BRISBANE, Australia - Australia's A-League opens its 2013-14 season on Friday when new captain Alessandro Del Piero leads Sydney FC against the Newcastle Jets among five weekend matches. On Saturday, defending champion Central Coast meet the Western Sydney Wanderers in a rematch of last year's grand final. Here are five things to know about the A-League as it begins its ninth season since replacing the former National Soccer League:
THEY'RE BACK: The big three marquee players from last season have returned — former Juventus star Del Piero, Japan international Shinji Ono and ex-Premier League striker Emile Heskey. Del Piero, 38, will hope to lift Sydney FC out of last place from last season; the 35-year-old Heskey couldn't do much better for Newcastle as the Jets finished in eighth and missed the playoffs for the third season in a row. The 35-year-old Ono had the lowest profile of the 2012-13 marquee signings but was seemingly the most effective, scoring eight goals, to lead Western Sydney to the top of the standings at the end of the regular season.
CLEANING HOUSE: Graham Arnold's Central Coast squad has a vastly different look this season. Goalkeeper Mathew Ryan, striker Bernie Ibini, defender Pedj Bojic and midfielder Oliver Bozanic have gone to other teams, while veteran keeper Patrick Zwaanswijk retired after winning the title. "The players that we've lost were influential in our success and now for me, it's a totally different team," Arnold said. "We've brought new players in and we've had to try and fit them into our style of play." The Mariners newcomers include Dutch defender Marcel Seip, goalkeeper Liam Reddy and Argentinian midfielder Marcos Flores.
OPTIMISM AT THE TOP: Football Federation Australian chief executive David Gallop was former head of the National Rugby League, and now he feels his new sport could supplant league, rugby union and Australian Rules football as the most popular of four football codes in Australia. A grandiose claim, certainly, but Gallop points to unprecedented growth over the past two seasons, including a 40 per cent increase in attendance and doubling of its television ratings in Australia, no doubt helped by Del Piero and Co. "I can genuinely say our best years are still ahead of us," Gallop says.
LOOKING TO ASIA: The A-League could move into Asia when it expands beyond its current 10 clubs, but likely not for several years. A-League chief Damien de Bohun said at the official launch this week that there is interest from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. "There's no reason why you can't look seriously at games and even certainly clubs being based in different parts of Asia," de Bohun told Australian Associated Press. He said the next four seasons of the league's new broadcast deal, which for the first time includes a free-to-air television component, would be devoted to ensuring the current clubs are successful and sustainable. But when the next deal is negotiated, they'll look at expanding. De Bohun also said with Australia hosting the Asian Cup in January 2015, some A-League games would need to be played away from regular venues, making it an ideal time to play in Asia.
ALESSANDRO'S READY TO GO: Del Piero has been touring with Sydney FC, including trips to Japan and his native Italy in July and August. "It was very long," Del Piero said of the extended preseason. "I'm not happy about that but it's a new thing, training a lot alone first of all, and then July and August with the team. I think not only me but every player is happy this week we will start the A-League." Del Piero missed three friendlies after the Italy trip, but is fit and played the full 90 minutes of the team's 3-0 loss to Perth Glory on Sept. 29 in a preseason friendly.
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