Waibop Football kick off their ASB National Women's League season this Sunday with an away fixture against Northern Football at Fred Taylor Park, Auckland.
Head coach Peter Smith has assembled a squad which contains a lot of new faces, including a large element of youth players as WaiBop Football continues to develop the pathway from Federation Talent Centres to National Women's League.
The league enters its 10th season with some important tweaks to the format from the past two seasons.
While last year's league focused on youth - just five over-age players were allowed in each squad and only three on the pitch at any one time - the restrictions this season have been relaxed to cater for the bubble of talented players moving into their early 20s.
Each squad must field at least five under-18 (born in 1994 or later) players on the field at any one time but squad composition outside that restriction is up to the individual federation.
The choice of the age-limit aligns the league with the age-group World Cup cycle, with the next Fifa under-20 World Cup scheduled for Canada in 2014. This will ensure a group of eligible players that were too old for this year's under-17s and missed out on the under-20 group get the continued development they need.
The national league has been part of the springboard to international success for a number of players. Sarah McLaughlin, Liv Chance, Kate Loye and Holly Patterson, who were all members of last season's WaiBop squad, have gone on to gain national honours. All four girls are now overseas, with McLaughlin and Patterson playing for Adelaide in the Australian Women's League and Chance and Loye on college football scholarships in America.
New Zealand Football has provided a real pathway for female players who can enter the Federation Talent Centre programme at under-12 level and then progress to the National Women's League.
"The female game has huge opportunities. US college scholarships are a real possibility for our talented women players," Smith said.
"We hope to have more girls following in the footsteps of Sarah, Liv, Kate and Holly, as the opportunities, which only a few years ago weren't there, continue to become available."
While losing the services of the aforementioned players has left a rather large hole in the WaiBOP squad, Smith is looking at it with a glass half-full mentality.
"It has exposed the next tier of players who now have the opportunity to express the talent they've got. They've come into the squad and we're now looking ahead to the future and further developing these players," said Smith, whose squad of 24 players include 15 girls who are 18 years old or younger.
The goal for WaiBOP this season is to go out and play an attractive brand of football.
Smith said the strength in this WaiBOP squad was their strong work ethic, with a good bond already forming amongst the team which had been together for only three weeks.
"They're working hard at training and are keen to learn with a real thirst for knowledge."
He expects his young WaiBop team "to be up against it" in their game against defending ASB National Women's League champions Northern Football on Sunday.
"They'll be a well organised, big, strong and technically proficient team who'll enjoy having the home advantage. However, we'll go up there and be ready for the challenge."
The format for the 2012 league sees the seven federation teams joined by a New Zealand development squad comprised of under-17 players. Once again the league is split geographically into two groups of four teams playing in a home and away league format.
The league kicks off tomorrow and on Sunday, December 9, the top team in each conference host the runner-up from the opposite group in cross-conference semifinals. The winners of each semi meet a week later to find the New Zealand champion.
WaiBop's match schedule sees them follow their 4pm game against Northern Football at Fred Taylor Park on Sunday with a home match against NZF under-17 at St Peter's School Cambridge on Sunday, November 4, at 1pm.
They then play two away matches against Auckland Football on Sunday, November 11, and NZF under-17 at Auckland on Sunday, November 18.
WaiBop finish with two home games against Northern Football at Rotorua International Stadium on Sunday, November 25, at 1pm and Auckland Football at Links Ave in Mount Maunganui on Sunday, December 2 at 1pm.