What impact will the increase of foreign players have on the WSL?

Fears that an influx of footballers from abroad will limit opportunities for homegrown talent are misguided, argues Jessy Parker Humphreys.

This summer’s transfer window saw an unprecedented amount of attention placed on international signings arriving in the Women’s Super League. From World Cup to Champions League winners, teams throughout the league took the opportunity, created in part by coronavirus, to snap up players who might not ordinarily have been available.

The resultant makeup of the WSL has led to concerns being raised that English players might end up disadvantaged. The worry that foreign players are stunting opportunities for English ones has dominated the Premier League for many years. The FA are clearly keen to head this fear off early in women’s football, as they announced in September that from next season a homegrown quota will be in place in the WSL and Women’s Championship.

But are there actually more foreign players arriving in the league than before?

Looking at data from the past five seasons of the WSL, the number of non-English players in the league has certainly climbed.

Much of that climb can be explained, however, by the growth in the number of teams in the WSL.

In fact, it shows that the number of foreign players in the Women’s Super League has actually declined this season. While the number is likely to be slightly artificially deflated due to teams having only played a maximum of five games this season so far – for example, Alex Morgan was not included in our data as she is yet to play for Tottenham – it is unlikely to dramatically increase over the next six months.

The picture is slightly different if you exclude players from the home nations (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) as well as England from the data set, but even that number has plateaued.

The belief that the number of foreign players has been drastically increasing is likely to have come from the heightened media attention and the stature of the players arriving. The idea that the foreign players coming into the league are ‘better’ than the ones who had arrived before generates more concern that they will push English players out of teams.

To a certain extent, that has been true. Even though the number of players from abroad has not gone up significantly, there has been a steady increase in the proportion of minutes played by those players over the past five seasons. However, roughly half of all minutes in the WSL this season have still been played by English footballers.

Regardless of the number of players from abroad coming into the WSL, there are a couple of reasons unique to women’s football as to why the fear that they will impact the chances of English players is misguided.

Competition for places can improve players and women’s football currently has a lot of room. The Women’s Super League only has 12 teams in it, with the Women’s Championship, the league below, full of teams considerably upping their investment.

Leicester City turned their team professional this season, whilst Liverpool will feel like they still deserve to be in the top tier of women’s football. Similarly, Sheffield United have consistently impressed at that level and look ready to take the step up. Their former manager Carla Ward said earlier this year that, “there’s some exceptional talent in the Championship. There’s just nowhere for them to go.”

Clearly, there is intent from clubs to compete in the WSL, but in order to do so these teams will need to bolster their squads with players who have experience of top-level football. Given the lack of a draft system in England, persuading players from abroad to come over is the best way to do this. There have been significant concerns for many seasons that the gap between the top and bottom of the WSL is too large. Discouraging foreign players from joining teams may exacerbate this as there are currently simply not enough top-level English players to create a fully competitive larger league.

English women’s football also has a unique mechanism through which to develop its young talent: the American college system.

Embed from Getty Images

This season in particular has seen a crop of players who left England three years ago to join an American college team return. The results have been impressive. Sandy MacIver, who spent three years at Clemson, picked up Player of the Match in the FA Cup Final. Alessia Russo returned early from North Carolina to join Manchester United and arguably has shined brighter than Christen Press and Tobin Heath. Grace Fisk and Lotte Wubben-Moy have also looked assured at West Ham and Arsenal, respectively.

The FA may have been motivated to bring in home-grown quotas in order to stem the flow of English players to America. Yet the attraction of being able to play high-level football at the same time as getting a degree, often on a scholarship, surely extends beyond simply worrying about game time in England. Regardless, the option being open to players stems the bottleneck for development which is seen in men’s football, as huge numbers of academy products compete for places.

Ultimately, the fear that foreign players are disadvantaging English players in the WSL does not hold up. The number of players arriving is not dramatically increasing and home nations’ players still play the vast majority of minutes in the league. What is more, the FA is in control of the size of the league, which there are calls to expand so they can increase the number of places available for English players to play high-level football. The desire to subdue or limit the number of foreign players in the WSL will only serve to bring down the competitiveness of the league. That would do more to hinder English players than the existence of foreign players ever could.

Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph

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