Gustavsson: "There's been a lot of players actually fighting for spots"

Tony Gustavsson spoke to the media about his selection of 23 players for this month’s AFC Women's Olympic Football Tournament Paris 2024™ Asian Qualifiers Round 3 (Asian Qualifiers) against Uzbekistan.

He began by explaining the process behind selection, given the long break between international windows (last coming together against Canada in November).

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"There's been a lot of players actually fighting for spots here, and a lot of players performing," he stressed.

"We try to look at a combination of continuity and connections - people that know the way we play, know each other, that's been with us for a while… but we also look at form and playing time, players that are performing and are in form right now.

"And then obviously we have to consider injury situations with players being unavailable and look at how do we fill those spots - for example, the 9 and 10 roles."

While he is satisfied with the balance of the final squad, he admitted that there have been "tough phone calls" this weekend in regard to players who have missed out.

The headline call-up for this window is veteran striker Michelle Heyman. The 35-year-old has scored 20 times in 61 appearances for the CommBank Matildas but has not played for the national team since 2018.

Gustavsson said that it was her A-League Women's form - she is the Golden Boot leader with 10 goals from 13 games, including recently becoming the first player to score 100 goals in that competition - that earned her selection.

Michelle Heyman

"I mean, for me, it's looking at - with Sam [Kerr] unavailable, Kyah [Simon] just coming back from injury, [Holly] McNamara injured and so forth - who is the best next in line," he explained.

"I've said that a lot of times throughout these three years that for me it's not about age as a Matilda, it's about the quality that you have as a footballer. Whether you're 17 or 35, doesn't matter. If you have the quality, you deserve to be selected.

"Heyman has played herself into this team, the way she plays, she's in tremendous form. She's scoring for fun, and we also feel playing this type of qualifiers - we think we're going to play against a very, very well-organised Uzbekistan side - it's going to be difficult to get in behind. We need an in-and-out pure 9 in the box, that needs half a chance to score - and that's Michelle."

Chloe Logarzo is another player who has returned to the squad after impressing in the A-League Women. It will be her first selection in a CommBank Matildas squad since 2022. She has battled injuries over the past few seasons since rupturing her ACL on national team duty in 2021, and Gustavsson said that her ability in the second phase of play will be key.

Chloe and Mary hugging post Matildas v South Africa

"You can see how she performs right now," Gustavsson said. "Her runs off the ball, her tackles, her 1v1s - defending and attacking - her scoring ability, her ability to get into the box, her runs in behind the back line.

"Also, to look at the type of opponents we're playing now - that will be very well organised, very physical. We need players on the park that can get into the box and be first on the ball… all the rebounds, the loose balls in the box, she's going to be there to poach every single ball if she gets on the park.

"She's worked a long time to get back to where she needed to be and professionalism and her character have gotten her back to where she is now, so I'm really happy to bring Chloe back in."

The final squad for the Olympics - provided that the CommBank Matildas can defeat Uzbekistan over two legs - is 18 players. Gustavsson was asked about how this squad of 23 could be trimmed to 18, and what his thought process was regarding his ideal squad.

"It's a bit too far ahead to say now, who is going to be there," he admitted, "but as you've seen over the last year or so at the World Cup, there's been a core group of players that know the way we play. So sometimes it's not about the best players. It's about the best team, the best connections on the field and also understanding the tactics.

"Everyone that is selected for this camp and also the ones that missed out are definitely in contention for an Olympic roster. It's way too far ahead now to say who those are going to be. So the ones that are selected here are competing for spots for sure.

"Back in September, October, I said the door is open but it's not wide open, meaning there's very spots to compete for because there's going to be a core group that is there. But those players also need to show that they are fit and in form and performing because at the end of the day, it is about performance."

Gustavsson emphasised the passion that the squad has for walking away with this Olympic cycle with a medal to show for it - but that full focus was on the qualification process first.

The only members of the squad who are yet to receive a senior CommBank Matildas cap are Jada Whyman and Kaitlyn Torpey. Torpey, recently signed for San Diego Wave in the NWSL for an Australian record fee, the 23-year-old has been a high performer for Melbourne City this season.

Gustavsson praised both her form in the league and her performances with the Australian U23 set-up.

"The Matildas can't be a development platform, it has to be a performance platform," he stressed. "That's why the youth nat [national team] funding to the U23 space is massively important, that we keep investing in that program, for those players to get a chance to have a taste of international football.

"We get to implement the training philosophy, the playing style, the playing ideas, so that when she comes up to us now, she's heard the terminology, she knows the principles. Mel [Andreatta] has had a chance to work with her on and off the field.

Kaitlyn Torpey during U23 camp in Brisbane. (Photo: Ann Odong/Football Australia)
Kaitlyn Torpey during U23 camp in Brisbane. (Photo: Ann Odong/Football Australia)

"But then the second part is the A-League. I really want to credit the coaches in the A-League here, what they've done in terms of developing players," he continued. "There's so many players there now that are developing fast, really fast.

"We've kept an eye on her [Torpey] for a long time. But her improvement in performances over the last year, especially when she came back from this injury last year, has been phenomenal."

Torpey's selection in the side has come at the expense of long-term squad member Courtney Nevin. Gustavsson explained that part of the reason for her omission was because Torpey had forced her way into the squad, with her unique profile and superb form.

"When I had to pick up the phone and call Nevin and say, 'This is the first window I'm not going to select you,' one of the reasons is I think Torpey deserves to get this opportunity, the way she's performed," he said.

"Her next step is to see if she can bring that to our level, the international level because everything is going to be faster now. But we're intrigued by her performances. Very, very interesting profile her as a player."

The press conference was held from London, where Gustavsson is currently visiting CommBank Matildas players at their clubs - including Charli Grant and Charlie Rule (currently injured). He is also meeting legendary Australian coach, and current Tottenham Hotspur men's coach, Ange Postecoglou.

"Sometimes it's just going out there and getting some inspiration," he said. "Whether it's about leadership, or training content, or hearing Ange's experience about the journey of Australian football as well - I'm really looking forward to that."

The CommBank Matildas will take on world number 47, Uzbekistan, in a two-match home-and-away series on 24 February 2024 at Tashkent’s Milliy Stadium (8.00pm AEDT), before returning to Australia for the final Asian Qualifier on 28 February 2024 at Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium (8.00pm AEDT).