LONDON -- Chelsea emerged from the tunnel for the second half at Kingsmeadow Stadium on Sunday with just 45 minutes to settle a Women's Super League season like no other. Little had gone right before then. They had been sloppy, ill-disciplined and lacking in tempo. For all their talent, Chelsea head coach Emma Hayes said she felt like substituting a number of them.
That's why, when Chelsea look back on this title-winning season, they will remember it as a period when they were pushed to their limit like never before. The stakes could not have been higher: They were playing on the final day of a drama-filled WSL season, just a single point ahead of second-place Arsenal, who were playing 21 miles to the east against West Ham United on the other side of the city. Whoever achieved the better result would win the title. The league even ensured there was a trophy at each of the two matches.
Chelsea entered their home game against Manchester United on Sunday as clear favourites, and yet nothing had gone right. That's when the WSL's leading scorer, striker Sam Kerr, took the game into her own hands.
She had been telling teammates the day before that she would score a "worldie." She had visualised it, confident in her ability to deliver in the biggest moments. Her prediction came true: With her side trailing, she picked a floating ball out of the sky and thundered a weak-footed volley from the edge of the box. It would be the moment Chelsea turned the tide, when they finally seized the opportunity ahead of them. Winger Guro Reiten sent them ahead before Kerr took centre stage again, sending another long-range volley into the back of the net.
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It was the perfect way to end a landmark season, one that was surely the most entertaining in WSL history. The league can stake a major claim for being the most competitive major women's league in the world as it continues to make incredible growth. (Its broadcast deal with Sky Sports and the BBC this season is the most valuable domestic broadcast contract in women's football.)
And entering its finale, it was at the top of the table that the action reached a fever pitch. There was drama everywhere: Arsenal and Chelsea chasing the title, third-place Manchester City needing just a point to seal another season of Champions League football as fourth-place United hoped to pip them to it. At Kingsmeadow, Chelsea were there to finish their journey.
It is often difficult to tell when title races begin, exactly. They are not built, constructed or manufactured. Instead, they're like a dissipating fog; at first they stand unclear before a picture emerges, and the image grows vivid. This season's WSL race, though, began on the opening day. Chelsea faced Arsenal at the Emirates, and the hosts edged to an important 3-2 win. That was when the simmering managerial mind games between the pair's head coaches began, too.
Hayes had rested stars that day -- notably Kerr and Fran Kirby, who were still recovering from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games three weeks prior. Arsenal boss Jonas Eidevall, managing in his first WSL game, took a risk to play his best players.
After the match, Hayes made a wise observation: "Arsenal gave their players no time off whatsoever. It's a long season, and the reason I say it's a long season is, yes, the advantage might be there today, but my job is to keep everybody on the pitch for the whole season."
She was right.
Arsenal got off to a fast start but began to falter around January as Champions League commitments mounted, while Chelsea grew evermore into the campaign. They thrashed Arsenal in a 3-0 win during last season's belated FA Cup final, held in December. By March, they had taken their place at the top of the league. Heading into the final day, Chelsea had won their past eight WSL games. Only once before in their history had they won nine on the bounce. Arsenal had pushed them to the limits of their consistency, to their constant best.
That set the stage for Sunday. Hayes stressed consistency in the build-up: It would be a normal week, players would train and play as they always did, delivering a much-needed win. Chelsea had a clear plan, until United delivered the proverbial punch in the mouth. Martha Thomas headed in from a deep free kick to send her season ahead and move goalless Arsenal, briefly, into the first place on goal difference. Arsenal substitute Jordan Nobbs sat on the bench watching the Chelsea match on her phone, roaring with excitement at the sight of every United goal.
Chelsea hit back when Erin Cuthbert was alive in the box from a corner and thrashed home a belting half-volley to send the packed home crowd into an eruption. Smart money would have been to back Chelsea (the side that claimed a domestic treble last season, who have become perennial WSL champions) to go on to maintain their momentum and keep their composure, but that's exactly what made this final day so exciting. Pressure again took its toll and the unexpected reigned supreme. Chelsea's passing was not as crisp as usual, their attacks unusually snuffed. Within 10 minutes, United went back ahead with a volley at the back post from forward Ella Toone.
Chelsea, then, were finally pushed to their absolute limit. Hayes tweaked the shape at half-time and brought on midfielder Ji So-Yun, and everything changed. They played with a higher line, now finally on the front foot. That's where Kerr's genius was required, when a world-class finish was what was needed, and perhaps nobody knew more than her just what was about to happen. When her left boot thundered the volley to the back of the net, the momentum turned. The scores now level.
Kerr ran over to Hayes with a beaming smile, describing the match as their "destiny." She knew, just as with her volley, exactly what was about to happen.
"That shows confidence," Hayes said. "I always said [to Kerr] come to Chelsea and you'll win trophies here ... We're both perfectly suited for Chelsea."
Arsenal broke the deadlock at West Ham, returning them back to the top of the table, but somehow, it seemed obvious that Chelsea would go on to win. And it only took a few more minutes: Ji proved her quality again, sliding in forward Pernille Harder down the left flank to allow the Germany international to roll a pass inside to Reiten, who fired home. Then came another moment of Kerr brilliance: she saw a header drop out of the air at 25 yards out before chesting it down and volleying past goalkeeper Mary Earps.
A 4-2 victory for Chelsea meant Arsenal's 2-0 win at West Ham did not change the league standings. It meant Hayes' side continued their dynasty, winning their third consecutive WSL title, and their fourth in the past five years.
The victory will be cherished, although there is still work to be done at Chelsea. They have seven players out of contract this summer, with pending new owners -- led by LA Dodgers part-owner Todd Boehly -- tasked with maintaining the dynasty Hayes has built in west London. They also have next Sunday's Women's FA Cup final (9:20 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+) to prepare for, where they will face City and hope to bring home yet more silverware to an increasingly packed trophy cabinet.
That is all for another day, though. Hayes' side will rest easy on Sunday, knowing they stood up to the test, proving again they are still at the top of the pile.
"I just knew we were going to win," Kerr said in a post-match news conference. "When we get going like that, not many teams can stay with us."