The Matildas should not forget about Katrina Gorry ahead of 2023 World Cup

The Matildas should not forget about Katrina Gorry ahead of 2023 World Cup

With fewer than 60 seconds remaining in regular time of Brisbane Roar’s clash with Melbourne Victory, Natalie Tathem – making her return from a 12-month ACL injury – drove down the right flank before delivering a low cross that Shea Conn­ors, just, reached first to bundle over the goal line. After being 2-0 down at half-time from an own-goal and a fortunate Lynn Williams effort, the Queenslanders were finally on the right side of a late comeback, with a 3-2 lead that soon turned into 4-2 after Norrie added a 96th-minute sealer.

In the aftermath of Conn­ors’s goal, however, as the rest of her teammates moved back into position for kick-off, the lone, diminutive figure of Katrina Gorry hobbled off: spent after putting in a player-of-the-match performance that had not only inspired the Roar to their first win of the season but reminded everyone that, for all the excitement surrounding a new generation of Matildas being brought through by Tony Gustavsson, a potential answer to the national team’s midfield predicament may lie in the re-establishment of the 2014 AFC women’s player of the year.

Less than six months after giving birth and fewer than three after writing that she was unsure if she was going to be available for round one, Gorry has quickly re-emerged as one of the Roar’s most important figures during the nascent 2021-22 A-League Women season and, assuming she continues on her current trajectory, one of the best players in the competition. After coming off the bench in her side’s first two games and managing only 45 minutes in the round-three defeat to Victory, Gorry got through 90 minutes in each of the past two rounds. Funnily enough, those two fixtures were the first in which Roar picked up points this season. Despite her limited action and role in the midfield, she ranks eighth in the league for shots on target per 90 minutes among qualified players.

On Sunday, the 29-year-old proved integral to Roar’s attempts to advance the ball up the field, served as an important – and stabilising – touchstone for her side in possession, and delivered an equalising goal which not only demonstrated what she is capable of producing with the ball at her feet but also how she’s able to operate without the ball to make all that possible.

Gifted extra space to operate in the midfield thanks to Kyra Cooney-Cross’s red card, she slid into a position to the right of Mindy Barbieri to show for a pass from Mariel Hecher, adjusting her alignment so she could receive a ball to feet – itself a rare request in tight areas in Australian football. Her Brazilian teammate found her, and she attacked the space afforded by a retreating Victory back four. Before Emma Robers had a chance to scramble across she let loose with a chipped effort that sailed perfectly over the head of Victory goalkeeper Melissa Maizels. She was mobbed by teammates, but not before a rock-the-baby celebration in the direction of daughter Harper in the AAMI Park stands – a dedication of her first goal since becoming a mother to her new baby.

That Gorry’s star turn came in direct competition with Matildas breakout player Cooney-Cross was fitting. Though both arguably perform better further up the field, the pair’s best path to national team minutes under Gustavsson heading into 2023 likely means competing for a deep-lying midfield role. And while Gorry’s performance wasn’t perfect – a lazy turnover in the 30th minute indicative of both some level of rust and a lingering preference to play the ball to a familiar teammate and fellow Matilda Larissa Crummer – she won the battle between the two on Sunday.

Both bring their own strengths and weaknesses but, as Gorry has already begun to hint at in her return this season, she holds a rare skill set; a coolness under pressure and the ability to make good decisions rapidly. Such attributes set her apart from her contemporaries and make her considerably more press-resistant than most of Australia’s options in the midfield. When taking into account the Matildas’ issues playing against defences with the ability to prevent transition and force them to break down a low block, her ability to advance play by passing forwards rather than side to side, dribbling between the lines, or simply by taking positions that force a defensive reaction – and, by extension, open up space for others – shapes as a potentially crucial weapon for when the world descends on Australia and New Zealand for the 2023 World Cup.

Is it a case of one or the other? Absolutely not. At just 19, Cooney-Cross represents the future of the Matildas and, as she matures and gains more exposure to top-flight football – potentially in a major European league – she can only improve on an already-impressive base. But in an environment of considerable hype over Cooney-Cross, Mary Fowler, Clare Wheeler, and more, do not forget about Gorry. This month’s Asian Cup may prove a bridge too far, but 2023 – a goal she herself has set – looms large.