Soccer

Women’s Super League preview: Can growth off the pitch be followed by another close title race?

Leah Williamson and Millie Bright lift the Euro 2022 trophy after England’s victory over Germany on 31 July

“We want them to come to WSL games,” England captain and Arsenal defender Leah Williamson said just minutes after beating Germany, instantly understanding the importance of her team’s moment. For now, England’s overall success, which was followed by the news of their October friendly against the world champions the United States being sold out within 24 hours, appears to have been replicated. Williamson’s Arsenal have now sold 45,000 tickets for next weekend’s north London derby against Tottenham, in what will be a WSL record.

There has, though, been an early blow. The postponement of football following the death of Queen Elizabeth II arguably impacted the WSL more than the Premier League on what was set to be a grand opening to the season. Chelsea were scheduled to get their title defence under way at Stamford Bridge, a first match there in three years, while Tottenham were set to open the season against Manchester United at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Rearranging those fixtures in their intended stadiums is not impossible but it may prove difficult, and the sense of a triumphant return following the Euros could be lost.

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At least several of the country’s biggest stadiums have also been opened up. Aston Villa and Leicester are at home this weekend, while Liverpool, Manchester City and United will play matches at Anfield, the Etihad and Old Trafford respectively over the opening weeks of the season.

On the pitch, attention returns to a league that benefited from an injection of unpredictability last season. Clashes between the top teams have underlined its quality but it was results such as bottom-side Birmingham’s victory over Arsenal and Reading’s win over Chelsea that opened up the title race. That said, Chelsea still reeled off nine wins in a row following February’s goalless draw against Arsenal. In a 12-team league, those results against title rivals remain that bit more significant to its outcome.

Chelsea’s Sam Kerr has won the WSL golden boot two years in a row

Chelsea will be favourites to retain their crown, even if the challenge facing Hayes to maintain her team’s standards gets harder every year. Although there is plenty of focus on England’s stars ahead of the new season following the success of Euro 2022, it is the Australian striker Kerr who remains the WSL’s brightest star and carries the biggest impact. Kerr swept the individual awards last season after scoring 20 league goals and highlighting her knack for producing the sensational at vital times, much like Chelsea’s ability under Hayes to simply get over the line. As well as the star quality of Kerr, Fran Kirby and Pernille Harder, they have skilled grafters in Guro Reiten, Erin Cuthbert and Millie Bright.

They remain the winning machine that Arsenal will be desperate to stop. Vivianne Miedema has extended her stay for one more season, in a huge boost to not just the Gunners but the WSL as a whole, while Beth Mead will be looking to take another step forward after winning the golden boot at the Euros. Eidevall will again have strength in his forward positions but is likely to find them more to his liking as striker Stina Blackstineus prepares for her first full season. Williamson is now one of the league’s most recognisable players and has the experience to lead her team to another breakthrough, over three years on from Arsenal’s last title.

Arsenal’s title challenge will again lean heavily on stars Vivianne Miedema (centre) and Beth Mead

Over the final weeks of last season, Manchester City showed form to suggest they could make it a three-way fight. But while Gareth Taylor’s side were decimated by injuries over the first few weeks of last season, they have now been torn apart by departures. Walsh’s move to Barcelona came a day before the transfer deadline and followed the exits of Lucy Bronze, Georgia Stanway and Caroline Weir, while Ellen White has retired.

They may be the most intriguing side to watch over the first few weeks of the season and it could leave a place in the top three open for the first time in eight years. Manchester United fell short last season but feature two of England’s biggest stars of the summer in Alessia Russo and Ella Toone, both aged 23 and ready to take the next step in their development and impact as a partnership. Mark Skinner’s side have since added depth to their attacking options in Spain forward Lucia Garcia and England’s Nikita Parris.

City, now without Keira Walsh, will face competition from United in the battle for a top-three finish

Beneath the top four, there has perhaps been a lack of investment or ambition needed to bridge the gap. It would not take much, relatively, for clubs already spending millions of transfer fees in the Premier League. Speaking of which, Liverpool’s promotion back from the Championship and Birmingham’s relegation means that Reading are the only club without a Premier League presence left in the WSL – the lowest figure since its inaugural season in 2011.

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There is another sub-plot here, away from the pitch. The Euros bring opportunity but also pressure for the FA, which looks after the WSL, to capitalise on the summer success. It comes amid calls, including from Hayes, that the WSL could benefit from the Premier League’s “expertise” as the women’s game looks to build on the initial years of professionalism and the injection of interest a turning point like Euro 2022 could bring.

Success off the pitch has to be a continuation of the record-breaking numbers and the game’s wider growth. On it, though, it will be again measured by much finer margins.

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