Iconic NFL coach Vince Lombardi once said "second place is meaningless. You can't always be first, but you have to believe that you should have been -- that you were never beaten -- and that time just ran out on you." There are few teams in domestic women's football this applies more to than Emma Hayes' Chelsea.
Since rising up from title wannabes to perennial champions, the team have grown season after season into the best in England. Fueling that growth has been a constant desire to get better: the players who were there for the Blues' historic first league triumph in 2015 have been refreshed and replaced by others who in turn have been upgraded as longtime manager Hayes has tried to construct a team that can win the ultimate European prize.
While Chelsea have set the pace in the Women's Super League (WSL) when it comes to investment and star signings, the league was still largely divided between teams with resources and those without: only the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City have been able to boast similar levels of effort. For a long time in the WSL, the disparity was stark, with most teams outside the top three -- or top two at times -- being reduced to fodder, their part-time/semi-pro players used as training cones by international players en route to title glory.
Yet for all the rampaging wins Chelsea have under their belt, and for all the crushing defeats they've handed out to their rivals, the Blues have also finessed the art of grinding out wins. Indeed, in the WSL or Europe, no team has mastered the craft as well as Hayes'. This skill is what has them on the precipice of a treble as the Blues are one point behind Man United in the league with six games to play, and with a Champions League semifinal with Barcelona (April 22 and 27) and FA Cup final against United (May 14) still to come.
It is a testament to the team Hayes has built that her side has been seemingly immune to the broader chaos at Chelsea, with chairman Todd Boehly already looking to appoint his third men's first-team manager of the 2022-23 season after spending over £600 million on the squad. The ability shown by Hayes & Co. to overcome adversity and band together to help each other remains something few around the women's game have been able to replicate.
Part of it will always be down to their physicality: Chelsea are one of the best conditioned teams in the country, and have been for years, but since the mandate of professionalisation for all clubs in the top tier, the Blues have seen that gap reduced over the recent seasons. (In a global sense, the same has been true for the U.S. women's national team.)
There is the star quality in Chelsea's ranks too; the five-time WSL champions have just one player in their squad who isn't a full international (third-choice goalkeeper Emily Orman) and most of those internationals have major tournament experience. They are players who, as well as being developed at Chelsea, have starred for domestic and international teams and can unleash that elite athlete mentality to find a way to cross the finish line.
Speaking after Chelsea's FA Cup semifinal win over Aston Villa on Sunday, Australia captain Sam Kerr said, "It's a sign of a good team: we kind of grind it through ... I thought it was a really gutsy team performance today. We just needed to do what we needed to do, and we got the win, and we can go home happy."
Now in her 11th year at Chelsea, Hayes has tried different systems and ideas with her team as well as helping push the envelope behind the scenes, looking for sport's cliched marginal gains. (This is in addition to an exhaustive squad overhaul during every offseason.) The recipe has made for a successful team, but it's that ability to grind out wins -- even in matches that ultimately won't decide the fate of the WSL title, that separate Chelsea from the rest of the pack.
As Hayes said after the Villa game: "You have to win football matches in very, very different ways and sometimes you can have a nice, lush pitch at Kingsmeadow, at home to Leicester, and it's sparkling, swashbuckling [stuff] ... but if you can't win football matches like this, you can't win the biggest prizes, at least not domestically anyway."
This season hasn't been as swashbuckling as previous campaigns, with long-term injuries to key players (forward Fran Kirby, midfielder Pernille Harder, central defenders Millie Bright and Kadeisha Buchanan) making Chelsea look a little off colour at points. But the unwavering belief and effort to get through games has told time and again. Not just against Villa on Sunday, but also against Olympique Lyonnais in the Champions League quarterfinals last month.
Seemingly running on fumes and all but out of the premiere European cup competition, Chelsea conjured up a stoppage time penalty in the second half of extra time -- literally the last kick of the game, and one that took place long after the final whistle should have gone -- and pushed the tie all the way to penalties. And just like that, the mentality monsters roared back at the reigning European champions and booked their spot in the last four.
In a sense, the "Chelsea Way" has become about finding any way at all to keep going.
Take their clash with Arsenal at the Emirates at the start of the calendar year. Without a shot on target heading into the 85th minute in North London, it seemed unfathomable that Chelsea would leave with anything after weathering the Gunners' total dominance. But Arsenal's inability to close out games came back to haunt them: in the 89th minute, Kerr rose in front of goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger to nod in a crucial equaliser, gifting Chelsea a point and denying Arsenal a vital win.
On Sunday, Kerr noted the injuries that have been plaguing Chelsea all season. "I think all those injuries have brought us closer together as a squad, we don't have that many players right now that are fit and healthy," she said. "There's only a few of us and a lot of people missing so we've all got to push each other along."
Certainly, without Kerr's favoured strike-partner Kirby, whose Chelsea career has been marred by injury and illness, and the dynamism of Denmark star Harder in midfield, the Blues' attack has struggled. But injuries and absences have hurt the team across the pitch and against Villa, the team found themselves without either of their favoured centre-backs. Yet even with Maren Mjelde and Magda Eriksson -- two players who have reliable for Chelsea over the past few years but have struggled for minutes this season -- the team dug deep to keep Aston Villa out, resisting a late barrage from the hosts.
The difference for Chelsea is that unlike those teams around them, they simply refuse to buckle or know when they're beaten. Even in 2017-18, when they had wrapped up the title before the last game of the season and found themselves two goals down to Liverpool inside 10 minutes, they pulled off a remarkable second-half comeback, scoring three goals in 13 minutes to finish the season unbeaten.
Winning ugly is the marker of champions, and there can be no question that Hayes' side know how to find a way of picking up points, whether they deserve them or not. It's of little surprise that Chelsea have five league titles, six cup wins and the only women's Community Shield held since 2008.
For all the questions about the team looking below their best this season, Hayes & Co. are still just one point off the top with a game in hand, are preparing for their second cup final of the season and have the Champions League last four ahead. Regardless of what has happened in the season, regardless of how little of the ball the Blues might have in a game, only a fool would bet against them.