LONDON (AP) — Stepping back inside Old Trafford this week took Tobin Heath back eight years, to one of the wildest Olympic soccer matches ever played.
Heath remembers it as an “epic.” Three times the United States trailed Canada. Three times the game was leveled by the Americans before Alex Morgan sealed their passage to the final and a fourth Olympic title.
“It was bringing back a lot of memories and it’s just such an iconic venue for any footballer,” Heath said, recalling Monday’s trip to Manchester United’s stadium. “I was nerding out before and during the Olympics when we played there.”
Behind the two-time Olympic champion on this video call, there was even a Lego model of the stadium behind her waiting to be assembled.
Heath will soon be hoping to play at Old Trafford again. The winger has more chance now she has signed for Manchester United, although the Women’s Super League team has yet to play in the stadium that has been home to the men’s side for 110 years.
“The pitch just has like this iconic feeling about it,” Heath said. “It’s like almost elevated like it’s almost like a stage for the players.”
United didn’t even have a women’s team when the Olympics rolled into the northern English city in 2012. It was only reformed in 2018 after being scrapped 13 years earlier. Promotion was secured to the top division in its first season, and United has opened its second WSL campaign with a victory over Birmingham and draw with champion Chelsea.
“This is huge for a club like this to have a women’s team,” Heath said. “It’s so important for clubs with all this tradition, history, power, influence.”
After seven years at the Portland Thorns in the National Women’s Soccer League, the 32-year-old Heath will be playing for a club outside of her homeland for the second time after spending time at Paris Saint-Germain in 2013 and 2014.
This transfer is a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down the NWSL in March. The NWSL was the first professional team sport to return in the United States with the Challenge Cup tournament in a bubble in Utah this summer, but Heath took up the option to opt out.
While the NWSL is playing a Fall Series, the matches are regional to cut down on travel and the games do not count toward a regular season. Many players opted instead to sign with teams overseas — particularly in England — to see meaningful competition in the offseason, especially with uncertainty over the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. and the Olympics looming next summer.
Fellow World Cup winner Christen Press also joined United. Across Manchester at City are Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis. And Tottenham last week added Morgan.
“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,” Heath said. “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.”
Heath relied on recordings of English men’s games to get her soccer fix as a youngster.
“I would literally have to buy tapes of games … to educate myself on the league and the players,” she said.
She became hooked on Arsenal — a team she will now be playing against in the WSL.
“It’s definitely going to be a different feeling,” Heath said. “It already feels a little strange.”
Strange too for Heath that the scheduled November meeting with Arsenal will be at the Leigh Sports Village on the outskirts of Manchester rather than Old Trafford.
“I had all the feels when going back there,” she said, “and any footballer’s dream would be to play for Manchester United and to play at Old Trafford.”