The arrival at Manchester City of the USA World Cup-winning midfielders Rose Lavelle, who scored in the 2019 final, and Sam Mewis and the shock post-deadline day announcement that Alex Morgan had signed for Tottenham dominated international headlines. But Manchester United’s recruitment of the forwards Christen Press and Tobin Heath has seen a quieter, but perhaps more knowing, excitement build over the American influx into England’s top flight.
United are relatively new to women’s football but the addition of two World Cup winners, adding balance to a team packed with young talent, has shown they do not want to coast through the season propping up the three teams that dominate the Women’s Super League. They want to disrupt.
That is perhaps what makes their acquisition of Heath (who skipped high school football in her senior year, having committed to the University of North Carolina so she could play with boys), in particular, so exciting. She is a disrupter who thrives on placing herself in “uncomfortable situations”. A quick YouTube search will uncover clip after clip of the dynamic 32-year-old tricking, flicking and chipping her way around opponents. So the decision to join a team upsetting the usual order, while a little forced by the pandemic, was easy.
It “all happened fairly quickly”, says Health, speaking to the media for the first time from her apartment in Manchester, fresh out of quarantine. “The club bringing over Christen and I shows that they’re very ambitious; that they want to compete now, they don’t want to wait, and that’s exactly what I love to do.”
The two-times World Cup winner and twice Olympic gold medallist received glowing reviews of the manager, Casey Stoney, which also helped push through the move from Portland Thorns.
“It’s a young ambitious programme – they’re only a few years old,” says a free spirit who reportedly sofa-surfed after college because she missed dormitory life. “I was really drawn in by Casey Stoney and her reputation. When I was first asking about the club, trying to get intel, it was incredible how highly she was spoken of.
“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. And I think that comes with a lot of respect from the dressing room.”
The launch of an in-house women’s team by one of the biggest clubs in the world had not gone unnoticed in 2018. “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 to have a women’s team. We see it in America all the time; how much the badge and the club means. It’s so encouraging for the global game at large. Yeah, we need more of this.”
United may be a new experience for Heath, whose only other European football experience was a six-month spell with Paris Saint-Germain in the 2013-14 season, but Old Trafford isn’t. In 2012, at her second Olympics, she played twice there, including in an “epic” semi-final against Canada which the USA won in extra time having come from behind three times.
“It’s funny because I was actually at Old Trafford yesterday and it was bringing back a lot of memories,” says Heath, who has been working on a Lego model of the ground that can be glimpsed in the background. “I was nerding out before and during the Olympics when we played there.
“I had all the feels when going back. 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.”
Her knowledge of English football comes from having grown up in the era when Premier League broadcast rights went global. “All of my football, even my introduction, even my coaches, most of them came from Europe, particularly England. So pretty much my whole footballing education and introduction was through English football.”
Although her play is more influenced by the South American-Brazilian style, she is a massive Arsenal fan.
“Oh, wow, yeah, you’re the first one to bring that up,” she laughs, when asked how it will feel to play Arsenal on 8 November. “I think it will be great. I mean obviously they’re a very talented team here in the WSL and, as well as a lot of the top teams here, they’ve strengthened particularly this year. It’s definitely going to be a different feeling. It already feels a little strange.”