Defending champions Auckland City have taken a two-point lead in the Men’s National League with a third of the competition completed.
Already, the race for grand final places looks to be a three-way battle between the Navy Blues, Central League champions Wellington Olympic and Southern League winners Christchurch United, while Auckland United are not out of contention.
With 15 of the 45 league fixtures gone, here are some things we’ve learned:
1. Small margins for error
When the final whistle blew in Auckland United’s 2-2 draw with Christchurch United, the disappointment among the Auckland players was evident.
Though they had fought back to snatch a point with two late goals, and they remained unbeaten in the competition, some of the players looked forlorn.
In a nine-match competition, in which the top two go to a grand final, and the rest pack up for summer, there are few second chances for those who drop early points.
The league is already a third complete, and Auckland United are fourth. If they win all their remaining games, they’ll reach 23 points. Last season’s finalists had 27 points each.
It’s not impossible for Auckland United, but already they’re relying on at least two of the three teams above them to hit the skids.
2. What home advantage?
So much for the comforts of home.
Only four of the 15 fixtures played have been won by the home team.
Clubs to win at home are the three regional champions, Auckland City, Wellington Olympic and Christchurch United, and Napier City Rovers, who beat Petone in the first round.
3. Goals galore
The cut-throat nature of the nine-round competition means teams are throwing caution to the wind if they fall behind.
That was no more evident in Sunday’s game between Manurewa and the Wellington Phoenix Reserves, which finished 4-6 to the visitors from the capital.
The Nix were 3-0 up by half-time, and with nothing to lose, Rewa threw everyone forward and were still battering their opponents’ goal in the final minutes, desperately trying to salvage a point.
After three rounds, spectators have been treated to an average of 4.2 goals per game in the league, compared to the 3.8 average for last year’s competition.
4. Red cards costly
In such a short competition, player suspensions can be particularly costly.
Napier City Rovers lost forward Jonathan McNamara to a red card in the second round, earning him a three-match ban.
In Round 3, midfielder Cameron Emerson was given his marching orders for two yellow cards in a five-minute spell. He earns a one-match suspension.
Both players will miss next weekend’s trip for the midtable clash with the Wellington Phoenix.
5. Young ‘keepers get chance to shine
The National League is providing opportunities for a host of talented young goalkeepers.
In Round 3, the average age of the ten goalkeepers on show was 20, and by our reckoning, six are age-group internationals.
They included Wellington Phoenix’s Alby Kelly-Heald (18), Eastern Suburbs’ Joseph Knowles (18) and Christchurch United’s Scott Morris (22), who were all in New Zealand’s Olympic qualifier squad.
Other teens to start were Cashmere Technical’s Matt Foord (17), Napier City Rovers’ Oscar Mason (19), Auckland City’s Joe Wallis (18) and Petone’s Oscar Boyce (19).
Main photo: Napier City Rovers’ Oscar Mason. Photo: Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.
Manurewa signed Regan Diver (20) from Western Springs for the national competition.
Foord, Mason and Diver have all featured in New Zealand age group teams.
Auckland United’s Mack Waite (26) and Wellington Olympic’s Scott Basalaj (29) are the oldest of the current crop of ‘keepers.
Results — Round 3
Games played on Saturday October 7, 2023
Cashmere Technical 3 (Lyle Matthysen 8′, 35′, Tom Schwarz 14′)
Wellington Olympic 3 (Joel Stevens 23′, Hamish Watson 58′, 64′)
Auckland United 2 (Yousif Al-Kalisy 71′, Xavier Green 86′)
Christchurch United 2 (Eoghan Stokes 40′, own goal 51′))
Games played on Sunday October 8, 2023
Napier City Rovers 2 (Deri Corfe 22′, Liam Schofield 37′)
Auckland City 4 (Angus Kilkolly 43′, 85′, Cam Howieson 77′, Michael den Heijer 90′)
Manurewa 4 (Hayat Ali Tobita 50′, Monty Patterson 57′ pen, Dylan Morris 67′, Boon Ozawa 82′)
Wellington Phoenix Reserves 6 (Charlie Beale 18′, Luke Supyk 25′, 55′, Josh Rudland 30′, 52′, Josh Tollervey 74′)
Eastern Suburbs 1 (Francis de Vries 61′)
Petone 1 (Matt Brazier 86′)