Australia's A-League goes on amid coronavirus pandemic: Here's what you need to know
While other soccer leagues around the world shut down amid the coronavirus outbreak, the Australian A-League is forging ahead with its season. What should fans and observers of soccer expect? Here's how they plan to pull it off:
Aren't other leagues suspended?
Yes, all major leagues and competitions across Europe, North America, and South America have suspended their seasons.
The A-League (U.S. fans can stream matches on ESPN+) will march on, but will play its remainder of the season with no fans in the stands, and will only stage games in mostly Sydney (382 cases in the state of New South Wales as of Friday morning) and Melbourne (178 cases in the state of Victoria), the country's largest cities. There are 11 sides in the A-League, with 10 in Australia and Wellington Phoenix hailing from New Zealand.
So when will they finish?
The Football Federation Australia (FFA) announced earlier this week that the schedule will be compressed to have games played on three-day turnarounds, aiming for a mid-April conclusion. Each team has between six and eight games to play to finish their regular season. The top six teams then participate in series of single-elimination playoffs, with the final two teams then squaring off in the Grand Final.
That means 30 regular season matches, plus five games in the finals series, scattered around Sydney and Melbourne. The timeframe will be tight.
So which teams should we be looking out for?
Reigning champions Sydney FC sit atop the A-League standings and have played the least amount of games, so are clearly the team to beat. The Sky Blues, as they are known, are well-drilled and have a familiar face in former Premier League striker Adam Le Fondre leading their attack.
In the chasing pack, the two teams to keep an eye on are Wellington Phoenix and Brisbane Roar. The Nix are one of the more attacking teams in the competition whose play is based around the talents of former Chelsea academy graduate and Mexico youth international Ulises Davila.
Then there's the Roar, who have Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler at the helm. It's Fowler's first year of being a senior coach, and after a slow start to the season, he is starting to get his team to click.
You said Wellington Phoenix are based in New Zealand? Are they in isolation?
Yes they are. And that has created yet another quandary for the A-League's schedule. Wellington Phoenix arrived in Australia on Wednesday and will remain in Sydney until the season is done. There was initial concern that Phoenix players and staff wouldn't be able to train during a mandatory 14-day isolation period after their arrival. However, the team received assurances from both the FFA and Australian government that they would be able to isolate as a group, meaning the squad will sleep, eat and -- most crucially -- train together.
Melbourne Victory, who played in Wellington last weekend, will also have to spend the 14 days in isolation under governmental travel orders. That means both teams can't play matches for two weeks, which will have to be made up during the compressed calendar.
Isn't the women's league having its championship game?
It is! The country's top-flight division for women, the W-League, will have its Grand Final this Saturday (U.S. fans can stream the final on ESPN+, Saturday 1:30 a.m. ET). Melbourne City will host defending champions Sydney FC at AAMI Park (also behind closed doors) for a chance to retake the crown. Both sides have previously won the Grand Final three times. City beat Sydney earlier this season 2-1, so expect the visitors to be looking for revenge.
The season, however, is over for most W-League footballers, but the coronavirus issues don't end there. Former England striker and Golden Boot winner Natasha Dowie spoke exclusively to ESPN about the limbo in which most players find themselves.
Could all of this still be called off?
That will be a decision made upon the advice of Australia's government.
"We have made the decision to continue playing the A-League 2019-20 Season, behind closed doors, while closely monitoring and adhering to the current government directives and expert advice available to us at this time," FFA head of leagues Greg O'Rourke said on Wednesday.
"We will continue to release the remaining fixtures on a rolling basis as we acknowledge the evolving COVID-19 protocols."
Crucially, no player or staff member from any of the A-League teams has tested positive to the coronavirus at this time. If those conditions remain the same, the FFA is optimistic that it can finish the A-League season.