Opportunity. That’s why footballer, Cannon Clough relocated to Australia in 2019.
The American packed her bags and moved to Queensland to play soccer for Lions FC in the National Premier Leagues Women’s competition (NPL).
Last month, she signed a professional contract to join the Brisbane Roar and play in the A-League Women — Australia’s top-tier competition.
And the 25-year-old’s story is not unique, there are dozens of US and other international players who have taken the same path.
“The NPL has had a huge opportunity to pass players on and really give people that haven’t had their shot at a full professional contract, that chance,” Clough said.
In the United States most young female footballers grow up dreaming of playing in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) – one of the best football leagues in the world.
But it’s probably one of the hardest to break into.
There are just 10 teams, which means about 180 to 200 roster positions.
Each year, young aspiring players will finish their college careers and declare for the NWSL draft, but only a few will get selected.
Those who don’t secure a contract are left with little opportunity to play professionally in the US.
It’s why leagues like the NPL in Australia are so tempting for international players to come and ply their trade.
“It’s been really good at Lions FC, it’s just a super-professional setup so really preparing you for this kind of opportunity [signing with the Brisbane Roar],” Clough said.
“Back home, there wasn’t as much of that NPL-level league, there was a summer league in between college seasons, and a lot of girls would play in that to stay fit, stay in shape.”
She said the US summer league is gradually starting to catch up with Australia’s second-tier competitions, which was a positive sign.
Australian football a ‘launch pad’ to other leagues
Clough isn’t the only American the Brisbane Roar have signed for this year’s A-League season.
Shea Connors, who was born in Connecticut and also played at Lions FC in the NPL, was recruited to the A-League club.
Connors was one of the NPL’s leading strikers, scoring 66 goals in 48 appearances for the Lions.
Clough and Connors just led Lions FC to a third-straight NPL title, defeating Capalaba 3-0 on the weekend.
Connors was named the NPL Women’s player of the year on Saturday night.
Brisbane Roar coach Garrath McPherson said coaches and recruiters, not only from Australia, have been watching the league closely to scout for talent.
“The NPL Women’s has grown, it’s grown in professionalism and that has made the players better.
“You have players that see that competition as a pathway into professional women’s football now.
“It’s a viable pathway, the quality of the club environments they go into allows them to continue to develop.”
He said the competition and the livestreaming of each game allowed players to showcase their skills .
“It’s easy enough to watch those games and see all those players regularly and it has really grown since its inception,” he said.
“I’m sure you’ve got coaches of European and American clubs watching [the A-League] competition and looking for players and we’ve seen even from the Brisbane Roar a number of players from last year in the performances they had securing contracts overseas.
“It’s an opportunity for players like Shea and Cannon to keep progressing and use it as a launch pad.”
Clough one day hopes to earn a contract in the NWSL in the United States.
“I would love to play a season at home at some point whether it be, you know, in the near future or later.”
This season’s NPL Women’s competition has featured 37 international players — including 11 from New Zealand and nine from the United States and Canada and five from Japan.
Players spreading the word about Aussie comps overseas
Word of the Aussie experience is travelling across the globe.
“I’ve had plenty of girls reach out to me like, ‘How can I get over there? How can I come play over there? It looks like such a good experience and good football’,” Clough said.
One of those friends is Bella Habuda.
The 25-year-old Canadian came out to Australia to play for Gold Coast United in this season’s NPL competition and has just signed with the Western Sydney Wanderers in the A-League.
“I was in Europe, my season kind of was ending, I was looking for my next opportunity and I had a friend who had played in Australia, the past NPL season, and she was just loving it,” Habuda said.
“In Canada, soccer is popular but there isn’t really any pro league or anything like that.”
The Canadian striker was named in the NPL Women’s team of the year, after scoring 20 goals for Gold Coast United.
“I used the season to strive for W-League [now A-League Women] … it’s definitely such a high level that like, it’s amazing for internationals, it’s great for us now to see where we’re really at,” she said.
“I know players who have played that are American, played in the NPL, then played in the A-League and now actually are on NWSL teams in the US.
“I think it can open a lot of doors, whether that’s in Europe or whether that’s back in America.”
World Cup effect
In less than two years, 32 national soccer teams will converge on Australia and New Zealand for the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
Over four weeks, the nations will compete in dozens of matches in cities including Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.
“I think the World Cup is going to be a huge opportunity for everyone in football over here but also, I think, for the world getting to come here and seeing Australia is amazing,” Clough said.
“It’s a good place to be during this time.”
Habuda has always strived to represent Canada and said playing in Australia in the lead up to the world cup could prove beneficial.
“If I’m able to have a decent A-League season … any door can open. For example, Canada might come here for a camp to get ready for the world cup.
“I know so many people that want to just be in Australia, because the world cup is coming.”
Australian lifestyle a factor
It’s not just the football that excites the international players, it’s the lifestyle.
“There are so many things I love about Australia,” Clough said.
“The beaches particularly, because they’re the most beautiful, I think, in the world.
“But even, just, I think Australians are pretty laid-back people and you can make a joke about everything.”
Clough said due to the COVID-19 pandemic her experience in Australia has been slightly different to the one she expected when she left American shores in 2019.
“August was two years since I’ve seen my family last.
“And there’s been so many sacrifices, like moving to a farm for three months to keep my visa and things like that, but it was all just part of the story, part of the experience.”