Auckland’s new professional football franchise has less than a year to assemble a squad that’s not just competitive, but capable of winning over the city’s fickle fans. Whose signatures should they be hunting?
Professional football is returning to Auckland. Billionaire American businessman Bill Foley, owner of NHL champions the Las Vegas Golden Knights, will take the reins as the owner of the A-League’s newest franchise, with the men’s team entering the competition in 2024-25 and the women’s team joining in 2025-26.
Long considered a white elephant project – the most recent entity, the New Zealand Knights, fell on its sword 16 years ago – Foley may be the perfect man to take on such a supposedly doomed project. He gambled on taking ice hockey to the desert and won. Even Jerry Bruckheimer, who turned a theme park ride into one of cinema’s most profitable franchises, couldn’t do that.
But success on and off the field will largely depend on recruitment. With the men’s team less than a year away from kick-off, here are some of the likely and not-so-likely names that should be on the radar for Auckland’s as-yet-untitled football team.
New Zealanders abroad
Premier League side AFC Bournemouth, the most high-profile of Foley’s footballing ventures, has signed players from a total of 12 different countries since he took over last year. Such a novelty is impossible in the A-League, with rules limiting the number of foreign players per team to a maximum of five.
This adds significant importance to the recruitment of domestic talent, making Rojas an obvious target. The “Kiwi Messi” was named the league’s best player during the first of his three successful stints with Melbourne Victory, and is currently a free agent after a spell at Colo Colo in his ancestral homeland of Chile. Bringing the 32-year-old winger 90 minutes up SH1 from his childhood home of Hamilton would be a no-brainer.
Krishna is an equally obvious option. The Fijian striker was handed New Zealand citizenship in 2018 after 10 years of playing football in Aotearoa, including five memorable seasons with the Wellington Phoenix. Like Rojas, he’s a Johnny Warren Medal winner, plus he always proved a major drawcard among Auckland’s Fijian football community whenever the Phoenix played at Eden Park.
The Tauranga-born winger may have turned his back on the All Whites to represent the United States, but he would be an exciting addition. The former Phoenix winger has rediscovered his best form at LA Galaxy this year after club-hopping around Portugal and Turkey, but he’s only on a short-term deal in the Golden State. Foley could surely use some American connections to secure his signature.
Also on the list: Ryan Thomas (PEC Zwolle), Michael Boxall (Minnesota United), Michael Woud (Ventforet Kofu).
It’s fair to say the 27-year-old goalie’s move from the Phoenix to the Perth Glory hasn’t gone as smoothly as he would have hoped. The coach who brought him to WA left, a couple of costly errors saw him lose his starting spot and he was subsequently dropped from the most recent All Whites squad. If things carry on this way, he may well be in need of a career restart next season – what better option than returning to become a hometown hero?
The Vanuatu captain was the fairytale story of last year’s A-League. Dropped into professional football for the first time at the ripe age of 29 he thrived, helping the unfancied Central Coast Mariners to the title. But the Gosford-based Mariners are a selling club. With Foley ready to reach into his deep pockets, luring Kaltak back to Auckland, where he spent four successful years with Auckland City, would offer the side a solid defensive lynchpin.
It seems an almost WWE/WCW-like rivalry is already developing on social media between the Phoenix and the as-yet-unnamed Auckland project. Eventually someone has to pull a Lex Luger and jump ship, and Sutton seems a likely candidate. Originally from the North Shore, the versatile full-back has been usurped by academy graduate Lukas Kelly-Heald in the capital. With just one year left on his Nix deal at the end of this season, could he be the first cross-country transfer of many?
Also on the list: Ulises Davila (Macarthur FC), Clayton Lewis (Macarthur FC), Storm Roux (Central Coast Mariners).
Bums in seats is likely the biggest issue the Auckland franchise will face in its first year, and bringing in a big name international marquee player (whose wages aren’t counted toward the league’s salary cap) would be one shortcut to achieving that. The A-League has a long (if not always successful) history of bringing over big names in the twilight of their careers – Auckland need their Alessandro Del Piero, and Jamie Vardy could be that man.
A walking rags-to-riches story, Vardy is an in-your-face, heart-on-sleeve character who home fans love and away fans love to hate. The 36-year-old is pure entertainment – even becoming a crossover attraction with last year’s Wagatha Christie libel case – and importantly comes with his own tailormade chant.
He also scores goals. Lots of them – nearly 250 across 500-odd games. An established Premier League star is surely high on the priority list and Vardy, who is out of contract with his beloved Leicester City next year, could just be the perfect main attraction.
Recruitment should come from a sporting perspective, not a marketing one. But why not have both? Tyias Browning, or Jiang Guangtai as he is known in China, fits that bill. Auckland’s Chinese football community turned out at Mt Smart in big numbers when the national team played the All Whites in a friendly in March – it’d be a huge missed opportunity if the new Auckland franchise didn’t look at ways to bring this potential fan base on board.
Browning has become a regular with the Chinese national team since switching nationality from England. The 29-year-old defender was born in Liverpool and came up through the Everton academy, making seven senior team appearances for the Toffees before signing with Guangzhou in 2019.
“Are you selling to me?” Foley could do this transfer deal Travis Bickle style. It seems inevitable a Bournemouth player will make the leap to New Zealand at some stage, and Kieffer Moore is a perfect candidate. While not quite a household Premier League name, the former lifeguard could become one if he made the move to Tāmaki Makaurau. At 6’5”, the Welsh international cuts an imposing figure and would prove a massive threat to A-League defences.
Also on the list: Radamel Falcao (Rayo Vallecano), Adam Lallana (Brighton), Wu Lei (Shanghai Port).
Krishna, Sail and Kaltak’s inclusion on this list highlights the potential treasure to be found in the often-overlooked National League system. Jack-Henry Sinclair is one such gem, scoring the final goal in last weekend’s Grand Final as Wellington Olympic were crowned national champions. He has previous experience playing in Auckland and at just 25 the former New Zealand U20 representative still has his best years in front of him.
Auckland City has long been the country’s dominant domestic force and have supplied the A League with plenty of talent over the years – the aforementioned Krishna, Sail and Kaltak all came via Kiwitea Street, as did Clayton Lewis, Albert Riera, Ben Sigmund…
A handful of their current squad is arguably capable of following in their footsteps, but Korean New Zealander Joe Lee might be the most promising of the bunch. At 21, the OlyWhite has youth on his side and has a swashbuckling style of play that would suit the fast-paced nature of the A-League.
Francis de Vries
One of the few All Whites splashed around the National League system, the left-footed defender represented Eastern Suburbs this season as he stepped up recovery from a serious knee injury. His plan may be to return to Europe, but a professional contract at 30 years old might convince the five-cap international to stick around.
Also on the list: Cameron Howieson (Auckland City), Ben Mata (Wellington Olympic), Luis Toomey (Eastern Suburbs).
What about the women’s team?
It’s still a long way off – there’s nearly two years before the women’s team makes their debut – but a few candidates already come to mind for the initial shortlist.
Avondale College alum Betsy Hassett, currently playing in Iceland, must be near the top of the list to make a return home. Western Sydney Wanderers’ Milly Clegg is another Aucklander at the other end of the career spectrum who would be an exciting recruit. And Australia’s 117-cap midfielder Tameka Yallop (Brisbane Roar) would make a marquee addition – the Matilda has Kiwi connections, having married retired Football Fern Kirsty Yallop in 2019.
But Melbourne City’s Hannah Wilkinson will surely be the number one target. Her celebration at Eden Park after scoring the eventual winner against Norway has become the enduring image of the Football Ferns’ Fifa Women’s World Cup experience, and bringing her in would be a legacy acquisition.