riley, Paige Satchell, Hannah Wilkinson Contenders: Jacqui Hand, Grace Jale, Gabi Rennie Bolters: Milly Clegg, Katie Rood
Hannah Wilkinson is the leading goalscorer among active Ferns, though she has only netted four times in 36 matches since suffering the first of her two ACL injuries in 2015.
Indiah-Paige Riley has impressed since switching her international allegiance from Australia last year, after Klimkova´ acted on questioning from the Sunday Star-Times and reached out to her.
Paige Satchell has a clear weapon in her pace and while she suffers in being unable to regularly turn it into goals, her X-factor makes her the third locked-in forward.
Three other contenders – Gabi Rennie, Jacqui Hand and Grace Jale – should feel comfortable about their World Cup chances, with the latter the most at risk of missing out.
Rennie’s work rate has been impressive and she has played every match but one under Klimkova´ , missing out only when she had Covid-19.
Hand was unable to kick on in 2022 after a strong start to her Ferns career in 2021, as she was waylaid by injury and Covid-19, but Klimkova´ remains a big fan.
It would be nice to see Jale used in the Ferns’ front two, rather than on the right flank, but the fact that she scored eight A-League Women goals in 2022 has her firmly in the frame.
A-League Women goals have put Wellington Phoenix teenager Milly Clegg in the frame for a first callup, though Klimkova´ has suggested she won’t be considered before she completes her first season of professional club football.
No less a figure than Ferns veteran Katie Duncan feels Clegg could provide the ‘‘killer instinct’’ the team has sorely been missing.
Katie Rood has not had much of a look-in under Klimkova´ , but the same goes for her – she has netted five times for Hearts in Scotland this season.
Locks: Olivia Chance, Betsy Hassett, Ria Percival*, Annalie Longo*
Contenders: Daisy Cleverley, Malia Steinmetz
Bolters: Grace Wisnewski
Klimkova´ has said that
Longo and Percival would be her first-choice midfield pairing if they were both fully fit, even though they have never lined up together in any of her 18 matches in charge. Percival suffered her knee injury last April and should be ready to feature come July.
Longo suffered hers last September and her return will be more touch-and-go. For now, they are locks with asterisks next to their names.
Olivia Chance has played more under Klimkova´ than any other Fern and has been involved in four of the 10 goals they have scored under her – scoring one, assisting two, and effectively assisting another.
While Chance is more a midfielder than a forward, she will likely line up on the left flank, rather than in the middle, against Portugal and Argentina.
Betsy Hassett had her best outing under Klimkova´ in their first loss to the US last month and should start in central midfield, but there are options to be explored alongside her. Malia
Steinmetz seemed to have the edge on Daisy Cleverley based on selection decisions at the end of 2022, while Grace Wisnewski has entered the mix as a potential bolter after debuting against the US.
Centre backs Katie Bowen and Rebekah Stott could be options in the middle as well.
Stott played there for her
English Super League club, Brighton & Hove Albion, last weekend, after regularly featuring there for Melbourne City in A-League Women last summer. Bowen has historically been a midfielder, but her best outings for the Ferns in recent years have been in defence.
Of all the areas of the pitch, this is the one where starting positions are most up for grabs in the Ferns.
Locks: Ali Riley
Contenders: Liz Anton Bolters: Michaela Foster, Ally Green, Ashleigh Ward
Ferns captain Ali Riley is the first-choice left back and Liz Anton has established herself as Klimkova´ ’s go-to backup, even though she plays centre back for her club. Three specialist left backs featured in Ferns squads throughout 2022 while barely playing, though one of them,
Anna Green, surprisingly announced her retirement last month.
Ally Green and Ashleigh Ward are the other two, but in light of neither of them really putting their hand up, there should be an opportunity for Michaela Foster, the Wellington Phoenix’s most consistently impressive player this summer.
Locks: CJ Bott Contenders:
Bolters: Mackenzie Barry, Grace Neville
The fullback situation is also clear-cut on the right, with CJ Bott the No 1 and hopefully about to make her first Ferns appearances since last September.
Meikayla Moore has deputised for Bott the most, but has looked very much like a centre back playing out of position.
Anton is probably the leading contender to provide cover on the right, but Grace Neville showed enough in her debut against the US to earn a callup this month and push her case.
Mackenzie Barry has been used mainly at right back in her handful of Ferns appearances and will also be in the mix.
Locks: Katie Bowen, Claudia Bunge, Meikayla Moore, Rebekah Stott
Bolters: Kate Taylor
Claudia Bunge is set to be one of the Ferns’ starting centre backs when the World Cup begins, but there’s a big question mark as to who will join her out of the other three locks.
The last time all four were in the same squad, it was Stott who did, but she has only just played her first minutes since then, after undergoing and recovering from ankle surgery.
The Ferns’ lineup against Portugal and Argentina will provide plenty of insight here, with Bowen and Moore, in that order, the next in line.
Potential midfield roles for Stott and/or Bowen could also have an impact here, with Phoenix defender Kate Taylor the fifth-choice option.
Anton and Barry could also provide cover at centre back if picked as backup fullbacks.
Locks: Vic Esson, Anna Leat, Erin Nayler
Bolters: Lily Alfeld, Brianna Edwards, Murphy Sheaff
The Ferns have a settled goalkeeping trio, with Vic Esson the clear No 1 as things stand and Anna Leat and Erin
Nayler vying to be her backup – and to be ready if her form slips.
Had Leat not put international duty to one side early last year she might have had more of a chance to challenge Esson, as she has impressed in her first two seasons in England. The Aston Villa stopper was said this week by her club coach to be carrying a back injury, which will be something to monitor.
Where does that leave things then?
We have 16 players you can lock in and another six who are leading contenders to join them, which would mean there is one place up for grabs. A fourth fullback alongside Riley, Bott and Anton would be the obvious choice to claim that spot, which means Barry, Foster, Green, Neville and Ward will be eager to seize any chances they get in the coming months.
The other question would be whether the Ferns would be better off having an extra attacking option instead of a glut of midfielders, especially if Bowen or Stott end up being used there. And that is what we have gone for in outlining a potential squad.