WSL preview: Clubs had stars in their eyes but now they’re building brighter futures

Damaging short-termism is being ditched in favour of long-term planning and stability as top-flight clubs find the key to success ahead of the 2021/22 season, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.

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In years to come, we will look back on the 2020/21 season and find it hard to imagine that so many huge stars played in the WSL at one time. And that there was no one even there to watch them. The quirk of the coronavirus pandemic that saw US superstars flood into the WSL on short-term deals has ended as quickly as it began. Immediately, the landscape of the WSL feels altered with teams once again focused on squad building as opposed to quick fixes. This season looks like the year where those with a plan will be separated from those without.

The arrival of the Americans appealed to some teams more than others. Both Chelsea and Arsenal steered clear of bringing in short-term solutions, worried about them disrupting the balance of the squad or leaving them in the lurch. Chelsea had been burnt before when Crystal Dunn left after just one season in order to have the visibility required to be selected for the US Women’s National Team.

Manchester City, meanwhile, added Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle, and then in January, Abby Dahlkemper. Mewis took to the WSL like a duck to water, seeming to be about a foot taller than any other player in the league, and consequently heading in goals left, right and centre. Lavelle struggled, however, making just three starts, whilst Dahlkemper played for only seven months of her two-and-a-half year contract.

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Out of all the clubs who brought in Americans, Manchester United got the most benefit. The boost of signing Christen Press and Tobin Heath helped legitimise a club that was formed three years ago, and their contributions on the pitch were significant. Manchester United fans will not be forgetting Heath’s goal against Manchester City in a hurry.

Yet with all five of these players having left their clubs, the teams are now forced to fill rather large World Cup-winning holes. United have struggled to get anywhere near replacing the level of talent that has left, whilst City have signed well but now face trying to integrate these players as quickly as possible. All of this shows why the short-term star signings model looks to be drifting away from the WSL.

Instead, clubs are embracing different models to find success in the league.

Squad churn has increasingly become a mark of a lesser team rather than one doing well in the transfer window. It is evidence of short-term thinking spelled out in year-long contracts and player dissatisfaction. Whilst the bottom half of teams in the WSL have huge release lists at the end of the season, the bigger clubs are clearly now looking to keep as many players tied down to contracts as possible, aware of the growing transfer market within women’s football.

Only one team in the top half of the WSL has really recruited significantly this summer and that is Everton.

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Everton showed last summer that they understood the value of shopping in the European market for players, with signings like Ingrid Moe Wold and Nicoline Sorensen elevating their squad quality. They have done the same this year, with recruits from Atletico Madrid, FC Rosengard and Juventus. However, they have also sensibly added players familiar with the WSL like Kenza Dali and Leonie Maier, wary of the adjustment that might be necessary for those who have been playing in a less competitive league.

West Ham also look to be taking a slightly different angle to other teams in the league when it comes to bringing in players. They have had a clear focus this summer on bringing in young talent. They have signed Lucy Parker, a 22-year-old defender who had been at college in the US and was the 16th NWSL draft pick, as well as Brooke Cairns and Grace Garrad from the Everton and Arsenal youth systems respectively. These young prospects have then been supported by more experienced heads like Tameka Yallop and Lisa Evans. How much impact these younger players might have across the season is debatable but the success of Grace Fisk has demonstrated that there is a pathway that can benefit both players and the club

The constant churn of players through teams is not sustainable for women’s football in terms of quality or the players themselves. Job insecurity, constant relocation, and adjusting to new styles of play are just some of the issues that players face when they are on short-term deals. Whether you are a World Cup or Championship winner, the problems created by short-term contracts bring down the level of the game. Increasingly, teams with long-term plans will rise to the top, and this could be the first season where we truly see the best separated from the rest.

Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph

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