The Wellington Phoenix begin their A-League campaign on October 6 when they host Alessandro Del Piero and Sydney FC in the capital. APNZ's Daniel Richardson looks at five reasons why they need to do more than just make the playoffs.
1. They're no longer the new boys
The Phoenix were afforded excuses in the first couple of years for their on-field struggles as they looked to get off the ground but now they're an established outfit and need to make the jump to serious contenders. They've made the playoffs for the past three years and came within one game of the grand final in 2009-2010. They need to ensure they can pick up points on the road this summer, finish inside the top four and make a genuine run at the title to give supporters the belief they're the real deal.
2. Manny Muscat is in the midfield
The Maltese international could well be Ricki Herbert's best value-for-money buy since he was picked up as an injury-replacement in 2008.
Muscat spoke about moving away from right-back last season to find a home in the midfield and Tim Brown's retirement and Vince Lia's ongoing injury issues appear to have given him the green light to run the ship in the centre of the park this year. Muscat's passing game and combative style should serve him well and he will likely be partnered by the under-rated Alex Smith, which is a handy combination.
3. The squad is better
This is simply the best squad that Herbert has had at his disposal since the Phoenix were born in 2007. Former Belgian international Stein Huysegems is well-qualified, while fellow newcomers Jeremy Brockie and Benjamin Totori will provide plenty of cut and thrust in the front third of the pitch. Herbert has rookies Tyler Boyd and Louis Fentonwho offer pace and the fearlessness of youth, while Michael Boxall's acquisition gives Herbert further depth in the heart of defence to back up the ever-reliable Andrew Durante and Ben Sigmund.
4. There are no off-field distractions
Last season the franchise entered the A-League campaign under a cloud of uncertainty as former owner Terry Serepisos had to give up his beloved club due to his financial woes. It clearly played on the minds of the players who had to operate with a limited pre-season and the squad was paper-thin at best with only 16 players fit some weeks. The Welnix group have provided stability off the field and have managed the club well since they took over on September 23 last year.
5. The Phoenix need to keep their fans
New Zealand sports fans are a fickle bunch. They love a winner - just look at the Breakers who sell out most of their Australian NBL games - and the Phoenix's biggest crowds have come in playoff games. The club's management have suggested they need around 10,000 fans at home games to remain a viable product so they need to produce results on the paddock to inspire the punters to keep coming along.