PNG National Soccer League 2021 Season Preview

With the Papua New Guinea National Soccer League set to kick off on 24th July, we’ve put together a full preview of the fourteen teams involved, including their previous achievements, current squad news, and a prediction as to where they might finish.

Northern Conference

Lae City Dwellers

Potted History
Rising from the ashes of a club that still exists, Lae City Dwellers is what happens when a foreign owner fires a manager who has most of the first team squad in his back pocket. Manager Peter Gunemba has rallied against his sacking from Lae City FC last season and returned to the NSL with a club that has the same name as the previous name of the club he was sacked from. Confused? Join the club. Essentially, this means that Gunemba’s Dwellers will boast key players from Gunemba’s previous successful title victories, such as his own sons Troy and Raymond Gunemba, as well as defensive stalwart Valentine Nelson and ‘keeper Matheson Nasa, but without the financial clout. It also means there’ll be a mightily fierce derby when Dwellers play Lae City, with both sides desperate to assert their dominance over the other and lay claim to being the ‘true’ Lae City side.

Key Player – Raymond Gunemba
Could it really be anyone else? Raymond is a guaranteed starter with his father as manager, and the veteran international has proved he can score goals at the top level of football in the country for years.

Worst Case Scenario
The club finds it difficult to tempt old favourites away from Champions League-bound Lae City FC and ends up with a starting eleven made up of half ageing veterans and half untested youngsters, and they fail to make the impact they clearly want to.

Best Case Scenario
Glorious vindication. They destroy everyone in the conference and roll back the years, marching all the way to the Grand Final before putting the icing on the cake with a victory over Hekari United, sending the fans wild.

Lae City FC

Potted History
Despite the kerfuffle last season following Peter Gunemba’s exit and a mass exodus of players (see above), Lae City FC, owned by Ian Chow and managed by Bob Morris, managed to have a spectacular second half to their season and claim their sixth-successive league title, winning the Minor Premiership and the Grand Final in a clean sweep of domestic honours. With the newly founded Lae City Dwellers now a separate entity, Morris and his boys can return to some sense of normality, and draw on their extensive financial influence and solid core of players to dominate domestically once more. They have further strengthened their already impressive squad, having brought in talented youngsters Jonathan Allen – last season’s Golden Boot winner – and Yagi Yasasa from the withdrawing Vitiaz United, while Nigerian Afonja Jibola has arrived from Fiji to add international experience to their line-up.

Key Player – Stahl Gubag
The former Tusbab Stallions attacker struggled for form after arriving mid-season last year, but if the goalscoring midfielder settles into the season, he could well be key to the club delivering their seventh title in seven years.

Worst Case Scenario
The players who left to Lae City Dwellers actually were key to Lae City’s success, and as a result the club massively disappoints, losing to LCD twice over the course of the season and failing to qualify for the playoffs.

Best Case Scenario
A seventh title. The club does the double over rivals Dwellers and easily qualifies for the playoffs, eliminating Dwellers in the process, before thrashing Hekari in the final.

Morobe United

Potted History
A mainstay in the PNG National Soccer League over the years, Morobe United has endured while other franchises have come, had their moment in the sun, and disappeared forever. The demise of Vitiaz United (for now) has benefitted former runners-up Morobe United, as many of the players from Vitiaz – who were runners-up last season – have defected back to Morobe United, having gone in the other direction ahead of last season. That means goalkeeper Russell Chris is back, as well as midfield maestro Eliud Fugre, while the club have also retained the services of their better players from the last campaign. Eighth place last season was a true disappointment, but the club will be hoping for better this time around thanks to those key reinforcements.

Key Player – Mathew David
David arrived to Vitiaz from Lae City mid-season last year and was a revelation, scoring ten goals in six games between matchdays 10 and 15. He could well fire them into the playoffs this time around.

Worst Case Scenario
The core of the squad simply isn’t strong enough and the side endures another season of struggle, missing out on the playoffs and finishing the season well behind the leading pack.

Best Case Scenario
Fugre masters the midfield and David finishes every chance in sight, leaving the side top of the Northern Conference, before a shock run to the Grand Final culminates in them winning the title they have craved for so many years.

Morobe Wawens

Potted History
Back for a fourth straight year, Morobe Wawens continue to eschew the whole ‘let’s sign experienced players from other NSL clubs’ and instead continue to source their talent locally, using trials and local competitions to find raw talent to develop. It’s an admirable way to run a club, and it does mean that several players by now have a decent amount of top-level domestic experience. The only piece of transfer news is that Graham Berigami has joined from Tusbab Stallions, meaning the squad remains relatively similar to last season, with some new players coming in through the aforementioned trials, and a core of key squad players who will hope to improve on last season’s ninth-placed finish.

Key Player – Joshua Paget
Dallas Namuesh will be key to controlling midfield, but if Wawens are to make any sort of impact this season, they need a consistent goalscorer. 26-year-old Paget scored three last season, showing some decent promise, but more are required.

Worst Case Scenario
Progress continues at a snail’s pace and the club continues to languish at the bottom of the pecking order, with no real sense that things will ever get better following a defeat even to the development side.

Best Case Scenario
Consistency and stability begins to pay off and the club find themselves in a decent run of form, challenging the favourites for a playoff spot and scraping through to a semi-final, where they’re soundly beaten.

Northern Development Team

Potted History
It’s difficult to know what to say about a team that we literally know nothing about – there’s no logo, no official team name, and no information about which players will be playing for the side. The re-introduction of development teams into the competition hearkens back to the years of Besta PNG United, a national development side that competed for many years in the 2010s, and even reached the Grand Final in 2018. That side was responsible for many household names now, particularly Emmanuel Simon and more recently Jonathan Allen, so at the very least it’ll be interesting to see what kind of youngsters might emerge from this side in the years to come.

Key Player – ?

Worst Case Scenario
The youngsters are outclassed at every juncture, lose every single game, score a handful of goals and concede triple figures, and the concept is discarded ahead of next year.

Best Case Scenario
The management actually finds a core of really talented and energetic youngsters, who outrun and outplay the old boys, and somehow manage to sneak into the playoffs.

Sepik FC

Potted History
After a twelve-year absence, Sepik FC are back in the big leagues with a new logo and, more than likely, a set of players we have never seen before in the NSL. The majority of the side, according to the club’s Facebook group, is made up of local futsal talent, so whether or not they can convert their futsal skills into a successful NSL football team remains to be seen. In their only other NSL appearance, the side finished 7th in the 2008–09 season, picking up three victories in the competition including a win over that year’s runners-up, Rapatona. They will be hoping to do a little better this time around, although the playoffs are probably out of reach.

Key Player – ?

Worst Case Scenario
This ‘new’ team suffers from an obvious lack of experience and they are soundly thrashed by most of the big names. They struggle to overcome the development side as well and finish rock bottom of the conference.

Best Case Scenario
The fresh young stars of the side bring some much needed new talent to the NSL, with a couple of key players standing out before being snapped up by bigger clubs. The side manages a respectable finish in the conference.

Tusbab Stallions

Potted History
Now entering their third successive season in the NSL, ‘more than just a football club’ Tusbab Stallions boast support from sponsors and fans outside PNG, but have thus far not quite lived up to that potential in terms of league performance. After a tough first season, the side almost made it to the playoffs last season, sitting comfortably fourth at the halfway stage, before their best and brightest talents were snapped up by big boys Lae City, and they were unable to maintain that form into the second half of the season, eventually finishing 6th. This year, Madang’s sole representative at NSL level will be hoping to finally get through the whole season without fading dramatically in the final weeks.

Key Player – Ricky Wadunah
The 20-year-old midfielder is key to Tusbab’s successes, and demonstrates an intelligence and knowledge of the game that belies his young years. He is able to dictate the tempo of the game and spray delicious passes out wide or through the middle, and is the heartbeat of the team – they are often lost without him.

Worst Case Scenario
Same old story. An excellent start leads to several players coming under the radar, with mid-season seeing all of these players disappear off to bigger and better things. The club collapses in the second half of the season and must deal with another failure to reach the playoffs.

Best Case Scenario
Ricky Wadunah, alongside younger brother Jason, grow and mature into their midfield roles and light up the conference yet again, allowing Stallions to dominate possession in every game and secure a playoff place with ease before the regular season is even finished.

Southern Conference

Central Dabari

Potted History
With a new name and a new logo, Central Dabari are returning to the NSL after a one-year absence. The club, based in Central Province, are an intriguing prospect, as their players have generally come from outside of the player pool we might expect from a Port Moresby-based team. In 2019, they finished 5th in the Southern Conference, a little ways off the playoff spots after a late dip in form, with players such as captain Patrick Nota and midfield maestro Sebastian Kopi key to their good form in the early stages of the season. It remains to be seen how many of these players have been retained ahead of this season, but the club have a year of experience behind them and could well mount a challenge for the second playoff spot behind Hekari, if they play their cards right.

Key Player – Karo Iga
If he’s still with the club, Karo Iga will be Central’s main man up front this season. He is often lethal in front of goal, and will need to be kept well-fed with scoring opportunities if Central are to have any hope of challenging the big guns.

Worst Case Scenario
Zero progress. Central Dabari’s new logo and name doesn’t instantly make them title contenders, and they languish in the mid-table of the Conference for the majority of the season.

Best Case Scenario
A surprise playoff push. The side clicks from day one, and they record some upsets en route to a somewhat surprising second-placed finish in the division, before falling in the playoffs to a strong Northern franchise.

Gulf Komara

Potted History
Gulf Komara are slowly becoming one of the veteran sides of Papua New Guinea football, as they are now entering what will be their sixth successive campaign. They first took part in the competition in 2015–16, when the league last had a format like the one ahead of us this year, and finished 4th in the Southern Conference under the name of Erema FC. They joined several clubs in breaking away from PNGFA in 2017, and actually won the 2018 edition of the breakaway league ahead of Hekari and Morobe United. Last season was probably their most significant yet, with the side finishing 4th in both the regular season and the playoffs, and with several breakout stars emerging towards the end of the season. With reports suggesting they have retained the majority of their squad from last year, as well as securing the services of experienced midfielder Amon Meki, they might feel as though if they don’t make the playoffs, it’ll go down as a disappointment.

Key Player – Jordan Kaven
Attacking midfielder Kaven was key to Komara’s campaign last time around, scoring five goals across the season including three in the crucial final day 5–0 victory over Star Mountain which guaranteed their playoff spot.

Worst Case Scenario
A step backwards. Komara start sluggishly and can’t find their stride for the majority of the season, and a sprightly new side opens up a lead in the playoff race which the Gulf-based side cannot overturn.

Best Case Scenario
Komara return to the heights they reached in that 2018 National Premier League-winning season and pip Hekari to the conference championship, before a valiant run to the playoff final ends in defeat against one of the Lae sides.

Hekari United

Potted History
What is there to say about Hekari United that hasn’t already been said? The club were the first side outside of Australia and New Zealand to win the OFC Champions League all the way back in 2009–10 – that feat has only recently been repeated by Hienghène Sport of New Caledonia – and were the winners of the first eight editions of the PNG NSL. However, recent years have been more lean for the most famous side from the country, and aside from the 2017 breakaway league title, they haven’t won anything since 2014. Last year was arguably their best chance in recent years, following all the turmoil in Lae, but they slipped up in the playoffs against Vitiaz on penalties and had to settle for third place. Jerry Allen won’t be there this year, so it’s down to head coach Erickson Komeng to deliver Hekari fans that ninth title they’ve been dreaming of for years.

Key Player – Kolu Kepo
If Hekari are to win the title, lighting-quick striker Kepo needs to have an incredible season. All of the key attributes are there – he is faster than most other players in the country and can finish well – but some fine-tuning is needed to help him become one of Papua New Guinea’s all-time great strikers alongside Gunemba and Davani.

Worst Case Scenario
Anything but the title.

Best Case Scenario
Glorious victory. Hekari blast through the much weaker Southern Conference barely breaking sweat, while the Northern sides take chunks out of each other during the regular season. Hekari emerge into the playoffs fresh and focussed, and decisively win a ninth title.

Port Moresby Strikers

Potted History
Another club re-entering the league with a new club – although no new logo, as yet – Port Moresby Strikers are predominantly a youth development side which has never really shown much promise when it comes to competing at the top level of domestic competition. Their best season was their debut season, in 2018, when they finished 5th out of seven sides – this was, by the way, the final season before the league reunification, meaning that the quality of the field wasn’t particularly high that year anyway. Two years ago they finished bottom of the Southern Conference with just one win from fourteen games – which isn’t particularly promising.

Key Player – Ishmael Pole
Hekari United’s number one ‘keeper from last season, Ishmael Pole, has, together with former Hekari teammate Patrick Aisa, joined the Strikers for the upcoming season. What has inspired this shock switch to a far inferior side remains to be seen, but if Pole can recapture the form he showed last time around, the club will have a very safe pair of hands between the sticks.

Worst Case Scenario
The three Hekari signings do little to make up for the lack of experience in the young squad. The side struggle to find their footing and finish near the bottom of the conference.

Best Case Scenario
A strong early start occurs, with Pole a wall in goal and Aisa showing experience and nous up front, and the side are early challengers for a playoff place before eventually just falling short in the final weeks.

Southern Development Team

Potted History
As with the Northern Development Team, it’s difficult to know what to say about a team that we literally know nothing about. As yet there are no official squad lists, and it is unclear whether there will be any players who have previous experience at NSL level in either of the two development squads. However, it does give some talented youngsters a chance to shine in some big games, and while there’s little to no hope for the successes of the team itself, we’d love to see some fairy stories of young boys from local villages being picked up by the big boys over the course of the season.

Key Player – ?

Worst Case Scenario
The youngsters are outclassed at every juncture, lose every single game, score a handful of goals and concede triple figures, and the concept is discarded ahead of next year.

Best Case Scenario
The management actually finds a core of really talented and energetic youngsters, who outrun and outplay the old boys, and somehow manage to sneak into the playoffs.

Star Mountain

Potted History
Last season wasn’t a disaster for Star Mountain, and it certainly had its moments. The shock 2–1 victory over Hekari United which essentially denied them the Minor Premiership was something to behold, but coach Percy Mataio then left the club for FC Bougainville, and the side returned to mid-table mediocrity shortly afterwards. The second season finish of 7th certainly was an improvement from their 7th-placed finish in the Southern Conference in 2019, but there still seems to be a long way to go before this relatively new side starts challenging for playoff and eventually title honours at the end of the season. They will be hoping to not just make up the numbers, but everything suggests that’s exactly what they’ll be doing.

Key Player – Basil Jofari
Jofari, alongside fellow FC Bougainville teammate Eaka Philemon, have migrated to Star Mountain due to Bougainville’s absence from this year’s competition. Jofari showed a lot of promise in midfield and in attack last season, and could be a shrewd addition to the squad.

Worst Case Scenario
A step backwards. The club doesn’t build on their previous experience and fails to make an impact on the Southern Conference, losing more games than they win – by a significant margin – and finishing bottom, or close to it.

Best Case Scenario
The side enjoy a fine run of form and score goals galore to propel the side into playoff contention. A switch to a defensive stance in the final few games sees them actually sneak into the playoffs, before they are soundly beaten by a Lae-based side in the semi-finals.

Tavur FC

Potted History
Tavur FC are a reincarnation of the WNB Tavur side that we saw way back in the 2013 edition of the competition. The side, based on New Britain Island, came 7th out of eight sides in that particular season, but have since been competing in local and regional competitions. Not much is known about the player pool that is available to them – there’s a chance they may draw from the players who were at West Tribe in the 2019 edition, the only other side from West New Britain that have taken part in the NSL recently. Goalkeeper Alken Karapa was a stand-out performer in West Tribes’ playoff defeat to Hekari United in that season, so there’s a chance he may appear, but this is pure speculation. In reality, we know next to nothing about who will be in the squad and how they will perform.

Key Player – ?

Worst Case Scenario
The side shows little to no promise and is heavily thrashed by the likes of Hekari and Komara, and finish well down the table.

Best Case Scenario
The side gather together the best of New Britain and form a team to be proud of, making a decent push for the playoffs before ultimately missing out.

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