Michaela Foster's strong first start shows Wellington Phoenix have helped Football Ferns

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ANALYSIS: After a successful first season in Australasia that received rave reviews, Michaela Foster’s set pieces have gone on tour.

Antalya on Turkey’s south coast was the first stop, where her corner in the 34th minute against Iceland was met by the head of Hannah Wilkinson.

The resulting goal was the Football Ferns’ first in 561 minutes – or almost nine-and-a-half hours – of action and the only shame was it didn’t result in a win.

Michaela Foster impressed in her first start for the Football Ferns, assisting Hannah Wilkinson’s goal in their 1-1 draw with Iceland.

Daniela Porcelli/Photosport

Michaela Foster impressed in her first start for the Football Ferns, assisting Hannah Wilkinson’s goal in their 1-1 draw with Iceland.

While the goal was the only shot the world No 25 Ferns put on target in their 1-1 draw with the world’s 14th-ranked team, they looked more dangerous than they have at any point during their ongoing nine-match winless run.

The return of Jacqui Hand from a knee injury alongside Wilkinson up top was one reason why that was the case, but the biggest factor was Foster – and in particular her ability to deliver strong set pieces.

There was an early taste of what she had to offer in that regard when she set Grace Jale up for a free header at a corner, only for the forward to fluff her lines.

Poor defending of a long throw then put the Ferns on the back foot as Iceland took the lead after 27 minutes, before Foster combined with Wilkinson to swiftly restore parity.

As well as delivering dangerous set pieces, Foster also sent in several dangerous crosses from open play and got up and down the left flank while putting in a generally solid defensive shift.

Coach Jitka Klimková praised the 24-year-old’s efforts as “incredible” after the draw and said: “It was nice to see she can fit into our team so nicely”.

You have to wonder if Foster could have played more in her first two Ferns appearances in February, where she was given just over half an hour off the bench across a pair of losses to Argentina, even though regular left back Ali Riley was out injured.

But what’s important is that she’s there having an impact now, with a Fifa Women’s World Cup on home soil and the Ferns’ opening match against Norway at Eden Park in Auckland on July 20 just over 100 days away.

When the Wellington Phoenix were granted entry to A-League Women ahead of the 2021-22 season, after a false start a year earlier, there was plenty of talk about how they would help the Ferns in the leadup to the World Cup.

Giving Foster an opportunity at a higher level than New Zealand domestic football and United States college football is looking like it will be their biggest contribution, even if she was only initially signed as a scholarship player last October.

She started all 18 of their matches and played every minute in all but one of them, finishing with a goal and three assists, but deserving plenty of credit for others that came in the wake of her accurate, chaos-causing deliveries.

There will be plenty of long-term benefits for the Ferns to reap from the existence of the Phoenix women, as they have given plenty of young players a pathway where none previously existed.

But as things stand, when it comes to helping them in July this year, there’s promoting Foster and there’s kick-starting Grace Jale’s flailing career – even if she then moved to Canberra United for the season just gone.

Michaela Foster started every match of the Wellington Phoenix’s 2022-23 A-League Women campaign.

Martin Hunter/Photosport

Michaela Foster started every match of the Wellington Phoenix’s 2022-23 A-League Women campaign.

With just two public matches remaining for the Ferns before the World Cup – the first against Nigeria in Turkey this week [kickoff Wednesday 1am NZ time], the second against Vietnam in Napier, 10 days before they face Norway in their opener – Foster has to be backed as a starter.

She got the nod against Iceland even though Riley was available, as the skipper was deployed at right back, with regular starter CJ Bott absent injured – her 12th absence in the Ferns’ last 15 matches.

It’s likely Foster and Riley will line up as the two fullbacks again against Nigeria, but beyond that, Klimková will have some calls to make. Bott could easily play as a right midfielder, while Foster could do the same on the left, so there will be no shortage of possible solutions.

While the Ferns will be waiting anxiously for an update on the nature of regular left midfielder Olivia Chance’s knee injury, the overall feeling coming out of their draw with Iceland was one of progress being made, even if they needed to test Iceland’s goalkeeper, Telma Ívarsdóttir, more often.

Their next match is a rare outing against an African opponent in world No 42 Nigeria, who will play in group B at the World Cup alongside Australia, Canada and the Republic of Ireland.

After ending their goal drought against Iceland, it’s imperative the Ferns go one step further and get a much-needed win.