WSL 2023-24 season recap: Hayes departs after making history as Man City miss out

By Sports Desk May 26, 2024

The 2023-24 season was one of the best to date for the Women's Super League since its inception.

The drama of the title race going down to the final day; all three domestic trophies being won by different sides and record attendances across the league - fans have been filling stadiums and proving women’s football has an exciting future.

Chelsea went into the season as defending champions of the WSL and FA Cup, and looking to make history by securing a fifth consecutive league title. Emma Hayes and her team have dominated over the last ten years and this season looked set to be no different. 

The Blues got there in the end, but it wasn't easy...

The Hayes dynasty and the end of an era

A shock reverberated around the women's game in November when Hayes announced that, after 11 years in charge, she would be leaving Chelsea to join the US Women’s National Team as coach.

Hayes is the most decorated manager in Chelsea's history, and transformed them into serial winners domestically. She departs the WSL as the manager with the most games (212), most wins (151) and the fourth-best win rate (71.2 per cent - minimum 50 games managed).

Her legacy will be more than just the 16 trophies she won, including the WSL title this term.

The growth of women's football during Hayers' tenure has been meteoric, and she could have only dreamed of the farewell she received as, at one of England’s most iconic football stadia in Old Trafford, Chelsea thrashed Manchester United 6-0 to seal their fifth straight WSL crown.

Millie Bright, Chelsea's captain, had labelled the team as "mentality monsters", and that was certainly a fitting tag, as the champions scored four first-half goals to dash any lingering hopes Man City had of winning the title.

Hayes' final triumph came despite star striker Sam Kerr suffering an ACL injury in January, though Colombia forward Mayra Ramirez arrived from Levante for a British record transfer fee of £384,000 plus a further £42,000 in potential add-ons.

Ramirez proved her worth, grabbing two goals in a first half in which she was unplayable and a delight to watch. Fran Kirby, meanwhile, came on to score on her final WSL appearance for Chelsea, and leaves the Blues as their all-time leading goal scorer (63) and assister (33) in the competition.

City only managed a 2-1 win away to Aston Villa, meaning the WSL title was settled on goal difference for just the second time after Liverpool finished ahead of Chelsea in the 2014 season, with the Blues goal difference of +53 this campaign the fourth best in the competition’s history.

The champions also scored the most goals by a team in a single WSL season (71).

Hayes reflected on her special time at the club in her first interview as the USWNT boss.

Speaking to the USWNT media channel, she said: "I am proud of the fact that I could leave that club in a better place and one that I hope continues to compete. But for me, the challenge of competing for World Cups, for the Olympics, and the dream of coaching a team that I have always wanted to get the opportunity to do. I simply couldn't turn it down."

So close, yet so far, for City

City once again came so close to bursting Chelsea’s bubble and spoiling Hayes’ party. However, after it being in their own hands, a 2-1 defeat to Arsenal in the penultimate match gave the advantage back to Chelsea.

Gareth Taylor's team City became the first team in WSL history to win 10 away games in a single season, with their only failure to win on the road coming at Arsenal in November.

City missed plenty of chances in that game, and their bad luck in front of goal correlated with the injury to Khadija 'Bunny' Shaw against West Ham.

Shaw missed the final three league games, having become the first player in WSL history to record a goal or assist in 10 consecutive appearances (15 goals, one assist).

The Jamaican was prolific for City, scoring 21 times in 18 appearances, securing the Golden Boot award. Shaw was also named Football Writers Award Footballer of the Year and the WSL Player of the Year. She even became the second-quickest player to score 50 WSL goals, behind only Vivianne Miedema. Kerr is the only other player to have netted 20+ goals in back-to-back seasons, meanwhile.

Yet City still fell short of what would have been their first title since 2016. They have now been runners-up six times (five times to Chelsea), four more than any other side. 

Glory glory Man Utd

Despite the end-of-season drubbing for United, the previous weekend had seen Marc Skinner and his side create history of their own, this time in the FA Cup. For the first time in 11 years, the trophy was not lifted by Arsenal, Chelsea or Man City, proving the true development around the league.

United were featuring in the FA Cup final for the second consecutive year, having not reached this stage before 2023, and headed into the tie against Tottenham as favourites. They lost 1-0 to Chelsea in the 2022-23 final and did not want history to repeat itself.

They duly banished last year's demons in front of a packed Wembley, with an emphatic 4-0 win.

Ella Toone's eye-catching strike in the first half set the tone before a goal for Rachel Williams and Lucia Garcia's double added gloss to a convincing scoreline, despite Beth England hitting the crossbar for Spurs.

United became the 18th different winner of the women’s FA Cup. 

Gunners have their say

Arsenal pushed Man City and Chelsea all the way this season and although in the remaining few weeks they struggled to keep pace, they did have their say on both their rivals’ seasons endings.

The title race was effectively lost for Man City after they lost 2-1 in the dying minutes of their clash with Arsenal.

Similarly, the Gunners also got the better of Chelsea with a last-minute winner in the League Cup final, with Arsenal having won that trophy in successive seasons.

Striker Stina Blackstenius scored on both occasions, netting three important goals to secure silverware for Arsenal, frustrating Chelsea and ultimately ensuring City went empty-handed for another season. The Swede has 43 goals in 83 appearances for the Gunners and these big moments helped secure her a new contract.

So long, but maybe not farewell

The WSL has had some legends grace it over the years. World Cup winners and European champions have rocked up in the competition and it has become arguably one of the most sought-after leagues to play in.

But Hayes' was not the only shock departure.

Arsenal striker and the WSL's all-time leading goalscorer Miedema announced she would be leaving the Gunners at the end of her contract on a free transfer. With 125 goals and 50 assists for the Gunners over a seven-year period, the Dutch European Championship winner is bowing out a legend.

She has been out for most of the season, recovering from an ACL injury, but it's a shock to see such a talent allowed to leave. 

Many clubs in the WSL and around the world will relish the chance to have Miedema, who is only 27, pull on their shirt next season.

This season has been one of fond farewells, great goals, and record attendances. Next season promises to be continue the trend.

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  • Martinez rises from the chaos and leads Argentina to Copa America glory Martinez rises from the chaos and leads Argentina to Copa America glory

    This was not the potential Copa America farewell that Lionel Messi had dreamed of.

    With a little over an hour played in Miami, where he is tearing through MLS sides on a weekly basis, the eight-time Ballon d'Or winner was in tears as he trudged off with an apparent ankle injury.

    The next Copa America is not until 2028; Messi will be beyond 40 - surely, this was his last appearance in the competition in which he has now played more games than any other player?

    For Messi's individual pain, though, there was national glory. Unlike Cristiano Ronaldo at Euro 2024, with Portugal crashing out in the quarters, Argentina have gone the distance and, for a third successive major tournament, come out as the top dogs. They beat Colombia 1-0 on Sunday and claimed a record-setting 16th Copa America title.

    But if the 2021 Copa America and 2022 World Cup were all about their magical number 10, this time around, Lautaro Martinez provided the spark.

    Martinez has not been a regular starter under Lionel Scaloni. He endured a difficult World Cup in Qatar on a personal level, failing to score from 14 shots and an accumulated xG of 1.81.

    Yet in the United States, on the back of a fantastic season with Inter, Martinez has shown there is life after Messi for Argentina.

    Despite having already scored four goals at the tournament to lead the Golden Boot race ahead of kick-off against Colombia, which was delayed by over an hour due to crowd trouble outside the Hard Rock Stadium, Martinez was not called upon until seven minutes into extra time.

    It had, to that point, been an attritional encounter. Sure, plenty of shots (14 for Colombia, seven for Argentina) but Nicolas Gonzalez's disallowed goal and a strike off the post from Jhon Cordoba were the closest either team came. The second half alone, meanwhile, featured 13 fouls as the darker side of South American football reared its head.

    This was not a game for flair. James Rodriguez, the Player of the Tournament, still got on the ball for Colombia when he could - he created three chances and played a match-leading 20 passes into the final third. Angel Di Maria, in his final match before international retirement, provided some spark for Argentina with three key passes of his own.

    But it was Martinez who would make himself the (unlikely) hero. Five minutes after his introduction, he was put through by fellow substitute Giovani Lo Celso and, with his only shot of the night, coolly put Argentina ahead.

    Jubilation for Argentina, who continued the pattern that began in 1983, which consists of alternating two-time champions and new winners at the Copa America. 

    Deflation, though, for Colombia, whose long unbeaten streak came to an end after 27 games, and their 23-year wait for a second Copa America title will roll on to become 27 years, at least. Will they get a better chance, especially after seeing Messi go off?

    Argentina had less possession than their opponents for the first time since the semi-finals against Croatia in the last World Cup, with Colombia seeing 55.7% of the ball.

    But even if Messi, who scored only once across the tournament, was not at his fluid best, or even available at all, Argentina proved they can win without him. After he dragged them to glory in Qatar, Messi had to watch on - with his ankle swelling - from the sidelines as Martinez got Argentina over the line.

    This victory is one that has been built on a spectacularly solid defence, too. Argentina conceded only once in six games, in the quarter-final against Ecuador, which they won on penalties. Among the teams that played at least five matches in any edition of the Copa America, only four conceded fewer than two goals: Argentina in 2024 (one), Colombia in 2001 (0), Brazil in 1989 (one) and 2019 (one).

    And what of Messi, then? 

    At 37 years and 20 days old, he became the oldest player to start a Copa America final in the 21st century. He is also the first player to play in five finals (2007, 2015, 2016, 2021 and 2024), surpassing Javier Mascherano (2004, 2007, 2015 and 2016).

    He had not been substituted in a Copa America match since July 2007, also in a meeting with Colombia, but needs must.

    If this was, as expected, his farewell appearance in the competition, he goes out a two-time champion and with 14 goals to his name, three short of the tournament's record scorers.

    Martinez, meanwhile, has completed his redemption arc. His tally of five goals not only wins him the Golden Boot, but also matches the best effort by an Argentine at the Copa America since the turn of the century (along with Messi in 2016 and Juan Roman Riquelme in 2007).

    His goals came from just 221 minutes of action, and he started just two of Argentina's six matches.

    Colombia will lick their wounds, but so too must CONMEBOL and CONCACAF. 

    Passions run high in South American football, and the Americas in general, but the United States will be hosting a World Cup in two years' time. The chaos outside the stadium gates, which resulted in hundreds if not thousands of fans entering without tickets, and the match being delayed, does not reflect well at all.

    Like Martinez in an international shirt, those governing bodies must up their games. 

  • Di Maria dreamed of Copa America success in final Argentina outing Di Maria dreamed of Copa America success in final Argentina outing

    Angel Di Maria said he had dreamed of calling time on his international career with a trophy as Argentina beat Colombia in the Copa America final on Sunday. 

    Lautaro Martinez's fifth goal of the tournament secured Lionel Scaloni's side a record 16th title to move ahead of Uruguay as the most successful team in the competition. 

    Di Maria, who made 145 appearances for Argentina, received the player of the match award in his final outing for La Albiceleste at the Hard Rock Stadium. 

    The 36-year-old featured in all but one of Argentina's fixtures at the tournament, registering one assist in their 2-0 win over Peru in their final group game. 

    Di Maria announced in October that he would retire from international football after this year's Copa America, calling time on a glittering 16-year career. 

    The win also sees defender Nicholas Otamendi end his international career, while Lionel Messi is yet to decide whether he will participate in the 2026 World Cup. 

    Di Maria has played a key role in La Albiceleste's three major tournament triumphs in as many years. 

    The Argentine scored in both the 2021 Copa America and 2022 World Cup final and said that his nation's latest success was the perfect way to bow out. 

    "The truth is, this was written, it was this way," Di Maria said. "I dreamed it, I dreamed that I would arrive to the final and win it and retire in this way.

    "I have so many beautiful feelings and I am eternally grateful to this generation and today I am leaving in this way with a title."

  • Argentina 1-0 Colombia (aet): Lautaro Martinez's extra-time strike seals Copa America crown Argentina 1-0 Colombia (aet): Lautaro Martinez's extra-time strike seals Copa America crown

    Lautaro Martinez struck an extra-time winner as Argentina edged out Colombia 1-0 to win their second successive Copa America title, despite losing Lionel Messi to injury.

    The Inter forward climbed off the bench to break Los Cafeteros' hearts in the 112th minute in Miami, where kick-off had been delayed for 82 minutes due to crowd disruption outside the stadium. 

    La Albiceleste headed into extra time without Messi, who left the field in tears in the 66th minute after sustaining an ankle injury.

    Nevertheless, Lautaro Martinez stepped up in his skipper's absence, slotting past Colombia goalkeeper Camilo Vargas to deliver his nation's record-breaking 16th Copa triumph.

    Both sides demonstrated their attacking intent early on. Julian Alvarez fired wide inside the opening 60 seconds, while Jhon Cordoba's volley clipped the outside of the post six minutes later.

    Emiliano Martinez held onto a Carlos Cuesta header and, at the other end, Alvaraz inadvertently took the sting out of Lionel Messi's goalbound effort on 20 minutes.

    As the final remained in the balance, Jefferson Lerma fired narrowly wide from distance, while Nicolas Tagliafico headed over from a Messi free-kick just before the break.

    Colombia created the better opportunities in the early stages of the second half. Santiago Arias drilled wide and Davinson Sanchez headed over from a James Rodriguez corner.

    At the other end, Camilo Vargas pushed away Angel Di Maria's effort from a tight angle, before a distraught Messi was forced off injured as the game headed into the final quarter.

    Messi's replacement Nicolas Gonzalez thought he had broken the deadlock in the 75th minute, but Argentina were denied by the offside flag as the game headed for extra time.

    Gonzalez went close again five minutes into the first period, with Vargas scrambling across to thwart him on the line.

    A penalty shootout loomed but, with eight minutes remaining, two Argentina substitutes combined with Giovani Lo Celso feeding Lautaro Martinez, whose composed finish snatched the Copa from under Colombia's noses.

    Super sub Lautaro seals Argentina's successful title defence

    Having scored from the bench in Argentina's opening two Group A games against Canada and Chile, Lautaro Martinez chose an ideal moment to complete a hat-trick of such strikes in this tournament.

    Combining with fellow substitute Lo Celso, the Inter forward netted his fifth goal in the United States to secure the Golden Boot award.

    La Albiceleste needed a hero after Messi limped off on a bittersweet night for the skipper.

    The first player to feature in five Copa America finals, at 37 years and 20 days, he was also the oldest player to start one in the 21st century.

    However, there was to be no match-winning contribution this time in a tournament at which he has been plagued by niggling injuries.

    Messi's international future is uncertain but team-mates Di Maria and Nicolas Otamendi - both of whom donned the captain's armband following his withdrawal - sign off with another major international honour under their belts.

    Courageous Colombia come up short

    While Argentina captured their 16th Copa, Colombia were seeking just the second in their history.

    Los Cafeteros claimed their sole triumph on home soil in 2001, notably recording three successive clean sheets in the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final.

    It looked like Nestor Lorenzo's current crop of players could follow suit 23 years later, as they more than held their own with the reigning Copa and world champions.

    But La Albiceleste - the last team to beat them before they embarked on their record-breaking 28-match unbeaten run - proved their nemesis once more, with Lautaro Martinez's strike breaking that streak, and breaking their hearts.

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