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English FA WSL kicks-off in April

On April 14, a new era begins for women’s soccer in England with the inaugural games of the FA WSL (The Football Association’s Women’s Super League), a new semiprofessional league. On opening day, the eight clubs will face off, including London and Liverpool derbies:

Birmingham City Ladies FC vs. Bristol Academy Women’s FC

Chelsea Ladies FC vs. Arsenal Ladies FC

Lincoln Ladies FC vs. Doncaster Rovers Belles Ladies FC

Liverpool Ladies FC vs. Everton Ladies FC

The FA WSL is comprised of existing teams from the amateur English Women’s Premier League’s National Division (previously the top level) and Northern and Southern Division leagues (formerly the second tier), among sixteen in total which applied for a two year stint in the new league, committing to higher standards for their organizations. One of the FA’s goals for launching the new entity was to retain some of the top talent of their national teams’ with English clubs rather than have them go abroad to play in semiprofessional leagues (Germany, Norway, Sweden, etc.). Inevitably a few top stars such as Kelly Smith (Boston Breakers) or Eniola Aluko (Sky Blue FC) will play professionally in the United States with WPS clubs, but with this new approach, many of the national team pool players should be able to stay at home. The FA is investing almost US $5 Million—including $110,000 grants to each team–to spur the teams to build better facilities, create better sponsorship plans, and develop career opportunities for female players. ESPN in the U.K. will broadcast games during the first season.

The amateur leagues (Women’s Premier League National Division and Northern and Southern Divisions) will continue to play during the winter while the FA WSL will operate in the summer, finishing in September. The FA WSL will break for nine weeks ahead of the FIFA World Cup in 2011, with a shorter break for the London Olympic Games in 2012. Karen Carney, who played two years in WPS with Chicago Red Stars, told FIFA World that the summer break will be good for the World Cup team players because: “You want to be fresh and just peaking, whereas previously, after the season, you’d go there fit but not match-fit. I think it’s great. Players will be going to the World Cup fit, fresh and sharp. I remember at the last World Cup, [where England went out in the quarterfinals to the U.S.] the problem was that we hadn’t played football for a month or so because it was pre-season, so hopefully with this one we’ll be more match fit.”

England’s amateur leagues have been notorious for its unstable clubs, and despite some being bankrolled by professional men’s teams, there were a constant stream of teams cut loose by their men’s sides over the past decade—including Manchester United, Fulham, Sunderland, Charlton, and Cardiff City. Birmingham City couldn’t invest £75,000 ($150,000) for their women annually when they spent ten times that in transfer fees for average men’s players. Leeds United stopped their support of the women’s side in 2006 and even prohibited them from using their practice facilities. The Leeds women’s team gallantly carried on with a sponsorship arrangement with Leeds Metropolitan University, but was then sued by their former benefactor for continuing to use the men’s logo and team colors. This instability impacted the ability of women’s team to create fan bases, which were poor (a hundred or less) at most games. England forward Lianne Sanderson (who scored five goals in 21 games for Philadelphia Independence this past season) said it was demoralizing, after playing in front of tens of thousands of fans at the 2007 World Cup in China, to return to the Premier League to play, “in front of one man and his dog again.”

The FA WSL is an attempt to finally reverse the governing body’s poor legacy of supporting women’s club soccer—dating back ninety years. In 1921 the FA banned women from playing on fields used by affiliated men’s sides, not just professional clubs but even those used by amateur teams, for fifty years. The FA felt particularly threatened by Dick, Kerr Ladies, a women’s team sponsored by an industrial concern in Preston that drew larger crowds than men’s teams during the World War I years. With the end of hostilities, the Football Association felt they had to protect the men’s professional game. The ban was rescinded in 1971 but the damage was almost irreversible and women players have been receiving scant support and encouragement ever since.

Carney hopes that the new league will be more competitive than the Premier League, a common problem in many top leagues in Europe where a few clubs contend for titles and the rest struggle to compete against them. She found that the differences between “a top team like Arsenal and others was too great.” She explained that: “You want to see talent, skill, flair and passion but you want to see tight games. Hopefully that’s what the Super League can provide.”

Since the teams were existing franchises who have moved up to a higher tier of play, they have had a base of players to draw from, unlike the WPS teams which had to construct their teams and organizations from scratch. A quick look at each team and their prospects for the season:

Arsenal Ladies—The dominant team in the amateur Women’s Premier League for years, Arsenal Ladies are England’s sole UEFA Women’s Champions League (European) champions (2007), have won eight of the last nine league titles since 2000-01 and eleven of seventeen since the FA took charge of women’s football in 1993. In 2007, the Lady Gunners won an unprecedented League, FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA quadruple. Arsenal starts as the early odds-on favorites, building around an experienced core. Katie Chapman, who played last season for Chicago Red Stars, is an important influence in the midfield with over 60 national team appearances.  Forward Rachel Yankey and centerback Faye White are other veteran Three Lions players. Arsenal also will count on two high-scoring Scottish internationals: Julie Fleeting (ex-San Diego Spirit WUSA) and Kim Little. The Republic of Ireland supplies a quartet of goalkeeper Emma Bryne, defenders Yvonne Tracy, Ciara Grant and midfielder Niamh Farey. Yankey played in the W-League in the past with the New Jersey Wildcats while White played at Ottawa Fury and Jayne Ludlow, who has scored over 200 goals for Arsenal during ten years, played with New York Magic. If Arsenal scores as plentifully as they did in the Premier League, they should capture the first FA WSL title in September.

Birmingham City Ladies FC–Birmingham’s most recognizably name to North American followers is English international forward Karen Carney, who scored three goals and 4 assists in 38 games for Chicago Red Stars across two seasons. Forward Dunia Susi played in the W-League with Richmond Kickers. Goalkeeper Marie Hourihan has been capped by England at the U-23 level and striker Steph Curtis is a Republic of Ireland international. Loaded with players who have experience on English youth teams, Birmingham City should make a strong run for a top four finish.

Bristol Academy Women FC–English international goalkeeper Siobhan Chamberlain will be a key factor in whether Bristol Academy finishes in a playoff position. Chamberlain backstopped Vancouver Whitecaps to the 2010 W-League finals, where they lost a close match to Buffalo Flash, now a WPS franchise. Her teammate on the frontline, Ann Marie Heatherson, won the title with the Flash and had seven goals and three assists in nine games. A quartet of internationals from Wales, an improving side within UEFA, play for the side: defender Emma Jones, and midfielders Loren Dykes, Katie Daley and Michelle Green. Bristol’s academy program is first class. They may be a year away from being serious title contenders, but will continue to be a flagship franchise for the development of future players.

Chelsea Ladies FC–Chelsea finished third behind Arsenal during the last two seasons they both competed in the Women’s Premier League and is a legitimate candidate to make the championship final, drawing on their North London rivals for a couple of key pieces. Welsh forward Helen Lander joins from Arsenal where she won two league titles and an FA Cup in her two seasons there. Defender Casey Stoney arrived from Arsenal in 2007 after playing for Chelsea as a teenager, and has over 75 caps for England, including a runner-up medal from the 2009 European Championships in Finland. Lander’s Welsh teammate Kylie Davies, at Chelsea since 2006, should provide stability at centerback. Both Lander and Davies played for England at the youth level before opting for Wales’ senior team. Twenty-six-year-old Hayler Moorwood is a New Zealand international who is expected to be on their 2011 Women’s World Cup squad. Moorwood, a midfielder, also played for Ottawa Fury of the USL’s W-League. Gemma Bonner is an English youth international defender who won an FA Cup (2008) and League Cup (2010) with Leeds United.

Doncaster Rover Belles FC—Doncaster Rover Belles could spring a surprise on the opposition with a top four finish and could even make the championship final, combining a few imports with some English youth internationals. Twenty-five-year-old defender Maria Karlsson joins from former Swedish Damallsvenskan Champion Linkoping FC and is the first player from Sweden to sign for a FA WSL team. The Swedish youth international also played for Kopparbergs/Gothenburg FC in her hometown.

Another import is Kylla Sjoman, a recent graduate of Arizona State University. She qualifies to play for Canada and Finland at the senior level and is a defensive midfielder. She has played for Canada’s youth sides and in the W-League for the Boston Renegades, Ottawa Fury and Vancouver Whitecaps as well as in the WPSL last summer with the Phoenix del Sol. English U-23 international midfielder Katie Holtham has joined from Leeds United and spent last summer with the W-League champion Buffalo Flash. Forward Becky Hall (22) is a promising youth international for England. England youth international defender Amy Turner played the last two years at Hofstra University. Doncaster’s youth will combine with 35-year-old midfielder Vicki Exley, who has collected over 50 caps for England and has been a stallworth for the Belles for 15 years.

Everton Ladies FC—Everton has an experienced squad, particularly in defense, and should finish comfortably in the top three positions. Goalkeeper Rachel Brown played collegiately at the University of Pittsburgh and is the current starter in goal for England. Defenders Lindsay Johnson and Becky Easton have over 40 England caps. They will combine with Rachel Unitt, the 2006 English Women’s Player of the Year. Unitt played for New Jersey Wildcats in 2005 when the won the W-League title and has over 50 caps for England. Midfielder Fara Williams, a current English international, has played for Everton since 2004 and Jill Scott, a goalscoring midfielder who joined the team in 2006, was selected by the players as the top player in 2007/08. Everton has three highly rated midfielders with youth international teams experience for England: Jessica Holbrook, Brooke Chaplen and Amy Kane.

Lincoln Ladies—Lincoln’s franchise is another young side with a core of English youth players. One of the two sides to come from outside the Premier League—Liverpool were the other–the Northern Division side won the League Cup in 2010, defeating Everton and shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the amped-up competition. A few experienced heads will guide the team: goalkeeper Kay Hawke was a former Three Lion international and defender Sophie Bradley is a regular national team selection. Midfielder Sue Smith is the country’s most capped player with 87 and transferred from Leeds after their bid to the FA WSL was not accepted. 2011 may be a year too soon to see Lincoln make a serious run for a title but its young lineup is a prototype of the purpose of the FA WSL, to develop young talent and keep them at home.

Liverpool Ladies—The second side to come from the Northern Division, formerly the second tier of women’s league action, Liverpool has a strong base of players from other home countries, including Welsh international forwards Emily Brown, Cheryl Foster, Hanna Keryakoplis and defender Katie Williams. From Scotland, forward Ruesha Littlejohn and midfield duo Suzanne Lappin and Megan Sneddon are recent arrivals for 2011 from Glasgow City Ladies FC. Another young side, 2011 may be a consolidation year for Liverpool to the FA WSL, acclimatizing to the smaller, more competitive league structure.

Predicted Final 2011 FA WSL Table

1 Arsenal

2 Chelsea

3 Everton

4 Doncaster Rovers

5 Birmingham City

6 Bristol City Academy

7 Lincoln

8 Liverpool

Playoff Final: Arsenal over Chelsea

A few final thoughts on the league’s launch.

Parity on the playing field is vitally important and WPS presents a good model for the new league. Despite LA Sol and FC Gold Pride winning the regular season titles with games to spare in 2009 and 2010 respectively, both seasons saw the final playoff spots determined in the last few games of the season. Players in WPS talk about the fact that any team can win on any day. A more competitive league environment in England will challenge their players, create strong rivalries and attract fan and media attention.

One of the tenants of the FA WSL is to create opportunities in the game for women beyond playing the game. The eight FA WSL teams primarily list male coaches in all of their coaching and management roles, whereas WPS has utilized some female assistant coaches. The FA WSL should focus on bringing more women into these positions as soon as possible.

The long break that the new league is taking around the World Cup is also interesting. WPS is taking a few weeks but most of the leagues in Europe are breaking for two to three months, or ending a few months ahead of the tournament in the case of host Germany. It will be interesting to see how FA WSL attendances after the break compare to before the break. WPS will be faced with the same situation in 2012, with the Olympics in London, losing many players to international duty. Though as a for profit concern, WPS does not have the strong financial backing of its federation as in Europe and cannot simply suspend operations for months at a time, there may be some ideas emanating from Northern Europe in terms of setting schedule breaks for 2012 and beyond.

The English Football Association should be applauded for the increased investment and prioritization of women’s soccer. Hopefully the new league will bring sponsorship, attendance and media attention to support further growth of the game, both at the elite and grassroots level.


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