By Leo Linden
When Adelaide City folded in the early 2000s, there was a footballing void left in Southern Australia. From out of the ashes rose Adelaide United, and that side, which was founded in 2003, has not looked back since.
With soccer on the verge of extinction in Australia, financial problems dominated the National Soccer League, and after West Adelaide folded in 1999, Adelaide City followed suit just a few years later, leaving a whole region of Southern Australia without a football team. Gordon Pickard, who is still the chairman of the club to this day, acted quickly, however, to pull together some of the pieces left by Adelaide City and combine them with some new faces to create Adelaide United.
From the start, the club was on a complete roller-coaster ride. They somehow managed to perform amazingly in their inaugural season, finishing third in the National Soccer League. There was plenty for the people of Southern Australia to be proud of, but as soon as soccer had once again given them life, it had been taken away, as the league was temporarily disbanded due to the lack of income flowing in.
After a year-and-a-half break, however, the rebranded A-League was introduced for the 2005-06 season, and Adelaide United were a founding member. In the first year, more success followed as the club finished the regular season top of the table (known as Premiers), but couldn’t make it through the playoffs to the Grand Final.
That finish was good enough to qualify for the 2007 AFC Champions League, and though they didn’t make it out of the group stage, it was meaningful experience that they would reap the benefits of quickly.
In their second year in the A-League, United again performed well enough to qualify for Asia’s top club tournament, finishing runners-up in both the regular season and the Finals series. This time, their trip to the continent was highly memorable.
With four wins and two draws in the group stage, Adelaide finished top of the group, which they needed to qualify for the knockout stage (at that point of the AFC Champions League, only the top team in each group made it through). As the No. 6 seed, they first defeated Kashima Antlers of Japan
Furthermore, because Osaka had already qualified for the Club World Cup as hosts (Japan received an automatic place for holding the competition), United got to make the trip to the islands to compete in the 2008 Club World Cup. They defeated Oceania Champions Waitakere United of New Zealand before falling to Gamba Osaka in the quarterfinals, but it was another good performance and learning experience for the young club (they also defeated African champions Al-Ahly in the match for fifth place).
Two years later, they made a return to the continent after again finishing runners-up in both the league and elimination playoffs, but after winning their group, they were defeated in the round of 16 in a wild, extra time affair by Jeonbuk Motors of South Korea.
After that disappointment, the club cooled off quite a bit, dropping all the way down to 10th (last place) in the next season before middling out in the always-changing A-League. Their results then continued to fluctuate from top to bottom.
Two seasons ago, however, the club continued a slow rise towards the elite. A third-place finish in the league was accompanied by United winning the first ever FFA Cup, a new cup competition that encompasses all of Australia (something the country had struggled to do for decades) beginning with over 600 teams. As an A-League squad, Adelaide didn’t enter until the round of 32, but they ran off five straight wins to take home the crown. That season also saw them qualify for the 2016 AFC Champions League, but third place was only good enough for a
The domestic success looked like it was short-lived when Adelaide lost five and drew three in their first eight fixtures of the 2015-16 campaign. They were in dead last after those eight fixtures, but a 14-game unbeaten run brought them from worst to first, and after a tense four-team battle down the stretch, United were able to nick the top spot by a single point and finish as Premiers.
Only half the job was done, however, as Adelaide finished off the season by winning their first ever Finals series, defeating Melbourne City 4-1 in the semifinals and Western Sydney Wanderers 3-1 in the final. It was the first time since the inaugural season that the club finished Premiers and their first time ever winning the Finals series, making for the best domestic campaign in club history.
Those results are good enough to qualify them for the group stage of next year's Champions League, where they will try to again find continental success. Domestically, it's hard to build a dynasty without a ton more revenue than their competitors, and with the A-League’s finances being relatively well spread, that seems unlikely. But Adelaide have come a long way in a very short time, and if they continue to grow, there doesn’t seem to be a ceiling on the emerging squad’s potential.