A-League Team of the Year: Glory, Phoenix, Sky Blues and Victory dominate
We're at the end before the end of the A-League season. This time of the year always brings up the discussion of teams and players of the year. Who was better, or who is the best?
Attempting to give a definitive assessment in a game of perspective and subjectivity is almost like a dog chasing its tail. You will never succeed in your aim, but doing so is as much fun as it is futile or stupid.
So, before we get to see who will get to hang the most coveted toilet seat in football around their neck, here's ESPN's A-League Team of the Year.
Some housekeeping, first: The formation will be 4-2-3-1, in keeping with the A-League's overall tendency, despite the refreshing variance Perth and Wellington have provided this season. Players also need to have logged a minimum 60 percent of total available minutes over the course of the season.
This admittedly makes for grey area, but collective quality and results are not of primary importance. Ineffective players can exist on good teams and vice versa. The difficulty is in weighing that up.
Goalkeeper: Filip Kurto, Wellington Phoenix
Wellington have conceded 12 goals over the past month, but the questions that are being asked of the Phoenix are not specifically tactical.
Before the subject of Mark Rudan's coaching future morphed into existential crisis across the Tasman, Wellington proved sustainable in their riskier brand of defence, and Polish keeper Filip Kurto was a pivotal element in that success. The 27-year-old has very good reflexes, footwork and anticipation, a dependable command of his area, and excellent distribution.
For keepers that have logged over 2,000 minutes this season, only Jamie Young and Ben Kennedy faced more shots per 90 minutes. In terms of attributes, there is little separating Kurto and Melbourne Victory's Lawrence Thomas. The former has just been more impactful.
Left-back: Liberato Cacace, Wellington Phoenix
Speaking of Wellington's assertive defensive approach, Liberato Cacace has thrived as a wing-back on the left side of Rudan's 3-4-3 formation. That is also without a primary link in phases of possession going forward, compared to Sydney FC's Michael Zullo and Perth Glory's Jason Davidson.
The 18-year-old's comparative isolation can help explain the lower dribble success rate (63.46 percent) than Davidson (76.32 percent), but weighing up responsibility in both defensive and attacking phases, Cacace has been a standout.
Cacace has logged the most minutes for the Phoenix this season and, along with Louis Fenton before his season-ending injury, has been a key element in Wellington's ability to quickly compress the pitch, both in advanced areas and when the ball shifts wide.
Centre-back: Bart Schenkeveld, Melbourne City
Going on from a very good opening season, Bart Schenkeveld and his short shorts have been highly important in Melbourne City's defensive rejuvenation under Warren Joyce, leading the team in minutes for outfield players at 2,460.
At the heart of the City defence, Schenkeveld provides a sound reading of the game, comfort on the ball in possession, no shortage of commitment in the duel and deceptively quick recovery pace.
Although sitting behind double-screening midfielders can provide a certain sense of relief as a centre-back, the 27-year-old has been just as dependable in isolation, leading the A-League this season for success rate in defensive duels (40.63 percent).
A valuable addition to the A-League and a non-negotiable for this team.
Centre-back: Shane Lowry, Perth Glory
Although Tony Popovic has had a number of reliable defensive performers as part of his preferred 5-4-1 setup, Shane Lowry has been the constant.
It has not just been the 29-year-old's tackle success rate (60 percent) or the interceptions per 90 minutes (5.6) that have made him stand out -- the latter category leading Perth players who made the minutes cut this season. It is his improved decision-making and timing in critical moments. That's important for the team that has allowed the most average passes per defensive action (11.23) this season.
The collective and Popovic's points of focus have been transformative in Perth becoming the A-League's stingiest defence this season, but Lowry's presence in that implementation has been significant.
Right-back: Rhyan Grant, Sydney FC
Rhyan Grant's performances this season have showed what Sydney were somewhat lacking with Luke Wilkshire last term at right-back, and despite blunders in the past, his Socceroos call up has been well deserved.
A case could be made for either Grant or Ritchie de Laet, but the former just slightly edges this battle. The Australia international has better figures in interceptions per 90 (5.02), tackle success rate (38. 46 percent) and defensive duel win rate (24.74 percent).
Along with consistency and a stable defensive base, Grant provides energy and penetration going forward, making for everything a team needs from that position.
Centre-midfield: Steven Ugarkovic, Newcastle Jets
Despite Newcastle's inability to qualify for the AFC Champions League or make the A-League finals, this season was arguably better than last for Steven Ugarkovic. Subjectivity reigns in football, but the 24-year-old is now unquestionably the best central midfielder in the league.
Playing in multiple positions early in the year, no other player for Newcastle could have displayed as much versatility, while trying to create functionality amid injuries, suspensions and almost no medium between bungling and indulgent teammates in possession.
Passing and moving with purpose, if not for Ugarkovic's versatility and intelligence both on and off the ball, Newcastle's finals hopes would have been over much sooner. The Jets star deserved more this season.
Centre-midfield: Terry Antonis, Melbourne Victory
Considering the season Terry Antonis has had, the defiance of logic it took for him not to receive a Socceroos call-up for January's Asian Cup looks even greater in retrospect.
Antonis plays football with his brain as much as his lungs and feet, making him an indispensably versatile midfield piece for Kevin Muscat and Melbourne Victory. The 25-year-old eads the A-League for secondary assists with five assists of his own.
Along with Ola Toivonen, Antonis is the movement and pass before the killer pass from Keisuke Honda or James Troisi. Everything is facilitated by his movement, even Victory's effective entry into the opposition half. Antonis is absolutely crucial to Victory's title chances.
Attacking-midfield: Sarpreet Singh, Wellington Phoenix
A late-season dip in form might have hurt his chances, but Diego Castro didn't see enough time on the pitch. Meanwhile, not one team in the A-League relies on an individual in phases of possession and the generation of chances, the way Wellington has with Sarpreet Singh this season.
Explosive, penetrative in tight spaces and an assertive mover off the ball, the 20-year-old has been the primary reference point for Wellington in both transitional and extended phases of possession. Maximising Roy Krishna and David Williams' speed is ultimately tied to Singh's ability on the ball.
Considering the relatively tighter space Singh operates within, that he is fifth in the A-League this season for total successful dribbles (117), while leading Wellington for assists (five) has been highly impressive. Consistency will now be the key going forward.
Attacking-midfield: Milos Ninkovic, Sydney FC
At the age of 34, breaking out into a sprint looks like a legitimate ordeal for Milos Ninkovic, but his ability to advance Sydney's field position in generating goalscoring opportunities remains as intuitive as ever.
The A-League's king of the half space, Ninkovic creates defensive domino effects simply due to where he receives the ball, let alone what he can do with it.
Attempting to quantify the Serbian playmaker's impact would be a misinterpretation of how he incorporates his teammates going forward, especially within the (somehow) increasingly pragmatic framework of Sydney's play under Steve Corica.
For example, Zullo (10) is second only to Adam Le Fondre (11) in key passes for Sydney this season, but the left-back is not the genesis in this respect.
Attacking-midfield: Chris Ikonomidis, Perth Glory
He only just made the playing time cut at a total of 1,499 minutes (61.69 percent), but Chris Ikonomidis has been the single biggest gravitational force in the A-League this season.
Intelligent movement sucks defenders in towards him, but he then has the confidence and ability to skip past them, creating space for teammates. For players who made that minutes cut, Ikonomidis is the only player in double figures for successful dribbles per 90, with an intimidating success rate of 71.86 percent.
While second to Andy Keogh (13) for goals this term for Perth with eight, Ikonomidis (0.42) is also second to Davidson (0.46) for key passes per 90. In short, the most important player in attack for the A-League's best team this season.
Forward: Ola Toivonen, Melbourne Victory
Leading the A-League for goals per 90 minutes (0.71) would be enough justification for this selection, but that would be an injustice to his overall contribution. Toivonen has been a joy to watch this season.
When Melbourne Victory's diamond formation in midfield functions, it is because of the positions Antonis and the Swedish striker take up. The likes of Kosta Barbarouses, Honda and Troisi are then able to operate off this base in attack.
Critical in both the creation and realisation of play for Victory this term, with 57.14 percent of his shots being on target. The 32-year-old has been comfortable both with his back to goal and facing it, and his header on Saturday in the Victory's 1-0 win over Western Sydney was yet another example.