When Tobin Heath signed with Manchester United a year ago, the move drew attention all the way around the soccer world.

When Heath signed with Arsenal earlier this month, there was another round of global headlines. But there were also a few wry smiles among people who know her, because they knew this deal had a certain cachet that the United one didn’t.

For nearly two decades now, Heath has been a big-time Arsenal fan. She was drawn to the club’s men’s team in the early 2000s, as many Americans were, by stars like Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, and the brilliant soccer they played in authoring England’s first unbeaten top-flight season since 1889.

“It was my first childhood club team that I really followed and I fell in love with at a young age,” Heath said Monday in her first major news conference since the deal was done. “I was attracted to the style of play through certain players that were playing there. And you know, your first love of a club is something that is kind of unchanging and unwavering through it all.”

Now, 33, Heath will finally get to wear Arsenal’s famed red-and-white jersey and cannon emblem as a player. The northern New Jersey native will head to north London following the U.S. women’s national team’s game against Paraguay on Tuesday in Cincinnati (7:30 p.m., FS1 and TUDN), and she said she hopes to be on the field for the Gunners “as soon as possible.”

Arsenal’s next game is Sunday at home against Manchester City, another English power (1:45 p.m., NBCSports.com and atafootball.com). If that game proves too soon, Arsenal’s next games after that are Sept. 29 vs. Tottenham and Oct. 3 at Aston Villa.

» READ MORE: Tobin Heath's move to Manchester United was part of a wave of U.S. players signing in England

A home with history

Arsenal’s women’s team is also decorated: 15 English league titles, most recently in 2019; 14 FA Cups, most recently in 2016; and the 2007 European Cup title, the only women’s European Cup ever won by an English club.

The team’s list of famous former players is amply long, and includes three names Philadelphia soccer fans will know well. Kelly Smith spent nine seasons at Arsenal after playing for the Charge; Lianne Sanderson spent 2015 there, four years after playing for the Independence; and longtime U.S. national team star Heather O’Reilly spent the 2017-18 European season there before her final campaign in the NWSL.

“They have incredible history on the women’s side as well, that I’m looking forward to being a part of,” Heath said. “They were at the forefront of women’s football: creating a team, investing in a team, winning both Champions League and the domestic league. So it’s a club that it’s easy to be passionate about, and one that is really deep in my heart and in my history of football.”

The current squad’s stars include England’s Nikita Parris and Jordan Nobbs, Scotland’s Kim Little, Japan’s Mana Iwabuchi, and Dutch scoring ace Vivianne Miedema. Heath will also reunite with two former Portland Thorns teammates in Steph Catley and Caitlin Foord.

“It’s actually ridiculous, the talent [the team] has,” Heath quipped.

But while Arsenal was England’s top club when it won the bulk of its trophies, it isn’t anymore. Chelsea and Manchester City have surpassed it, and Manchester United nearly did last season with Heath and Christen Press.

Arsenal did just enough to finish third, clinching a berth in this season’s UEFA Champions League qualifying playoffs. The Gunners then rolled over the Czech Republic’s Slavia Prague (7-0 on aggregate) to qualify for the tournament’s new group stage, where they were drawn with Spain’s Barcelona (the reigning European champions), Germany’s Hoffenheim, and Denmark’s HB Køge.

» READ MORE: Barcelona showed off its talent in the U.S. at this summer’s International Champions Cup

Calling London

Those qualifying wins came under a new manager, 38-year-old Swede Jonas Eidevall. Heath said they have already talked for a while. And she was watching from afar when Eidevall oversaw a 3-2 upset of Chelsea on the opening day of the new FA Women’s Super League season.

“We had a great first conversation about his vision for the team, his style of play, the way he runs his practices, the things that are important to him,” Heath said. “You can already tell that the team is in a much different mentality, frame of mind, going into the season than the prior one — which is credit to him coming in and implementing his ideas in a quick way. So I’m really excited to get in there and see what that’s going to be like.”

Though Heath has been an Arsenal fan for a long time, there was never any certainty that she’d play for the team. The opportunity to go to Manchester came largely because of the pandemic and a need for more games than her former club, the Portland Thorns, could provide ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Racing Louisville then claimed Heath’s rights in their expansion draft, putting Heath’s NWSL future in limbo. Few observers believed Heath would ever actually play for Racing, since she was in Manchester through the spring and then with the national team preparing for the Olympics.

But it was still a possibility after the Olympics until she signed for Arsenal. Officially, Heath was a free agent because her NWSL contract is technically owned by the U.S. Soccer Federation, as is the case with many veteran national team stars. And it could be a while before she’s back in the NWSL, as The Athletic reported her deal with Arsenal is for two years.

This much is certain: Heath is where she wants to be.

“I feel like in our minds, we all think our club career is going to go a certain way, and in the last couple of years, a change in my plans has given me opportunities that I never thought I’d be able to get,” Heath said. “And this is one of them.”

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