Life in the A-League bubble; Soccerscene exclusive with Western United’s Steven Lustica

When Steven Lustica signed on to join Western United in early 2020, little did he know that the world was within weeks of chaos.

By March, the future repercussions of the global pandemic were beginning to become clear and the 29-year-old’s return to Australia for the second half of the A-League season came to a halt before it even began.

The former Brisbane Roar, Adelaide United, Western Sydney Wanderers and Hadjuk Split midfielder had most recently been plying his trade in Uzbekistan with Qizilqum Zarafshon; playing 14 times and scoring once. Despite interest from a few Asian clubs, a conversation with one of Australia’s most successful young coaches brought him back home for the short term future and he was soon to remind domestic fans of his talent during Western United’s run to the finals.

In this Soccerscene exclusive, I asked the Canberra born Lustica about the behind the scene realities of A-League football in 2020, his return to Australia, Mark Rudan and his thoughts around the recent impasse between the club owners, players and the PFA, as well as the potential ramifications for the league moving forward.

In typically stoic and positive fashion, Lustica was quick to sight the benefits of being locked away as a squad for the final two months of the season.

“Life in the bubble during COVID provided many challenges and difficulties that players had never experienced before, yet spending 7 weeks in a hotel together also provided us with the opportunity to gel as a team; not only on the field but off it”, he said.

Forced to postpone marriage plans with fiance Marina when the restrictions made the mere notion of organising a wedding impossible, Lustica credits Western United and the camaraderie built in isolation with helping players manage the most unusual of situations.

“At times it wasn’t easy being away from family for such an extended period of time but our club was great in helping us get through it and make the experience memorable”, he said.

“Obviously once COVID hit it was a big shock for everyone. No one knew what to expect or what was in store for us. The club stayed strong during this period and provided a fantastic support network which allowed us to come back fit and ready to go once the restrictions were lifted.”

“It was a credit to the club, staff and players that we all came back in such great condition and with a positive attitude to finish off the season the best we could. It was a crazy ride going into the bubble and then finishing the season off but one that we are very proud of and now we can focus on building from our first season”.

The spirit and unity in the United camp were on clear view after the season restart, those elements of team culture Lustica had sensed immediately upon his arrival.

“I signed with the club in January so I missed the first 6 months of the season. However, from my first training session I felt a real positive energy around the place. The boss gave the players the freedom and confidence to go out there and express themselves.”

The boss of whom he speaks is of course, Mark Rudan. The former Wellington Phoenix and Sydney United 58 manager had obviously made an instant impression.

“Mark Rudan is a very demanding coach in a positive way. He sets his goals very high and expects the same from all his players and staff. He provides positive energy and really instilled a winning mentality into the team. He challenges all his players to improve each and every game.”

“I believe the success we had this first season is heavily attributed to his style. He has created a great culture around the club, where there is a balance between working hard and enjoying training every day to improve and achieve our goals”.

Recent discussions between the club owners and the PFA had many concerned that the new A-League season could well be under threat; should a deal prove elusive. The parties eventually agreed on one and with a reduced salary cap and a host of local and foreign talent having departed, I asked Lustica if he was pleased with the outcome.

“I am happy to see an agreement has been reached between clubs, players and the PFA. This is an important step for us all, however I do think the lower salary cap will have a major effect on keeping and attracting quality players in the A league. It is no secret that Asia, especially India, are enticing players with attractive salary packages that the A league can’t match. This will only diminish the quality of the A League.”

Sadly, Lustica’s words may well ring true in the short term future. However, the man who dons the number 10 shirt for Western United has a few other things on his mind. Improving on the fifth place finish achieved in the club’s inaugural season and avenging the loss to Melbourne City in the A-League semi-finals will drive both he and the team.

However, I suspect Lustica is desperately hoping that the ‘new normal’ which we are about to enter also allows those wedding plans to click back into gear and sees Mr and Mrs Lustica finally able to tie the knot.

Staff Writer
Soccerscene is committed to promoting, enhancing and growing the soccer industry in Australia. We believe soccer news has captured the attention of grassroots soccer clubs, apparel and equipment suppliers – which extends to governing bodies, club administrators and industry decision makers. Many of the auxiliary products and services support the growth of the soccer industry in Australia and Asia, a passion we also share and want to express through our work.

Northern Suburbs and Manly Warringah Football Association representatives discuss NSW’s highest registration numbers

Football NSW has recently disclosed that the 2024 season is recording the highest number of registrations in community grassroots football.

Football NSW reported that registration numbers are up by 10% on the 2023 season with over 230,000 and counting registered members.

An important part of this increase in registration is the overall success and popularity of the Matildas and the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia & New Zealand. This has helped spark an 18% increase in female registration, especially within the younger age groups pushing over 23% from 2023.

The Northern Suburbs Football Association (NSFA) CEO Kevin Johnson has supported the impact of the Women’s World Cup.

Johnson has explained that recent Female membership in the 2024 NSFA season is expanding with an 11.6% growth in female player registrations and an 11.4% increase in female team registrations.

The NSFA is one of the few associations with a Female Football Manager in Kristi Murphy.

“Kirsti has been able to coordinate enthusiasm and feedback of all the clubs into key strategies to increase the female game at an association level,” Johnson told Soccerscene.

“This structure and dedication to female development has had a huge impact on the increase of female players.”

These strategies include junior girls under 6 & 7s hubs.

“These have very important in bringing in new young players and retaining old ones, with Female Junior players increasing by 14.5% and Girls MiniRoos by 22.5%,” Johnson said.

The NSFA has focused on the association’s work in building strong connections and investment in grassroots football. The NSFA also had in 2023 an increase of 30% in sponsorship deals.

“Last year NSFA with local councils Ku-ring-gai, Willoughby and North Sydney held Live Site events for people to watch the Matildas World Cup matches with football activations alongside the matches. This project led to an increasing engagement between the community and the NSFA,” Johnson added.

“This has allowed for the development of facilities and football that is helping the 2024 season’s all-round experience.”

Kevin Johnson believes these initiatives have cemented the NSFA well on track with Football Australia’s pillar 1 in the Legacy 23 plan. which is to reach a 50/50 player gender equity in Football for 2027.

The ‘23 plan works in unison with NSFA’s objectives in making the association a successful and progressive representative of the Northern Suburbs community and Football in NSW.

Neighbouring The NSFA in The Manly Warringah Football Association (MWFA) is Karen Parsons – President of Pittwater RSL FC, who has overseen the development on the ground. The club has seen an increase of 175 registrations in 2024 to an overall 1,473 players.

In addition, the diversity of the club’s players has changed positively with females now making 43% of registrations compared to last season’s 36%.

“We knew the Matilda’s popularity would increase interest in football, therefore the club needed new strategies to encourage club engagement,” she told Soccerscene.

“The MWFA has opened up an under-7s girls league where 5 Pittwater teams now play. We also had a successful MiniRoos and MiniTillies program in February.

“Feedback from members also included the request for equal-skill-based teams in juniors. Therefore we included optional grading into the under-8s mixed comp, which on grading day had a 70% turn-out rate and positive reviews from parents.

“An academy program run by our women’s premier league coach has supported coaching and training techniques for the younger years and increased their progress in the game – also allowing promising kids extra training at lower costs.”

“Usually in before seasons there is a drop of teenagers from the 13-18 age group. However this year there has been a complete retention of 13-18-year-old participants, especially in the girl’s divisions.”

There is a solid ethos of supporting the social importance of sport in the community and approaches from all the clubs have been to maintain the engagement and encourage all to play football.

Karen spoke of the cooperation between the clubs at youth levels, making sure if the kids don’t make a team they can go to other clubs. This has retained more kids both girls and boys playing football.

“Keeping people playing football no matter what club, is always the major focus of presidents,” Parsons added.

“Outside the junior levels, the adult divisions also have had an overall jump with more All Age mixed and women’s teams created, showing this increase is not just concentrated in youth.”

The MWFA has had an overall jump of 752 more registrations from the 2023 season, currently at 19,821.

These case studies are prime examples of how all levels in community football associations are actively maintaining and developing engagement in NSW Football.

How the Liberty A-League can learn from the incredible growth of NWSL

As the A-League Women’s Grand Final approaches and season comes to an end, it is a time to reflect on a season of incredible growth and broken records.

Similarly to the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) post-2015 Women’s World Cup, there was a popularity boost that translated into increased attendances and revenue for the league.

However, as the NWSL continued to rapidly develop, it seems as if the Liberty A-League struggled to consistently grow after a fantastic first round showing that involved a record-breaking 11,471 crowd for the Sydney Derby.

In the top 10 attendances of the regular season, eight feature games played before the new year despite the Matildas set to sell out a 14th consecutive home match before the Olympics commence in July.

The Liberty A-League crowd average is a little over 2,200 per match, which is a great benchmark for future growth but doesn’t do the participation and momentum justice.

The NWSL is a great case study to look at, with the league being formed only 12 years ago in 2012 and its first season started in the April of 2013.

In its formative years, the NWSL averaged an attendance 4,270, with a high of 17,619. A decent foundation but plenty of room to improve in the world’s biggest sporting market.

It wasn’t until the 2015 season where the league was forced into a shortened schedule and some early-season roster instability due to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada.

The World Cup, which was won emphatically by the USWNT also provided invaluable exposure to the NWSL, which was credited with boosting attendance numbers across the league.

Instantly, teams such as Seattle and Washington who averaged 3,500 crowds per game were selling upwards of 6,000 to their next home game, an immediate resurgence.

So what did the NWSL do to fast-track growth using the World Cup?

Ticket prices

The NWSL, immediately after the 2015 Women’s World Cup pledged to keep the ticket prices consistent within teams, as it sat at $10-$15 USD (AUD $15-$23) across the league.

It was extremely cheap in a saturated and quite expensive US Sports market that allowed the league to use it as a point of difference.

It’s a simple solution that Melbourne City coach Dario Vidosic hinted at for this weekend’s Grand Final in his recent press conference.

Vidosic claimed that “If it was up to him, everyone would be let in for free for Saturday’s final.”

This is simply to create an exciting atmosphere that legitimises the league’s biggest game of the year on a national stage.

Breakaway from Men’s competition

NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman made an extremely interesting point about the NWSL being its own entity.

Speaking to reporters at the Financial Times’ Business of Football summit in London, Berman said the “superpower” of the NWSL was its “independence” – notably from men’s clubs and leagues, which is not the case in Europe or Australia.

It certainly isn’t an overnight fix by any means but allowing the A-League Women’s to run separately from the A-League Men’s, even if it is just ownership could provide a difference that attracts more fans.

Maintaining local star players

Even in it’s infancy, the NWSL were able to show off USWNT stars like Lynn Williams, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan during their ‘Golden Era.’

It collectively brought in more fans to the stands and increased the league’s exposure in the mainstream media.

It certainly isn’t as easy as that when the prospect of playing for more money and exposure in the US or Europe is a possibility now, but Cortnee Vine provides a great example of a star Matilda willing to be the face of the league to inspire young girls.

If the league are able to keep hold of exciting prospects like Daniela Galic or legends like Michelle Heyman for a few years, it would benefit the league greatly as an entertainment product.

Providing a great fan experience

There was an onus on the NWSL clubs and the league itself to make sure matchdays are an experience that brings fans back.

Two clubs in particular Angel City and San Diego Wave fans host tailgates pre-game near the stadium for anyone to join on top of other activations inside the stadium to connect fans closer to the team.

The WSW Women’s team are a fantastic example of an effort to build support, with their Wander Women program, school clinics, fan interactions and their own social media channels helping them grow slowly but surely.

It’s time the others follow suit in a collective attempt to maximise exposure.

To conclude, the NWSL used the 2015 World Cup as leverage to strike a quick deal with Fox Sports to broadcast 15 games for the rest of that season, cashing in on the national team’s success.

Now it boasts the biggest ever Women’s football media deal in history, with the recent four-year $240 million USD ($324 million AUD) domestic broadcast deal across four major streaming and cable partners.

It will be extremely interesting to see the direction the Liberty A-League takes before it renews its broadcast deal in 2026 as it simply cannot waste this golden opportunity it was presented.

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