The 2023/24 WSL season preview - can Chelsea retain the title and will Man Utd challenge again?

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The new WSL season kicks off this weekend - we’ve got a full preview with everything you need to know about all 12 teams as Chelsea look to retain their title.

It’s a big weekend in the world of women’s football, as the Women’s Super League finally returns along with many of the stars of England’s run to the World Cup final – and quite a few of the best players from the rest of the world, come to that.

Can Sam Kerr propel Chelsea to a fifth successive title? Or will one of the chasing pack finally overhaul Emma Hayes’ superb side? To make sure you’ve got the crib notes handy should you need to show your knowledge of the WSL off to your friends any time soon, we’ve written up and quick guide to each of the 12 teams competing in what promises to be another extremely tense race to the title.

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Arsenal

Arsenal were brutally hobbled by injuries last season, with key players such as England captain Leah Williamson, Ballon d’Or runner-up Beth Mead and star striker Vivienne Miedema all missing for months on end with cruciate ligament injuries – and as a result they finished a fairly distant third behind Chelsea and Manchester United. Things haven’t gotten off to a great start this year either, with the Gunners shockingly dumped out of the Champions League in qualifying by Paris FC.

But Jonas Eidevall has recruited well this summer, with the free signing of United’s Alessia Russo headlining a slew of smart acquisitions which also includes Spanish World Cup winner Laia Codina and Amanda Ilstedt, the defender who scored four goals for Sweden in Australia and New Zealand over the summer. With their injured players also gradually making their way back to fitness, they could well be serious title contenders so long as they can keep pace in the early stages of the season.

Aston Villa

Led by last year’s leading goalscorer Rachel Daly, Villa finished as the “best of the rest” behind the big four last year and could easily be a force to be reckoned with. The experience of Jordan Nobbs and Lucy Staniforth, combined with the exciting addition of 22-year-old forward Ebony Salmon from Houston Dash, means they have plenty of steel in midfield and some firepower up front as well. A title challenge is probably too much to ask for, but they could easily spring a few upsets along the way.

Their preparation has, however, been rather disrupted by an unfortunate spat over their shirts. Castore made the same kit for the men and women this year, and the men’s side have complained about the tops holding on to sweat and leaving them laden down and looking like participants in a wet t-shirt contest. You can imagine why the women’s squad would be less than keen to use the same gear, and you have to wonder how such an absurdly sweaty outfit ever made it past quality control.

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Brighton & Hove Albion

Brighton slid from mid-table to near-relegation last season, eventually surviving by five points ahead of Reading, and there was chaos in the dugout after the hugely experienced former England coach Hope Powell left in October – she eventually became the first of four managers to try and steer the Seagulls to safety.

The late-season appointment of Melissa Phillips helped them to stave off relegation with two badly needed wins, and there’s some hope that the improved form they showed under the 35-year-old could continue into the new campaign – but she will have to work her magic with a very different squad this time around, with 10 new faces following a huge clearout. 21-year-old forward Katie Robinson is the one to watch, with the winger earning a call-up to the Women’s World Cup squad, although she didn’t get onto the field of play. It’s hard to predict where Brighton will finish, but the general mood is one of optimism.

Bristol City

The winners of last season’s Championship, Bristol City return to the top table having been relegated in 2021 and will hope to overcome the odds in surviving without the help of the kind of funding that a men’s team in the Premier League can provide – Leicester City are the only other WSL team attached to an EFL club.

The team have a youthful look, with 20-year-old Welsh international Carrie Jones among the new arrivals, while 18-year-old centre-back Brooke Aspin is another huge prospect that the Vixens will be pinning their hopes on. The gulf between WSL and Championship is such that a tough season would beckon even with a more experienced squad, but there is plenty of talent in the team.

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Chelsea

Emma Hayes’ serial champions, who won the double in 2022/23, have been the dominant force in English women’s football for the past few years, but there’s no doubt that the gap is narrowing with Arsenal always a threat and the two Manchester clubs pumping increased resources into their teams.

As well as stiffening competition, they will also have to contend with the loss of Pernille Harder and Magdalena Eriksson, who left together for Bayern Munich, although the experienced Canadian international defender Ashley Lawrence should help there, as will the addition of England goalkeeper Hannah Hampton and the continued advancement of superstar-in-the-making Lauren James. They ended up taking the title by just two points last season, and may find it tough to do it again – but betting against Hayes has always been foolish in the extreme.

Everton

Following a couple of rather chaotic seasons that would be familiar to fans of the men’s team, Everton stabilised last season and ended up finishing sixth, seven points ahead of rivals Liverpool, and the hope will be for more of the same – but the squad looks a little thin on the ground in terms of depth and the loss of defender Gabby George to Manchester United on deadline day will be a painful one.

The additions of Irish World Cup star Heather Payne and Italian international striker Martina Piemonte will help to ease that pain somewhat, and Piemonte, who went at a goal every other game in two years at AC Milan before moving to Merseyside, could be crucial to their hopes of another solid season.

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Leicester City

Leicester have avoided relegation by narrow margins twice in a row and will likely be gearing up for another tough campaign as they look to avoid returning to the Championship, which they won back in 2021. They had looked dead and buried last season when they were seven points from safety coming up to the turn of the year, but they turned things around after Willie Kirk took the reigns and the former director of football has overseen something of a squad overhaul after ensuring survival on the final day.

The return of Janina Leitzig from Bayern Munich after a successful loan spell with be especially heartening for the Foxes, while the signing of Deanne Rose, the lightning-quick Canadian striker who missed most of last season through injury, could prove astute – but the goal will be survival, pure and simple, and anything better than survival by a narrow margin would be seen as a substantial success.

Liverpool

The 2022 Championship winners have been underfunded by the club’s hierarchy for years, but there’s hope that the board are beginning to take the women’s team seriously following an impressive seventh-place finish last year – and the fact that they have taken over Melwood, the former men’s training ground, could make a big difference to their ability to prepare.

The joint winner of last year’s Women’s Football Awards Player of the Year, 22-year-old Missy Bo Kearns, is the star, and her goalscoring exploits from midfield will be key if Liverpool want to enjoy another strong season. Closing the gap to the big four should be the long-term goal, but if the Reds can overtake Everton then that would represent a pretty good start.

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Manchester City

Fourth last season, Gareth Taylor’s team missed out on Champions League qualification following the departures of star players like Lucy Bronze and Keira Walsh and the retirement of Ellen White, but they have the funding to put together a strong team – and the signing of Dutch star Jill Roord looks like a good step in the right direction as they battle for a place at Europe’s top table.

Jamaican star Khadija Shaw’s goals and hold-up play will be key if they are to do that, while Lauren Hemp, Chloe Kelly and Alex Greenwood form a formidable cast of England stars. The goal has to be to finish in the top three this season, and for the fourth member of the big four to close the gap on Chelsea and establish themselves as title contenders for the future.

Manchester United

Losing Lauren James, Ona Batlle and Alessia Russo in quick succession has badly hurt United’s squad, and the likely future departure of Mary Earps, arguably the best goalkeeper in the world, will hang over them too as they try to follow up on an impressive second-place finish last season. The addition of World Cup Golden Boot winner Hinata Miyazawa could help morale out, but there is a sense that United are more likely to slip this season than sustain another title challenge.

They aren’t helped by United’s ownership, whose care and attention to detail on the matter of the women’s team was neatly demonstrated by them inviting former coach Geoff Konopka to be a guest at a WSL game despite his conviction for child sex offences. United still have a strong squad with players like Nikita Parris offering plenty of attacking threat, but they have a lot to overcome if they’re to run Chelsea close once more.

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Tottenham Hotspur

Ninth last year, Spurs are looking to invest their way towards something more than also-ran status – and they broke their transfer record in January to sign Beth England, now club captain, who went on to score 12 goals in 12 games to keep her club well clear of the drop.

New coach Robert Vilahamn, who arrives after impressing at BK Häcken in Sweden, is highly ambitious and has said his aim is to secure Champions League football in two years’ time, which would represent a huge jump for the club. He will be able to call upon new recruits including Swiss international defender Luana Bühler and Barbora Votíková, the colourful former Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper who is also one of the most successful YouTubers in the Czech Republic. Long term, the hopes may be high for the women’s side, but a respectable mid-table placing would probably do just fine for now.

West Ham United

Another team with a history of poor treatment by those in charge of the men’s club, it’s only five years since they were promoted to the WSL and the men’s club deigned to allow the team to use their name in full– but matters have improved somewhat and the club are now a solid fixture in the women’s top flight, with some fine players on their roster.

Australia goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold Scotland’s Lisa Evans, the experienced and versatile wide player who used to play for Arsenal, are among the star names, but there will also be high hopes for summer signing Riko Ueki, the striker who was one of the stars of Japan’s World Cup run and who scored when they stunned Spain in the group stages. Whether her goals will be enough to see West Ham take a step up remains to be seen, and in the short term another season in the middle of the pack is the most likely result.

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