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A new era: FAWSL kicks off exciting 2014 campaign

Liverpool won the FAWSL in 2013, but can the Reds repeat? (AP Photo)

The FA WSL 2014 season promises to be the most open ever. And adding to the excitement is the implementation of WSL2, and promotion and relegation.

Last season saw Liverpool Ladies depart from the old English twice-a-week evening training model with their daily training sessions and they reaped the rewards with the first league title.

The whole league has now stepped up with Arsenal and Notts County providing daily training for their squad. Chelsea and new entrants Manchester City also provide full-time training for their professional players while others with work or studying commitments come and train in the evening less regularly. Birmingham, Everton and Bristol now train between three and four times a week, which means the overall fitness and football quality will certainly improve this season.

Let’s start the preview with the title holders:

Liverpool Ladies

They had a quiet winter transfer window, they lost two goalkeepers and  two of their main assets in the title-winning season : Whitney Engen and Louise Fors; both players now ply their trade in Sweden, with Engen soon headed to the NWSL. They also released two fringe players.

Incoming quality has come in abundance with U.S. goalkeeper Libby Stout previously of Yzeure and Cloppenburg. They also welcomed a former WPS title winner with the Western New York Flash in Gemma Davison, who left Arsenal in the mass exodus that happened in the last four months. The England U-23 international and set pieces specialist has arrived from Bristol alongside England U-20 full back Martha Harris. A young Welsh goalkeeper named Gemma Jackson has also signed to provide back-up for Stout.

Last year Liverpool were quite lucky with injuries and Matt Beard was able to more or less select the same 9- 10 outfield players during the season while the goalkeeper positions changed often. This season they have already been hit with two ACL injuries from talented winger Nicole Rolser, who provided so many goals and assists last season, and also for newcomer Lucy Staniforth. As a result of those injures, Liverpool are a little short in numbers and Katie Zelem’s recent collarbone injury in the U-19 qualifiers have left them with barely 18 players. With the Champions League campaign starting in September, expect Liverpool to sign reinforcements during the summer window . Winter leagues players contract’s will run out in June and quality players might be available.

The other English team in the Champions league 2014/15:

Bristol Academy

The 2013 runner-up lost their manager, Mark Sampson, who know manages the England team, Lucy Staniforth to Liverpool, long-standing No. 1 keeper Siobhan Chamberlain to Arsenal and Welsh winger Gwennan Harries, although she did not play last season as she was doing rehabilitation.

Bristol welcomed a new manager in Dave Edmondson, recent W-League winner with Melbourne Victory. The club also added Scottish right back Frankie Brown, defender-turned-midfielder Sophie Ingle from Chelsea and young England hopeful goalkeeper Mary Earps. The new manager has indicated he wants the team to develop a more possession-based attacking football style and looking at what the team produced on Sunday in the FA Cup, they could be serious contenders once again. They surprised everybody last year, so they now need to confirm and do it again and it is no easy feat.

The newcomer in the FA WSL 2014:

Manchester City Women

Their commitment to women’s football and middle-to-long-term targets got them directly into the FA WSL 1 ahead of Doncaster Belles thanks to a solid budget and project. They had a busy transfer window, bringing in 11 players and releasing 14 players from the squad that finished 4th in the old National Division, i.e. the former 2nd level in England.

Manchester City bought international quality in Jill Scott, Tony Duggan, Karen Bardsley, Stephanie Houghton and Kiwi international Betsy Hassett. In addition to those big signings they signed U-23 England starlet Izzy Christiansen and fringe player Jess Holbrook from Liverpool. They also added three players from the English lower divisions: Danielle Young, Stephanie Marsh, and Emma Lipman. Plus, they promoted reserve player Natasha Flint.

The big question mark for City is whether they will be able to compete at the top of the table or if they will be fighting for relegation. After all there is no guarantee that a team that has half of the team training as full-timers and the remaining players in the old way is going to gel quickly. Mention must be made of Hope Solo recent trip to the Etihad Stadium and you do wonder if the power that be at City are looking to bring her in a deal once the WC 2015 is played in Canada. After all wages or transfer fee won’t be an obstacle for the club. (In the fall sources indicated interest, but Solo has a marketing agreement with Man City.)

Overall expectations are quite high for City and the core of English internationals will need to lead by example and help a squad that was average in the second division last time.

Another potential title contender:

Chelsea Ladies

Chelsea have assembled one of the better squads despite a budget that falls in the middle of the pack, and the Blues have the makings of contenders.

Emma Hayes had a complete reshuffle of her squad with six England and Welsh internationals leaving as well as a former England U-23. Incoming are highly-rated Chilean goalkeeper Christiane Endler, Korean playmaker Ji So-Yun, Swedish center back Emma Wilhelmsson. There are also four English players — two from Arsenal in Gilly Flaherty and Katie Chapman — and two from Birmingham in Rachel Williams and Laura Bassett. Also coming in is Dutch winger Jackie Groenen from Duisburg.

As with Man City, Chelsea main’s task will be to make all those new players gel and perform as a team quickly. With the FA WSL 14 games long, there is not much margin for error and teams with two defeats will likely be out of the title race. Arsenal found it hard last season after starting with a defeat and a draw and spent the whole season chasing the leaders before a collapse with two 0-0 home draws. From what I have seen in preseason and on Sunday in the FA Cup, Chelsea will certainly compete for a top three place.

The only English team remaining in the 2013/14 Champions League:

Birmingham City

They had a quiet transfer window with five players leaving: Williams and Bassett to Chelsea, Christiansen to Man City, Rachel Unitt to Notts County and Earps to Bristol. Five players have come in: They promoted 17-year-old Jess Carter and England U-19 goalke-epper Sophie Baggaley, signed England U-20 center back/left back Meg Sargeant, defensive midfielder Remi Allen from Lincoln (who has scored 3 in 3 this season), and Welsh forward Hannah Keryakoplis.

Birmingham have a very young squad mixed with old heads like Karen Carney, Jo Potter and Emily Westwood. They have a huge challenge against Tyresö FF in the next two weekends and the following one will see them receive the Gunners again, this time in the FA Cup. Their defensive organization is their main asset and when you add the pace and creativity of the forwards Carney, Lawley and Linnett, they will certainly be a threat and finish in the top 4.

Another team that has gone the England & England youth only route:

Everton Ladies

Stability and youth promotion are the key words with two players leaving and two coming in, plus many promoted from the reserves/U-17 squad. They lost Duggan and Scott to Manchester City and brought on England U-19 goalie Megan Walsh — who was previously on loan during the second half of the 2013 season — and a Manchester United U-17 player, Gabby George. New Captain Michelle Hinnigan, forwards Nikita Parris and defenders Lindsay Johnson and Fern Whelan will need to lead by example and overall very young team with all the players coming from the United Kingdom.

The new team in the FAWSL:

Notts County Ladies

In a move only seen once in England before when the owners moved Wimbledon’s men’s team to MK Dons, the Lincoln franchise was moved to Nottingham, leaving the Lincoln Ladies team to disappear. They released 10 players and brought in international quality in every position. Goalkeeper Carly Telford, defenders Dunia Susi and Unitt and forward Ellen White are all capped by England. Canadian defensive midfielder Desiree Scott has been signed as well as Scottish center back Rachel Corsie. Former England U-23 and local Katie Holtham have been added. Caitlin Friend, Katie Hoyle and Anna Green have all come from the Australia W-League.

Lincoln had one of the strongest and meanest defense’s last season and they have upgraded their goalkeeper and defenders. The big challenge is to be able to score more goals and keep that defensive strength. With the players training on a daily basis, it is expected to see them do well and gel quickly on the pitch.

Last but not least the most mysterious team of the 2014 season:

Arsenal Ladies

A transition season is in the offing as seen during the Champions League quarterfinals against Birmingham, where the team’s passing and attacking moves where far from the product shown for more than a decade. Manager Shelley Kerr has decided a clear out a certain number of players and to bring new ones and work with those who were responding to her coaching methods. Overall 11 players left (regular and fringe players) during the winter, those include Kim Little to Seattle Reign, Davison, White, Houghton, Gilly Flaherty, Katie Chapman and long-serving players like Ciara Grant and Yvonne Tracy.

Six players have come in: the best goalkepeer on the FAWSL 2011 and 2013 seasons –Chamberlain — World Cup winners Shinobu Ohno and Yukari Kinga, Scottish playmaker Christie Murray and two center backs of different quality. The former England Captain Casey Stoney has arrived in an unexpected move, as bizarre as her previous and sudden departure from the club years ago for personal reasons. Dutch defender/midfielder Anouk Hoogendijk has also signed up and she is familiar with the FA WSL as she played in 2011 with Bristol before moving to Ajax Amsterdam.

The biggest challenge for the Arsenal team is to become a team and reinvent themselves, having lost the core of the team during the winter. The three first official cup games so far have shown that it is still very much work-in-progress. Kelly Smith will be an important part of the rebuilding alongside Jordan Nobbs, who is currently out with a stress fracture injury in her back. All the new players need to integrate quickly in the team style otherwise it might end up with a long and tough season. One 17-year-old player has been promoted directly from the U-17 team to the first team and she might be the leading light in the near-future Leah Williamson.

The FA WSL 2014 will be very open and with a second division being created and promotion relegation happening for the first time, things will be interesting at the top and the bottom of the table. With such a short season of 14 games, teams cannot afford not to hit the ground running and most are far from ready as seen in the FA Women’s Cup last Sunday.


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