Tobin Heath has had pretty much everything a soccer player could ask for in her seven years with the Portland Thorns. She has won trophies playing with world-class teammates. Her skills have drawn deafening roars from the biggest club fan base in the women’s game worldwide. And the city has become a true home for the Basking Ridge, N.J., native.
The coronavirus pandemic upended so much of that. The Olympics were postponed. The NWSL season was reduced to a neutral-site summer tournament and a few autumn games with low stakes. The gates of Providence Park will be locked to fans for some time. Portland is still home, but without a big piece of her life.
So the 32-year-old took the opportunity to listen to another part of herself that had long been there: the part that developed during spells with France’s Paris Saint-Germain in 2013 and ’14. She quietly wanted to return to Europe some day — this time to England.
Heath knew the country’s women’s league was growing fast, and like so many Americans she aspired to be part of the country’s soccer-crazed culture. When the call came this summer asking if she’d like to join Manchester United for a season, she said yes.
“Every opportunity that you get in life to do something unique and that’s going to challenge you and push you is an opportunity that I want to take, especially as a footballer," she said. “Our careers are so short, and you know, I was very patient in my waiting during our quarantine and lockdown in the U.S. At some point you don’t ever know what the right decision is, but you have to make one — and I chose to come over, and I’m really happy."
Heath could easily have stayed in Portland, a place she called “an environment that is ultimately perfect" for her.
“The setup there, the people, the commitment to the sport, to growing the league, being able to play in front of those fans all the time, I mean, it’s the ultimate in terms of women’s football anywhere," she said.
But she also felt a pull to do something different.
“As a footballer, I’m never satisfied with where I’m at, and I love to evolve as a player,” she said. “The only place you can do that is when you’re uncomfortable, and sometimes when you’re at home for too long, it’s not that."
Heath is one of five American stars who’ve moved to England this summer. Her national team colleague, friend and off-the-field business partner Christen Press has also joined United; Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle are across town at Manchester City; and Alex Morgan is in London at Tottenham Hotspur, her second stint in Europe after playing for France’s Lyon in 2017.
It will be quite a sight to see them playing for some of the biggest clubs in all of soccer, not just the women’s game.
“You have such a young history in terms of football in the U.S., so it’s something that — it’s going to definitely bring a different weight to the shirt, I feel like," Heath said. “I was honestly really excited when I saw that Rose and Sam were coming over, because I thought, you know, it’s a very uncomfortable time, and to kind of put your career [on hold in the NWSL] and be uncomfortable and make that move, I thought, was enormous. I have huge respect for that, because it’s not an easy decision.”
Many international players from the NWSL have relocated to England, too. Former Thorns teammate Caitlin Foord is one of a few Australians who’ve joined Arsenal; OL Reign’s Jess Fishlock is at Reading; Houston’s Rachel Daly is at West Ham; and North Carolina’s Denise O’Sullivan is at Brighton, which will visit United on Oct. 4 in what should be Heath and Press' debut.
An old club with a new team
The United women’s team is only in its third season. The lack of a team before then was a sore spot for many people in women’s soccer, and the club wasn’t simply excused for fixing it. Now United is showing a commitment to not just having a team, but also making it matter.
“It’s something that they’re continuing to build on every day in their setup, and in the way that they train, and in the way that they’re growing," Heath said. “I think it shows, with the club bringing over Christen and I, that they’re very ambitious and they want to compete now — they don’t want to wait. And that’s exactly what I love to do.”
Though Heath had long pondered playing in England, her playing style is about as far from English as it gets. She modeled her game on the magic of Brazil’s creative wizards. Her catalog of dribbles, flicks and stepovers rivals any of the game’s greats, and surpasses any ever seen in this country.
Yet she was drawn to the Premier League growing up, right as it started its own growth in America. Heath was not, however, drawn to United. She has long been an Arsenal fan, inspired by Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry’s dynasty of the early 2000s. Their greatest foil was the club Heath now calls home. That era’s Arsenal-United clashes remain legendary.
“It already feels a little strange,” she acknowledged with a laugh.
“All of my football — my introduction, even my coaches, most of them came from Europe, particularly England," she said. “When I was a kid, I’d have to buy — this is so dating me, but — I would literally have to buy tapes of games and of teams and highlights and pop them in [to] be able to watch, to educate myself on the leagues and the players. Now everything is so easily available, which is fantastic for any fan in the U.S."
Heath will have many notable teammates beyond Press: Dutch midfielder Jacky Groenen, English midfielders Katie Zelem and Lucy Staniforth, and promising Spanish outside back Ona Batlle. English forward Leah Galton also has an American connection: She played college soccer at Hofstra and spent two years at Sky Blue FC.
The WSL’s big three of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City all have much more talent than that, though, and breaking their dominance won’t be easy. But Heath has already won over many United fans simply by signing there. Now, she sets out to win games for them.
“It’s so important for clubs with all the tradition, history, power, influence — we see it in America all the time, how much the badge and the club means,” Heath said. “It’s huge for them to have a women’s team, and to see the progress that they’ve made, and what they’ve put into it is so encouraging for the global game at large. We need more of this, and I’m happy to be part of it.”