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Chelsea Ladies FC 2017-18 Season Preview and Viewer’s Guide

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THE STORY UP TO NOW

In 1992, a year after the US Women’s National Team had won their first World Championship (later called the Women’s World Cup), Chelsea Ladies Football Club was brought forth into the world in response to increased demand among the local supporters for a women’s side. This organization would merge with Chelsea Football Club in 2004, just before joining the top flight of women’s English football for the first time. After a rocky first season, the Blues managed to stay up only through a play-off with obnoxious rivals Liverpool, sending the Reds down into the lower league, the dark dimension from which we knew one day they would return. Chelsea Ladies haven’t looked back from that moment, consecutively finishing eighth, fifth, and then third in two successive seasons. However, despite the relative successes of the squad on the pitch, the Ladies saw their budget cut in 2009, largely due to the global economic crisis.

The team was hurting for the lack of financial support, until a mysterious benefactor stepped in to help. It won’t shock those who know the character of John Terry and his special relationship with the club to know that he was responsible for raising and personally contributing funds to keep the Ladies from faltering. Terry would then become a president of CLFC, and has been seen regularly attending games in support of the team. Chelsea Ladies has had many individuals provide momentum for the club throughout its fifteen years of existence, and Terry’s leadership in this area has demonstrated once again how to handle the responsibility that comes with privilege.

The continued positive results and renewed financial security solidified the Blues as a new power in the country, and led to their inclusion as an inaugural member of the FA Women’s Super League, which supplanted the FA Women’s Premier League as the top women’s division in England when it began in 2011. Unfortunately, an injury-plagued maiden campaign under manager Matt Beard led to a sixth place finish and a heartbreaking loss on penalties to Birmingham City in the FA Women’s Cup Final. Nevertheless, as a Gotham City district attorney once said without any scientific evidence, “the night is darkest just before the dawn,” and the subsequent departure of Beard made way for the signing of an up-and-coming manager, Emma Hayes, for the second half of the 2012 season. Hayes’ first full season in 2013 saw her struggle to find victories with the side, as she favored giving chances to many youngsters in order to build for the future. Still, a notable signing in Ji So-Yung made clear the exciting style of play Hayes intended to bring to the club. A subsequent stirring 2014 campaign was led by new signings Katie Chapman and Gilly Flaherty from Arsenal. Yet, this only resulted in an absolutely crushing final day of the season, wherein the Chelsea Ladies fell from first place due to an controversial loss against Manchester City and a large Liverpool win that put the Reds top on goal difference.

That kind of pain can only be relieved by retribution, as those that saw both Moscow and Munich know well. It wouldn’t take so long for the Ladies to exact their revenge, as a continued blooming of chemistry and confidence in the manager’s direction made for an unstoppable side upon their return the following season. 2015 was an immense year for the club. The team was firing on all cylinders, and every individual seemed to have a standout season. The squad got their deserved reward for those months of dedication and passion and finished with a historic double, bringing the WSL title to the club for the first time ever, along with the first FA Women’s Cup trophy. Only a Manchester City squad overloaded with expensive talent could keep the Blues from retaining their championship in 2016, but they returned to glory as champions of the Spring Series in 2017, a special short season created in order to help transition the WSL to the same fall-spring schedule as most of the rest of the football world.

Chelsea LFC will be champing at the bit to get this season underway, hoping to keep the good times rolling.

Chelsea Ladies FC v Sunderland AFC Ladies  - WSL Photo by Graham Hughes/Getty Images

AWARDS

2017:
FA WSL Spring Series Champions

2015:
FA WSL 1 Champions
Women’s FA Cup Winners

2011-12:
Women’s FA Cup Final Runners Up
Under 17s Girls' FA Cup Winners
Under 17s League Champions
Under 17s League Cup Winners

2002-03:
Surrey Cup Winners

2001-02:
County Cup Runners Up

2000-01:
FAPLSD Runners Up
County Cup Winners

1999-2000:
SEC League Winners
League Cup Winners
County Cup Winners
U14 V&D League Winners
U14 V&D Cup Winners

1998-99:
Berks & Bucks Cup Winners
U14 V&D Cup Winners

1997-98:
CL League Runners UP

1996-97:
GMB Cup Winners
Middlesex Cup Runners Up
GL Cup Runners Up
U14 V&D League Cup Winners

1995-96:
Middlesex Cup Runners Up

1994-95:
GL Division 1 Runners Up

1993-94:
GL Division 3 Winners

1992-93:
GL League Runners Up
Anniversary Cup Winners


THE ERA OF EMMA HAYES

Chelsea Ladies FC v Notts County Ladies: Women's FA Cup Final Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

It’s unusual to say that a club was blessed by a career-ending injury to seventeen year old’s ankle, but this is the odd case of Chelsea Ladies and their manager, Emma Hayes. Camden-born Hayes was crushed when a broken ankle destroyed her dreams of being a star of women’s professional football in England. Twenty-plus years later, she has been recognized as a Member of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen for her contributions to the sport. Chelsea are no less likely to reward Hayes for her successes on the pitch as well, with the manager perhaps the most solidly affixed individual in the entire club, with immense momentum behind her.

“Now we’re not running round schools and dropping tickets off for free, people are paying to come to a women’s football match which in itself is a significant moment. [...] not because it’s the politically correct thing to do or because we’ve been forced into filling the stadium out unnecessarily. We’ve earned it, we have fans, they are real, and they’re growing”

-Emma Hayes, 2015; source: Express

The no-nonsense Englishwoman began her managerial career with the questionably-named Long Island Lady Riders (now known as the Long Island Rough Riders, a reference to Teddy Roosevelt’s famous cavalry unit) in 2001. Two straight seasons with eleven wins from fourteen games led to the demanding Hayes being named W-League Coach of the Year. Not satisfied with dominating in weak competitions, she moved to mainland New York with Iona College to coach in Division I athletics. There was significantly less room to shine at a small school in a large and top-heavy division, and after struggling without the resources to truly compete, Hayes chose to move back to London in 2006 to join Arsenal’s coaching staff as an assistant. The long-dominant Gunners captured quite the trophy haul while Hayes was there, including a quadruple, which now seems a relic of a bygone era. This period of success followed by taking on an ambitious new challenge sums up Hayes in a nutshell. The sad story of not having enough backing to push for glory unfortunately echoes throughout her career.

And so it was, that with that buoyant feeling only champions can have, an unrelenting Hayes departed England once more to return to the US, this time for the foundation of a new team. She began putting together the pieces for the Chicago Red Stars, in the Women’s Professional Soccer League. As manager and technical director, Hayes’ influence was as vast as her responsibilities. She brought in big names to stock the squad, including the pacy and creative Megan Rapinoe (a personal favorite of yours truly), American Ninja Warrior Carli Lloyd, and renowned Brazilian striker Cristiane. The Red Stars started off hot, but gas giants do tend to implode under their own massiveness, and as Hayes soon found out, winning consistently at Toyota Park is very hard to do. Bastian Schweinsteiger has confirmed that this season with the Chicago Fire, if you didn’t believe it already.

After a sixth place finish, the roster was turned over, and Hayes returned only nine of twenty-two players from her first season. As a certain certifiable Portuguese manager once said you need great players to have a great team (okay, I might be paraphrasing). Alas, the financial strain turned out to be a bit too much for the club, who were struggling to establish themselves and a fanbase. Even the introduction of English star Katie Chapman couldn’t convince would-be supporters to drive out to the middle-of-nowhere Illinois during the Recession. As a Chicagoan, I can confidently say this situation does not reflect on Hayes as a manager or as a director. Every other major sport in Illinois plays in the city, but the soccer fans have to travel to a remote location that feels more like a high school stadium than anything. However, Hayes was dismissed midseason nonetheless. Football can be cruel in this way. In her absence, the club were unable to gel the squad into a success, going just 5-5-7 for the remainder of the year. The failure to draw large enough crowds led to a withdrawal from the WSP league.

From her exciting beginnings in the US and three seasons of glory in London, this must have been a dark time for Hayes. Serendipitously, Chelsea Ladies had been experiencing a dark time of their own, as only fundraising efforts by John Terry and some of his teammates saved the ladies from a fate similar to the Red Stars. Hayes recalls a key piece of wisdom she took away from the failure in Chicago which was cemented by a text she received from the US women’s national team coach, Jill Ellis: it read “Welcome to the coaching fraternity, you haven’t coached unless you’ve been fired”. In that interview with the Guardian, she also recounted a bizarre moment when she was deliberating between two coaching jobs in the US and taking on the Arsenal manager position. Fraught with indecision, she heeded the advice of a mentor and went to see a clairvoyant. After she’d laid out her choices to the psychic, the cards revealed a different destiny that lay ahead of Hayes: “a massive future with Chelsea.” You can’t make this stuff up, can you?

And so it was that in 2012, as a trophy-less Matt Beard departed Chelsea, Hayes, who had spent the last year and a half on a couple coaching staffs in the US, got the call. Having seen great success at the Under 17 level, the club were eager to make the jump to Arsenal’s level. They determined that with the proper resources to back her now at their disposal, 35-year-old Emma Hayes was the woman for the job. At the time, she was the only female manager in England’s top division.

“I’ve never accepted a job as quickly as I accepted the Chelsea one. I said yes, I’ll do it, I didn’t even ask about the money. I just thought: this is my calling.”

- Emma Hayes, 2014; source: Guardian

Five years later, the club’s decision-making has been affirmed twice over, with victories from the Spring Series and 2015’s domestic double making a statement about the strength of both club and country as women’s football continues to rise around the world. When she arrived, the state of the club was dismal. “Professional doesn’t mean money... It means habits, it means standards – the standard of winning, of training every day and seeing yourself as a serious club. I remember coming to take over with five games left in the season, and I couldn’t even find a water bottle. It was an amateur team and an amateur set-up,” she said in an interview with Sport magazine.

It’s clear now that Hayes has changed that culture, with the backing of the club. The team now includes twenty full-time players, and a full-time staff where first there was none. Despite their budget being just the fifth-largest in the league (which qualifies as mid-table), Hayes has been allowed to bring in both young and established talent from rivals, in addition to many of the names she’s worked with in the past, including Karen Carney and Katie Chapman. In fact, other than club stalwart Claire Rafferty and long-time youth Drew Spence, every member of Chelsea’s current squad was brought on under Hayes, and seven of the fifteen contributors to the Ladies last full season were pilfered from top rivals Arsenal, Birmingham, or Liverpool.

Beyond having an eye for talent, Hayes has a clear vision for her squad. While the team has undergone a view formation shifts, the tactics have remained similar. Chelsea employ extreme width and prefer to control possession. Their pacy players Gemma Davison and Eni Aluko are often an outlet for creativity through either crosses or link-up play, but the majority of possession runs through the middle spine of Chapman, Carney, and Ji So-Yun or Fran Kirby (Kirby often plays over the top of Ji, but also can swap with the number ten to play provider). Through these players in particular the Blues look to draw out the defense and then through lightning vertical passing, cut into the space they’ve created in behind. With goalscorers in every position, Chelsea are dangerous at all times, which makes for extremely watchable matches. The spacing can of course lead to exposure at the back, which is unfortunate from a defensive perspective (and asks a great deal of players like Millie Bright and Gilly Flaherty), but also contributes to exciting contests.

"The important part is women's sport is here to stay and at a club like Chelsea that is very much the case.”

-Emma Hayes, 2016, Sky Sports

With her philosophy clearly established at Chelsea, what remains now is the prospect of challenging in Europe, and keeping up with growing competition in England, especially with the well-financed Manchester City on the rise. With a fantastic but aging skeleton in place, a smooth transition between old guard and new will be key to continued success for Chelsea in the next few seasons. What’s remarkable about Hayes is that with plenty of laurels, she isn’t resting on them. Not one to hold back her opinion, she’s becoming another major voice in the chorus that believes gender/sex equality in sports is achievable. In an interview with Sky Sports, she’s smartly advocated for commercialization of the women’s game in order to increase its sustainability. The path ahead is a challenging one, but one thing is certain; as long as Hayes is in charge, the future is bright for both the club and the game.

Chelsea Ladies FC v Sunderland AFC Ladies  - WSL Photo by Graham Hughes/Getty Images

THE SQUAD

A word before introducing the team: I’ve tried to assemble this breakdown based on my thoughts on where the players will fit going forward. I am still trying to guess a bit at how Hayes’ side will look for the coming season. Some have been describing the formation she’s used in preseason as a 3-4-2-1 and given the wealth of attacking talent that likes to operate more centrally, it could be a 5-2-2-1 or a 5-2-3 with two attacking midfielders (Ji, Kirby, and Carney could all excel in this system) playing inside of the flying wingbacks. I am operating under the assumption that the team will set up this way for the season, but manager Emma Hayes has been known to tinker a bit with formations, so don’t be surprised if things look a bit different as you tune in throughout the year.

THE PLAYERS YOU HAVE TO KNOW

WSL 1: Manchester City Women v Chelsea Ladies FC Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images,

Katie Chapman, Captain

Position: Defensive Midfielder
Nationality: English (born in London)
Number: 17
Age: 35

It seems only right to start with the captain. Signed from Arsenal in 2014, Chapman is arguably Chelsea’s most important player, and is certainly the most well-rounded member of the squad. Approaching the century mark for international caps, she is considered one of the best central midfielders in the women’s game in England. The captain has won just about every award there was for her to win, both internationally and domestically, individually, and at the club level. Especially remarkable is the fact that she has won the FA Women’s Cup no less than nine times, with five different clubs. If my math is correct, Chapman has won that trophy more than half of the years she has played eligible for it and the only constant in that success is her. She has also won the FA Women’s International Player of the Year, eight seasons apart. To say Chelsea are lucky to have her is an understatement, but I would be remiss if I did not note that the signing of Hayes as manager is perhaps the only reason the Blues were able to lure Chapman away from Arsenal. The two had formed a good relationship at Arsenal and then in Chicago with the Red Stars, and their reunion has yielded immense rewards for Chelsea. Other than Hayes, Chapman is arguably the person most responsible for Chelsea’s soaring trajectory since her arrival.

Arsenal Ladies v Chelsea Ladies - SSE Women's FA Cup Final Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

Gilly Flaherty, Vice Captain

Position: Central Defense
Nationality: English (born in London)
Number: 5
Age: 26

Flaherty was signed from Arsenal alongside Chapman, and has become just as much a fixture in Emma Hayes’ starting XI since. She broke through for Arsenal in 2006 at the age of fifteen, and was a vital member of the squad that would go on to become the first English club to win the UEFA Cup the following season. If Chapman is the leader of this team, Flaherty is the heart and soul. Flaherty is the primary organizer of the Blues back line, and has adapted her game superbly as Emma Hayes has experimented with a few different formations. Nearly the same height as Chapman and just about as skilled in reading the game, the two often work together to shut down link-up between opposition’s creative players. Dedicated, strong, talented, and intelligent, she embodies what it means to be a Blue in this new era. It’s easy to see her taking on the armband when her comrade retires in the coming seasons.

Chelsea Ladies FC v Manchester City Women - SSE Women's FA Cup Semi-final Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

Eniola Aluko

Position: Forward
Nationality: English (born in Lagos, Nigeria)
Number: 9
Age: 30

For a first signing, “Eni” has proven to be a master stroke from Emma Hayes. Aluko had been a part of Chelsea’s 2007, 2008, and 2009 seasons, and she was brought back into the fold from regular rivals Birmingham in December of 2012. One of the veteran players in the squad, Eni has brought a experience and passion to the squad. A constant threat in space, as her dribbling ability and pace terrorizes defenders. She’s also a cool finisher, which makes for some tidy goals rounding the keeper. The Nigerian-born Englishwoman is another of the core that has defined Chelsea under Hayes, receiving Play of the Year honors during our historic double. Due to her age, Aluko will likely be phased out over the next few years. With 26 goals in 60 games, her contributions may be difficult to replace, especially with her ability to fill in capably in a striker role. Moreover, as someone who has been in the team for so long, no doubt her character will be missed in the locker room as well. Though she will no longer be on the pitch, Aluko will certainly have options off of the field; she earned a First class degree in law, and has spent some time working in the commentator’s box as well, the first woman to appear as a pundit for BBC’s Match of the Day.

Chelsea Ladies FC v Manchester City Women - SSE Women's FA Cup Semi-final Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

Ji So-Yun

Position: Attacking Midfielder
Nationality: Korean
Number: 10
Age: 26

If you haven’t had the privilege of following Chelsea Ladies in recent years, you will be ecstatic to hear of the talent that the Blues have in Ji. If you have seen even one match, you will no doubt have noticed the diminutive number 10 pulling the strings in midfield. The player is utterly a class unto herself in terms of vision and skill. When she signed for Chelsea in 2014 from Japan, Emma Hayes words on her told the full story of her time at the club thus far: “she is one of the best midfielders in the world and our fans will love her.” That Ji is just now entering her prime years is the most thrilling part, and Chelsea would be wise to keep her for as long as she can perform in the top division. She is her country’s youngest and top goal-scorer, debuting for the national team at just fifteen. With 17 goals in 49 games for Chelsea, she’s brought her shooting boots to the club level as well. It was only right that she should score the goal that brought home the FA Women’s Cup. As an individual, Ji has won nearly every major individual honor at each level she’s played, and has had no problem fitting in; she’s apparently the joker in the locker room. Comparisons between the men’s and women’s game are rarely intelligently made, but here I can’t help myself: her free kicks are arguably better than Marcos Alonso’s, her corners are definitely better than Willian’s (Karen Carney’s may surpass them both, however), and her passing and vision is on par with Fabregas’. Ji is irresistible every time she’s on the ball, and it is quite impossible to not enjoy watching her play.

England Women Training Session Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

Fran Kirby

Position: Forward/Attacking Midfielder
Nationality: English
Number: 14
Age: 24

I should perhaps get this out of the way: Fran Kirby is my favorite player in this squad. Like Oscar, there is the slightest danger that despite her immense talent and potential, she will be adjudged to be superfluous to the system and sold for a tidy profit to strengthen the squad elsewhere. This would be an even greater tragedy, should it happen with Kirby, though it seems that even if Hayes would prefer a more physically imposing striker, Kirby is too good and too young to let her go elsewhere. Her professional debut came at the age of sixteen for home club Reading, who were playing in what was then the FA Women’s Premier League Southern Division. After losing her mother, Kirby had an understandably difficult time, one that nearly resulted in her leaving football forever. However, the forward returned to the game and found great success, scoring twenty-four goals in sixteen appearances, and becoming the first female player to receive a professional contract from the club. No doubt her mother would be proud. Since then, Kirby has become a woman for the big occasion, scoring in the World Cup opener for England, her Chelsea debut against Birmingham, the title-clincher against Sunderland, Chelsea’s first Champions League goal, and five goals in three crucial contests against rivals Liverpool, Manchester United, and Arsenal in the 2016 season, one of which won the club’s Goal of the Season award. Despite an early injury limited her minutes, Kirby finished the Spring Series as the top scorer with six goals in five appearances. Kirby’s most notable strength is her dribbling ability. The magical Englishwoman can absolutely destroy defenses with the ball at her feet. Though a few injuries have dogged her of late, Kirby will be looking to kick on and restore herself as a fixture of the side in the coming season.

England v Spain - UEFA Women's Euro 2017: Group D Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Millie Bright

Position: Center back/Defensive Midfield
Nationality: English
Number: 4
Age: 24

Signed in 2015 from Doncaster Belles, Bright has improved dramatically under Hayes, and has become an absolutely crucial part of the first XI. Physically-gifted and reliable in possession, and made her mark in the Chelsea side as a midfield destroyer before she was switched to center back as Hayes made a switch to three at the back. Just twenty-four years old, she has recently been capped for England and looks likely to improve on that mark in the coming years, for she is still developing as a player. She won both the club’s Player’s Player of the Year award, and England’s Young Player of the Year award. Personally, I see Bright stepping up as Vice-Captain when that position becomes vacated. I would be disappointed to see her remain at center back once Chapman moves on, as I feel it’s her more natural position. However, she has so much height and strength, and works quite hard to adapts to Hayes’ tactics; she certainly doesn’t struggle with holding her own on the back line. That said, at only twenty-four years young, the sky's the limit for this English titan.

Chelsea Ladies FC v Notts County Ladies: Women's FA Cup Final Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

Claire Rafferty

Position: Fullback/Wingback
Nationality: English
Number: 11
Age: 28

Even though I’ve just typed it, deleted it, double-checked it and re-typed it, I cannot believe Claire Rafferty is only 28. The definition of an ever-present, Raffers has been with the club since 2007, when she joined up from Millwall. She has blossomed alongside the Blues manager, the only senior player to survive from the B.E.H. era (Before Emma Hayes), and no doubt worthy of that honor. By my estimation, she’s been the best left back in England for some time now, and despite a recent bout with injury and fitness concerns, is one of the first names on the team sheet when fit. There is absolutely no question that this woman is Blue through and through, and her determination on the pitch is an immense asset to the squad. Her service to the club was recognized by Captain Chapman during both of the trophy lifting ceremonies of the 2015 campaign, as Rafferty was called up to join alongside the Arsenal import in the armband in hoisting the cups. She’ll be hoping the opportunity for such an honor will arise again this season.

Portugal v England - UEFA Women's Euro 2017: Group D Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Karen Carney

Position: Winger
Nationality: English
Number: 8
Age: 30

There’s always one teacher’s pet, isn’t there? I suppose when you’re a student, that seems like an undesirable title. In the case of the player-manager relationship, it’s a boon to both sides. As a player, Karen Carney is a great professional, a prolific goalscorer, a hard worker, and a diligent student of the game. In her manager, she has an honest opinion, a willing teacher, and most importantly, someone who is ready to put her name on the team sheet early and often. Perhaps that explains why, despite being born in Birmingham and gone through the ranks at that club (even being the first woman to be inducted into their Hall of Fame!), Carney has switched teams to play for Emma Hayes no once, but twice since their time together at Arsenal. In just one season and a spring series with the squad, the player has rewarded the continuation of that relationship with seven goals and twenty-three appearances. While that was good enough for a contract extension with the Blues, I would like to see more out of Carney. At her best, she is the type of player who can reach that transcendent paradox of genius, playing with both ice in her veins and fire in her belly. She has had games in the past where she looks completely unstoppable; she’ll need to find that form consistently if Chelsea are to challenge on all fronts this year.

IMPACT PLAYERS AND RISING STARS

WSL 1: Manchester City Women v Chelsea Ladies FC Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images,

Hannah Blundell

Position: Fullback/Wingback
Nationality: English
Number: 3
Age: 23

Blundell is an exciting player to have in our squad, not least because she is a product of the Chelsea Ladies Academy. The speedy fullback rose through the ranks in 2013, and went on to play a critical role in Chelsea’s 2015 title-winning season, at the close of which she won the Club’s Young Player of the Year award and was nominated for the PFA’s version as well. Blundell has been key in providing width in attack as well as solidity in defense, even deputizing on the left after Claire Rafferty missed matches through injury. Blundell’s continued improvement will be integral to Chelsea reaching the next level as a continental power, as she could wind up being needed further up the pitch. This is especially true with the signing of the more defensively-sound Magdalena Eriksson, who could push for time on the right if Rafferty returns to form on the left.

England Women Training Session Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

Gemma Davison

Position: Winger/Wingback
Nationality: English
Number: 7
Age: 30

Davison is another of those brought in from THAT OTHER part of London from Hayes’ time there, but she came about it a different route, leaving Liverpool to join the Blues in 2014. Davison, as mentioned elsewhere, is a key outlet for the Blues in attack, and was critical to our double-winning season. She delights in one-on-one situations, using her pace and dribbling ability to drive past defenders and wreak absolute havoc in the opponent’s penalty area. Though her shot can be inconsistent, Davison’s skill is in creating easy-scoring opportunities by beating defenders and goalies alike. Imposing strikers like Drew Spence also appreciate her crosses, when they do come in. The future is a bit of a question mark for Davison, who, despite the departure of Beth England on loan, could have competition from Carney on the right wing, and Blundell will be the favorite for the right wingback position.

USA v Sweden Quarterfinal: Women's Football - Olympics: Day 7 Photo by Celso Junior/Getty Images

Hedvig Lindahl

Position: Goalkeeper
Nationality: Swedish
Number: 1
Age: 34

I can’t think of a top club in the world that doesn’t have a world-class goalkeeper between the posts. I’m sure there will be arguments from some, but that always seems to be the case from my perspective. From an accolades perspective, the big Swede has quite the personal collection, including a spot on the WSL1 Team of the Year, as well as the women’s Diamond Ball, which is given to the best Swedish player over the course of the year. Lindahl herself has been the picture of dependable in goal, rarely committing errors, and backing up her defense well. She doesn’t seem to excel in penalty shootouts for us, but is terrifically difficult to beat from any distance, and has done well for Sweden when those nightmare scenarios do occur. She has extended her contract through 2019, but may have a challenge on her sizable hands from new signing Becky Spencer before that is up.

Chelsea Ladies FC v Manchester City Women - SSE Women's FA Cup Semi-final Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

Drew Spence

Position: Attacking Midfielder
Nationality: English
Number: 24
Age: 24

Although Spence was brought to the club in 2008, she spent her first several years in the Centre of Excellence, wherein she developed into a versatile attacker. Although some would prefer to see Spence play up front, Hayes has kept her primarily in midfield, where she uses her strength and aerial prowess to make an impact by keeping possession. She has a real eye for goal and it will be interesting to see if she will be pushed forward by the introduction of new defenders this summer. Spence lit the spring session on fire, and may just be reaching her potential. She is another upon whose shoulders the job of carrying Chelsea into the future will rest.

Switzerland v France - UEFA Women's Euro 2017: Group C Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Ramonna Bachmann

Position: Forward
Nationality: Swiss
Number: 23
Age: 26

“She is a dynamic, creative spark that will make people get off their feet,” said Emma Hayes of her when she signed in December 2016. Bachmann played a significant role in the Spring Series in place of the injured Fran Kirby, and although she is still settling into the system, you can absolutely see what Hayes is talking about. Bachmann should be very fun to watch this season, and will look to bag a lot of the kinds of goals that have won her Swiss Player of the Year twice already.

Germany v Norway - Women's International Friendly Photo by Thomas Eisenhuth/Bongarts/Getty Images

Maren Mjelde

Position: Central Midfielder
Nationality: Norwegian
Number: 18
Age: 27

The captain of the Norway squad, Mjelde is a confident player who brings a fair amount of experience to the Chelsea Ladies. Although she may not stand out too often in the Blues’ uber talented team, the midfielder is tidy on the ball, rarely out of position, and can be a handful on set pieces. Her contract expires in 2018, so look for Mjelde to make a statement this season in an attempt to cement her place in the squad. Complicating matter is the rise of Drew Spence and the possible return of Millie Bright to midfield.

Deanna Cooper

Position: Center back
Nationality: English
Number: 21
Age: 24

The only thing keeping Cooper from the “Players You Must Know” category in this breakdown is the fact that she’s only had one half season with Chelsea, her first professional club. That being said, Cooper was just about perfect in the Spring Series. She looks to be one of those defenders that simply never gets caught out because she reads play incredibly well. Watching her in the back, you get the sense that she has a psychic ability to tell where the ball will be next. When a defender comes across to catch an attacker unaware or cut out a potentially incisive ball, chances are it’s Cooper. She has already been a great signing for Chelsea, and when she returns from her recent knee injury, I fully expect her to keep her spot on the team sheet.

2017 Tournament Of Nations - Australia v United States Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Crystal Dunn

Position: Wide Player
Nationality: American
Number: 19
Age: 25

The Chelsea website lists Dunn’s position as “Forward/winger/midfield/full-back,” which is a comically-long enumeration that tells you just how versatile the American is. She played at left wingback for most of her appearances in the spring, and I would expect her to be used to spell Rafferty or Aluko out on that side of the pitch in the coming season. Her touch is very good, and her pace is just about unmatched. Given the right opportunities, she could be something of a breakout star for the Blues this year.

NEW SIGNINGS AND ONES FOR THE FUTURE

Chelsea Ladies FC v Manchester City Women - SSE Women's FA Cup Semi-final Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

Jade Bailey

Position: Holding Midfielder
Nationality: English
Number: 25
Age: 21

Bailey is an Arsenal import of some intrigue. Physically impressive and good in possession, she is quite capable of bossing the middle of the pitch. Due to an ACL injury in the spring, Bailey likely won’t be available until later on in the season, but as the squad needs rotation, she should hear her name called quite a few times.

Scotland v Spain - UEFA Women's Euro 2017: Group D Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Erin Cuthbert

Position: Central Midfielder
Nationality: Scottish
Number: 22
Age: 19

The Scottish midfielder is another one to watch as the season progresses. Despite a myriad of midfield options for Emma Hayes, Cuthbert will almost certainly see time, especially if Hayes needs a more attacking option to swap in late on in matches. Cuthbert has a good shot on her and is the sort of player that demonstrates a maturity and ambition one wouldn’t expect from someone so young, and this combination is usually the hallmark of a elite player. As things start coming together under Hayes, don’t be surprised if Cuthbert earns herself more minutes through superb substitution play.

Beth England

Position: Wing back/Winger
Nationality: English (duh)
Number: on loan
Age: 23

England is a solid talent for her age, and I was a little surprised to learn the club had loaned her out. Then again, with Davison, Carney, Blundell, and Dunn all probably ahead of her in the pecking order for positions on the right wing, perhaps it was England who opted for the temporary move away. It is simultaneously fortunate and unfortunate that she’s departed to Liverpool, as the club is not a drop-off in terms of commitment to the game and level of competition, but her contributions may also strengthen a title rival. I don’t honestly know if Chelsea included a clause regarding her playing against us, so we may get a chance to see her on ChelseaTV when the Reds come to Kingsmeadow in early October.

England Training Session - UEFA Women's Euro 2017 Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Carly Telford

Position: Goalkeeper
Nationality: English
Number: 28
Age: 30

Telford was welcomed back to the Blues after her former club, Notts County, folded in April 2017. She’d left the club on a free transfer after her contract was allowed to expire, a turn of events that allegedly left Emma Hayes boiling. It’s a little bit difficult to assess where Telford will fall in the squad, as although she’s a talented keeper and can serve as a capable deputy for Lindahl if called upon, she is entering that latter stages of her career and only signed a short-term contract. It seems she was signed primarily to fill in for an injured Lindahl in the Spring Series. My guess is that she’ll continue to contend for the backup spot, pushing Becky Spencer (below) to reach her best.

Rebecca “Becky” Spencer

Position: Goalkeeper
Nationality: English
Number: 12
Age: 26

It once seemed as though the sky was the limit for Spencer; however, a few injuries and a struggle to return to form has seen expectations fall for the keeper, who should be coming into her prime. The club sending away Fran Kitching on loan and signing Telford will probably make this feel like a very important season for Spencer. Though it may not quite be do or die time, her performances in training and matches will likely determine whether the club consider her Lindahl’s heir apparent. She’ll look to unseat the top stopper by putting injury-plagued seasons behind her and reclaiming the form that had her on watch lists around the country.

Millie Farrow

Position: Forward
Nationality: English
Number: TBD
Age: 21

Farrow returns to the side after a season and a half on loan at Bristol City. Loans are a tricky thing at this club, because there can be an immense dropoff in quality from top professional clubs, so the time away either means that Chelsea have high hopes for the youngster and were desperate to get her playing time, or felt she wasn’t going to cut it and wanted to get her name out there for a potential future transfer. Odds are generally on the former, especially as Farrow signed a new contract with the Blues just before her loan to BCFC was extended for the Spring Series. Farrow performed well for Bristol and should be returning from an ACL injury soon, although whether she’ll be joining up with the first team or going back out on loan remains to be seen.

Fran Kitching

Position: Goalkeeper
Nationality: English
Number: (on-loan)
Age: 19

Another youngster with no path into a squad packed to the brim with talent, Kitching will head northwest to Watford on a season-long loan. Chelsea fans will be hoping she can get plenty of minutes to continue her development, as goalkeeper is perhaps the only potential weakness in the squad.

Sweden v Russia - UEFA Women's Euro 2017: Group B Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Magdalena Eriksson

Position: Full back/Wing back
Nationality: Swedish
Number: 16
Age: 24

Odds are Eriksson is going to be an very useful new signing, and she’ll likely get plenty of chances to swap in and out with Claire Rafferty on the left. Her acquisition was a way to secure the future at the position and help keep the squad fresh without losing a step as they compete on multiple fronts this year. Fairly tall and with some experience at center back, she’ll likely be able to slot in anywhere along that back line. There is some untapped potential there as far as talent goes, but Emma Hayes has a way of bringing that out of players.

Norway Womens Training Session Photo by Trond Tandberg/Getty Images

Maria Thorisdottir

Position: Center back
Nationality: Norwegian
Number: 2
Age: 24

In addition to having the most badass surname on the team, the news signing has the chance to compete for a starting spot in Chelsea’s back line. From her first minutes in preseason, she looks ready to go, but Hayes may take some time integrating her into the squad in order to let her catch up to the level of play in England and the Champions League. I suspect Hayes will rotate her in to spell Bright or allow the Englishwoman to step into midfield. With her physical frame and athletic prowess, Thor’s daughter should be capable of filling Bright’s boots, both in defense and attacking set pieces, when she’s called upon. In her own words, Thorisdottir is “like a Viking,” a defender who relishes a tackle and a physical challenge.

Even with all of the competitions in front of them, the Blues are well-equipped with the personnel to go deep into each. This is a very exciting year to be a fan of Chelsea Ladies.


Rivalries, Competitions, and Key Fixtures for the Season Ahead

The Chelsea Ladies first team competes in the top division of women’s football in England, in what’s called the FA Women's Super League 1, also known as the WSL 1. Changed just this year to align with almost every other league in the world (I’m looking at you MLS), the regular season now runs from late September to late May. Chelsea Ladies’ Reserves play in the FA WSL Development League Southern Division, in similar fashion to the men’s reserve squad. Chelsea have found their stride in WSL 1, winning the league in 2015, finishing second in 2016, and taking home the title of Spring Series champions in 2017, as a shortened season was designed in order to make way for re-alignment.

In addition to league play, the ladies in the best shade of blue will be traveling throughout the season for Champions League matches. The competition forgoes the group stage in favor of a two-legged knockout style tournament, all the way to the top. This season’s round of 32 draw was Bayern Munich, who will obviously be a terrifically difficult opponent, and no doubt provide some drama to enjoy as one’s fingernails disappear faster than that Fargo body into that awful wood chipper.

The first team also competes in the FA WSL Continental Tyres Cup, a league cup knockout competition. There is a group stage, and Chelsea finds themselves in Group 2 South, along with Yeovil Town, Bristol City, Brighton & Hove Albion, and Tottenham. Supporters will absolutely expect Chelsea to advance from this group as the top seed.

Finally, there is the FA Women’s Cup, in which Chelsea Ladies have a bit of unfinished business after they failed to retain the trophy against Arsenal in the final of 2016, and missed out last season as well, as Manchester City romped their way to the cup.

Our beloved Blues have taken part in both matches that set the attendance records for WSL 1 and the FA Women’s Cup, in the title decider against City in 2016 and the 2016 FA Cup Final against Arsenal, respectively. Can you guess who our biggest rivals might be? Arsenal holds the record for most points over the 6 seasons since the WSL was formed, but their dominance of the sport goes back much further. Chelsea sit third, just one point behind another women’s dynasty in Birmingham City. Of late, Manchester City has been a prominent rival for trophies and signings, in a narrative that parallels the story of the men’s teams in many ways.

Chelsea have poached a few key players away from Arsenal in recent years, and the ever contentious matches against the Gunners are without a doubt the fixtures to which fans look forward most. Here are some highlights from most recent matchup between the two sides to give you an idea of what it means to the players.

With those notes in mind, I’ve picked out some of the key matchups in the months ahead below. All time are in BST (so that’s -5 hours for EST, -8 for PST, and +8 for JST):

Wednesday, October 4th at 19:00 BST
Competition: Champions League Round of 32
Opponent: Bayern Munich - Home

Sunday, October 7th at 12:30 BST
Competition: FA WSL 1
Opponent: Liverpool Ladies - Home

Wednesday, October 11th at 19:00 BST
Competition: Champions League Round of 32
Opponent: Bayern Munich - Away

Wednesday, November 15th at 19:00 BST
Competition: Continental Tyres Cup
Opponent: Tottenham Hotspur Ladies - Home

Saturday, December 9th at 18:00 pm BST
Competition: FA WSL 1
Opponent: Manchester City Women - Home

Sunday, January 7th at 14:00 BST
Competition: FA WSL 1
Opponent: Arsenal Women - Home