• Charles Olney

WSL Preview: Can Chelsea defend their title?

The English Women's Super League (WSL) kicks off tomorrow. With international access to the FA Player, and with NBC now offering significant exposure across their networks, a lot of eyes from around the world are likely to be checking in on the league. Especially since England has been the key destination for major international transfers this summer. Some of that is a product of the utter failure of political and social institutions in the US to manage COVID-19—which led plenty of American-based players to seek temporary or permanent moves. But it’s also down to growing commitment from WSL sides to truly invest in the league.

Of course, a busy summer transfer market doesn’t always translate into excitement during the season itself. But chances are high that folks tuning into the WSL will find plenty to watch.

What follows is a brief rundown for each team in the league, including a predicted final table position and a key player whose performances may go a long way to determining their ultimate finish.

I would not recommend taking those predictions too seriously. In particular, I’m far less convinced about the specific order than I am by the rough groupings. To my eyes, the WSL contains four stable tiers, each with a decent gap on either side.

First, you have the three title contenders. Second, three solid squads who won’t seriously be able to challenge for the top of the table but should have plenty to stay in the top half. Third, two teams with serious holes that should still be far too good to face a real relegation fight. Finally, four teams whose main priority has to be avoiding the drop—and who will see anything else as gravy.

Those divisions aren’t set in stone, of course. Maybe a group of young players will all take a step forward together. Maybe a team will punch below its weight. And I certainly hope to be proven wrong here. Stratification is boring, after all. But my honest prediction is that we’ll probably see the table separate along basically the same lines as it did last year.

1. Chelsea

Last year’s champions probably already had the best squad in the league. Then they added Pernille Harder. Oh, and Fran Kirby seems to finally be healthy. It’s absurd.

Key player: Magda Eriksson. The only possible flaw in this team is in defense. Millie Bright is more prone to errors, but Eriksson is the rock that holds them together. If she can maintain her performance level, it will take a lot for anyone to beat them.

2. Manchester City

City ran very close last year, and have done plenty of strengthening themselves. I only worry slightly for their ability to gel together under a new coach.

Key player: Sam Mewis. You will not hear me say a single bad word about Rose Lavelle. But I think people are missing the boat on who was the actual critical American who signed for City this summer. Lavelle can do magic, but Mewis has the potential to absolutely control a game in every sense. If she can play for City like she did for North Carolina, this team can beat anyone in the world.

3. Arsenal

I have the Gunners third, but only just. The biggest problem here is the standard one: they simply don’t have the squad depth to match the other title challengers. However, they won’t be in Europe, which will ease the burden a bit. And they have unbelievable attacking talent, and by far the best defensive playmakers—including some very nice summer acquisitions at fullback. They can be exposed if you hit them right, but on their day…watch out.

Key player: Vivianne Miedema. Sometimes it’s the obvious one. They can score without her, but if they want to put opponents away, Miedema is the key.

4. Manchester United

United did well to bolster their roster, and should be able to take a step up from a strong first season in the league last year. The only real problem here is that they’ll almost certainly take a smaller step forward than the three teams ahead of them. It’s a young squad and with some development and good business, they may be challenging for Champions Leagues spots soon. But it’s hard to see that happening this year. That's probably true even if the rumored signings of Christen Press and Tobin Heath come true, though it would certainly help to add two world class forwards.

Key player: Lucy Staniforth has been a bit of a late bloomer, but is still only 27. And she’ll be relishing the opportunity to finally play for a big team. If she can take another step forward, that could be the key that unlocks the United attack, giving players like Jackie Groenen, Lauren James, Katie Zelem, and Jessica Sigsworth more to work with.

5. Everton

They lost their best player from last year, Chloe Kelly, but have probably done enough to overcome that loss. Valerie Gauvin is a wonderful forward, who could more than replace Kelly’s goals. And Ingrid Moe Wold is a fantastic addition who will bring precision to the backline.

Key player: I’ll cheat a bit here and name Willie Kirk, their coach. Ultimately, the reason I have them fifth is that I think Kirk has shown an ability to set his players up to succeed. They’ll certainly be leaning heavily on Gauvin for goals, but it’s really more about the team setup than any individual.

6. Reading

A solid team last year that knew how it wanted to play and almost always were able to execute. But they often looked a little lost for attacking ideas. Hopefully, the addition of Jess Fishlock will help to solve that problem. And they also did excellent business bringing in Erin Nayler who is a world class keeper. The problem: despite some excellent business, it’s not clear they improved enough to make a difference in the table.

Key player: Fara Williams. Jess Fishlock is the big name coming in, but this team still lives and die with the incomparable Williams

7. West Ham

West Ham’s two leading scorers in 2019-2020 were Adriana Leon and Martha Thomas. It certainly should help to get Rachel Daly in on loan. But still...their two leading scorers last year were Adriana Leon and Martha Thomas.

Key player: Grace Fisk has the potential to be a world class defender. She might already be a world class defender. Given the aforementioned concerns about scoring goals, they’ll need to be far more solid in defense. A full season from Fisk could be just what the doctor ordered.

8. Tottenham Hotspur

Spurs put together a very nice opening WSL campaign. They consistently put up a fight against the top three and did enough to keep a tight defense against the weaker competition. They also brought in some solid internationals--including several loans from the NWSL. But this isn't a world-beating defense, and major questions remain about whether they can cultivate a more exciting attack.

Key player: Rianna Dean. If the goal is to generate more exciting attack, Dean is their best chance. She’s probably the only player on the roster with the potential to truly thrill.

9. Aston Villa

Newly promoted, which makes it hard to judge how good this team will be. For one thing, the gap between divisions is enormous. For another, they have conducted a major roster overhaul. On pure talent, this looks like a team that should push for mid-table. The question is whether they find a way to play together quickly. If not, they might end up in a big hole and spend the rest of the season trying to dig out.

Key player: Stine Larsen. She’s a heck of a signing for the newly promoted squad. I’ve been very impressed by her performances for Denmark. Their other big signing, Diana Silva, has scored goals for fun in Portugal, but I’m less convinced of her ability to take a step up.

10. Brighton

I have Brighton in 10th because I couldn’t justify moving up either of the teams below them. That’s pretty much all I’ve got to say here.

Key player: Kayleigh Green. A solid contributor for a team that's going to need plenty of solidity if they want to avoid relegation.

11. Birmingham City

This team punched well above its weight two years ago, but has since been stripped of all its best players. I don’t see much reason for optimism here.

Key player: Rachel Corsie. A smart loan deal to bring in a seasoned international (even if only for four months) with a lot of big game performances. She hasn’t looked anywhere near her best over the past 18 months, but even a slightly dinged Corsie could do a lot to make Birmingham tough to beat.

12. Bristol City

Last year, Liverpool managed to get themselves relegated somehow, but Bristol were the actual worst team in the league. And by a pretty huge margin. Even if they manage to improve, they could easily get relegated simply by losing out on some the crazy luck that kept them afloat. And I don't really see much reason to think they've improved.

Key player: Ebony Salmon. She scored more than half of their goals last year, despite not being a regular starter. At 19, she’s definitely the brightest young talent on the roster.