Honestly, it was a great opportunity to play a full season and to compete for a title, and that’s what I felt like I needed and it provided a really great place for that.Tobin Heath
Tobin Heath described her move to Manchester United as a “great opportunity” when she spoke to the media for the first time since leaving the Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League. The 32-year-old is joining the FA Women’s Super League alongside her fellow U.S. Women’s National Teammates Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle, Alex Morgan, and Christen Press, the latter of whom has also joined Casey Stoney’s side.
Neither Heath or Press have made their debuts after going through the mandatory two-week quarantine, but both have now started training with their new teammates and Heath is looking forward to a new adventure after seven years with the Thorns.
“Yeah, it’s a big move, especially during a time like this,” said the forward. “Obviously, Manchester United’s tradition and history speaks for itself, we’re all familiar with it. Honestly, it was a great opportunity to play a full season and to compete for a title, and that’s what I felt like I needed and it provided a really great place for that.
“It’s a young, ambitious program, they’re only a few years old. I was really drawn in by the manager, Casey Stoney, and her reputation and what I had heard about her, and then becoming more familiar with the team, that was something I felt like I could really come here and build upon and help out and learn and grow. So far, I’m really happy about my decision to join the club, it’s been great.”
Heath is not averse to making big career decisions, with the move to United not the first time she has left the sanctity of the United States in search of an adventure elsewhere.
The forward spent time with French side Paris Saint-Germain in 2013 and 2014, and admitted her desire to once again play abroad and find new experiences was an influence in her joining United.
“Honestly, the decision and all of that happened fairly quickly. In terms of my ambition to play overseas, I’ve played overseas before. I actually wanted to come here, not necessarily now; obviously, the circumstances are a big reason for that, but it is a league that I’ve had my eye on.
“Obviously I’m a huge football fan so the league and tradition was something that had interested me, but due to the circumstances obviously a lot had changed and forced a lot of decisions that I would have never thought I would have to have been making at this point in my career. But as it all goes we’re all doing our best, but as soon as there was interest from the club and I learned about their program and their process and learned and asked around, learned about Casey, learned about the team, it was a project I was very much interested in. The rest is kind of history and now I’m in Manchester.”
United’s Impressive Growth
A quirky aspect of the situation the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown up now means the front three former USWNT head coach Jill Ellis started for the U.S. against England at last summer’s World Cup now all play for teams who were only promoted to the FA WSL that same summer, with Morgan at Tottenham and Press and Heath at United.
While it would have been almost impossible without the current pandemic to imagine any of the five major U.S. stars playing in England, Heath has been impressed with how quickly United has grown in just two years of competition.
“You can see it and you can feel it in the club and they’re really, really proud of it,” she said. “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. I think when I first watched the team, it wasn’t a team that I thought was a team that had recently come into the first division and is really trying to make a name for themselves. I think it shows with the 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.
“You’re seeing this in the woman’s game, benchmarks are just being broken all the time and records and whatever. I actually remember, Christen and I were talking about this, I remember when Manchester United came into the league and I remember saying, ‘Wow, this is huge. This is huge for a club like this to have a women’s team.’
“It’s so important for clubs with all this tradition, history, power, influence, we see it in America all the time, how much the badge in the club means. 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. It’s so encouraging for the global game at large. So yeah, we need more of this and I’m happy to be part of it.”
New Challenges and Opportunities Ahead
In the U.S., there’s very little Heath hasn’t achieved — three NCAA titles, two NWSL Championships, two World Cups, and two Olympic gold medals to name but a few accomplishments. And it was the promise of a new challenge and the lure of a football culture that played a big part in her decision in swapping Portland for Manchester this season.
“I’ve been so blessed in my career to be able to compete in the most important games there is as a footballer and at a club level I want to experience the same things. Europe obviously gives you a different element to that. The culture of football is so special and you come over and you’re able to learn so much. The game is taught so differently and looked at so differently and that’s something that I love; I love to learn and I love to grow and push myself and at this point in my career it’s a great place to do it.”
Expanding on her view that Europe and England will offer her new opportunities, Heath spoke of the cup competitions in England, something which the NWSL doesn’t currently have, as well as the potential for the club to qualify for the Champions League for the first time with the FA WSL now having three European spots available, but the greater competition between the top clubs means top three is still no guarantee for United.
“It’s definitely a more unique setup here than what we’re traditionally used to,” said Heath. “There are a lot more things to compete for. Obviously you know there’s the big league title, but there’s the cup and also Champions League spots, which would be enormous. Having that third Champions League spot added this year is going to be crazy competitive, and I’m not just talking about the top three. The top three are going to be challenged in normal regular-season games in ways I’m sure they weren’t challenged in before.
“In that way, the league has strengthened and that’s what you want to see from any league — you want to see competition. Obviously, the top teams are the top teams for a reason — incredible rosters, deep rosters of talented players that they’ve worked really, really hard to establish. But there’s no right to win anything; you have to deserve it. If those teams are going to win, we’re going to have to force them to deserve to win. We just hope to come and make the league more competitive and for Man United to challenge for all those things. Just seeing the ambition, the attitude from the girls, and from the manager, I know that is their ambition. I wouldn’t come to a club that didn’t have those ambitions.”
Stoney’s ambition and the reports Heath got back when she started seriously considering the club’s offer to join appears to have been one of the key selling points in United closing the deals for both the 32-year-old and Press.
The former England captain has been in charge for both of United’s two seasons so far and is a figure who commands respect throughout the game, and Heath has been impressed by her early days working with the former defender.
“I think when I was first asking about the club, trying to get intel, it was incredible how highly she was spoken of. And then even here, when I came into the team, the girls just speak really, really highly of her, and same with the staff. It’s something that I feel, like I said before, but I feel like she’s a show-not-tell manager. She shows you exactly how she wants the team to be, the culture of the team, by her own actions.
“I think that comes with a lot of respect from the dressing room and you can already feel that. You can feel that she is a very strong leader on this team. You can see she’s very committed to being organized, to working hard; honestly, all the really, really important things to get right as a manager. She’s very focused and the way that she’s kind of mobilized this team in the last few years is really powerful and it’s a testament to her and her devotion for the club and for the growth of this team.”
USWNT vs. USWNT
Heath will come up against some of her USWNT teammates sooner rather than later, and there will be added spice given midfielders Mewis and Lavelle are at local rivals Manchester City.
With a rivalry between the two women’s sides ever growing, the addition of two top U.S. stars to both sides is something that will undoubtedly grow the game, but something Heath is also really looking forward to.
“Yeah, the badges are huge. 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. Obviously, we compete with each other and against each other all the time, so it’s something we’re very familiar with.
“I was honestly really excited when I saw that Rose and Sam were coming over because I thought it’s a very uncomfortable time and to be uncomfortable and make that move I thought was enormous and I have huge respect for that because it’s not an easy decision, and just shows how much they value their career. Just having everybody over here, there’s kind of that nice familiarity about it, but I think we’re all used to the competition at this point.”
One lure that comes with the Manchester United name is their famous home: Old Trafford. United has yet to play a women’s game at their historic home but Heath is one of the few in the women’s game who has been fortunate enough to play there.
The forward played a part in one of the most famous women’s games in modern times, the USWNT’s 4–3 win over rivals Canada at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
“Yeah, it’s funny because I was actually at Old Trafford [on Monday], and it was bringing back a lot of memories and it’s just such an iconic venue for any footballer. I was nerding out before and during the Olympics when we played there. I think in our first game, it was a group-stage match and then we played that epic, semifinal against Canada
“I had all the feels when going back there and any footballer’s dream would be to play for Manchester United and to play at Old Trafford. The pitch just has this iconic feeling about it. It’s almost elevated, it’s almost like a stage for the players and I always enjoyed that you can kind of just slip right off the edges. It’s just special to be there and to be somewhere a part of that.”
Whatever her year in Manchester brings, Heath isn’t quickly going to forget the city and club she’s called home for the past seven years. The Portland Thorns retain her rights and it’s likely where she will return to once her spell in England is over, and Heath admitted the Thorns have been home for her since she joined in 2013.
“You’re absolutely right, Portland is my home, it’s been my home since the beginning of the NWSL. I have such incredible memories there both on and off the field and there is a core group of players that has been there since the beginning and it’s a place that I love and I love to play.
“Anytime that you have to leave an environment that is ultimately perfect for you it isn’t easy, but it’s kind of like what I referred to earlier, is that you have to be uncomfortable as a footballer and for me, in Portland, 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. Obviously, because of the circumstances, playing in an empty Providence Park is not the Portland that I know.”