US Women’s National Team star, OG Portland Thorn, and Tobin Tuesday namesake Tobin Heath has signed with Manchester United. National media reported the move last week, the Thorns confirmed today, and Manchester United packed its Twitter with a flurry of “the eagle has landed” posts. The midfielder, one of only two Thorns on the team since its inaugural season in 2013 (the other is Christine Sinclair), will play in England’s FA Women’s Super League, one of several European organizations attracting National Women’s Soccer League players after the pandemic sharply reduced its season and postponed this summer’s Olympic Games.
Joining Heath at Manchester United is her USWNT teammate Christen Press, of the Utah Royals. Both Heath and Press were among the NWSL players who opted out of his summer’s month-long Challenge Cup, a bubble tournament held in Salt Lake City, and they will miss the NWSL Fall Series, in which the Thorns, the Royals, and the OL Reign (once of Seattle but now playing in Tacoma and sort of French thanks to new ownership) form one of three regional three-team pods that will play each other in an effort to reduce travel. The Thorns kick off this Saturday against the Reign, at an empty Providence Park.
After a quarantine period in England, Heath and Press could debut with their new team in October. Most games fall on Sundays, at 6 a.m. Pacific time. Fans can find the Manchester United schedule here, and can catch games on the free FA Player app (but sadly will not be able to commune with other fans over morning biscuits and coffee at Toffee Club, the SE Hawthorne soccer-watching mainstay that announced its closure last month).
While many prominent departures of NWSL players for overseas leagues can be linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has slashed the number of games in most North American sports leagues this year, the magnetic forces of both money and a longer, more stable playing season were already being felt before the virus took hold. After a disappointing 2020 World Cup run, the Australia Women’s National Team appeared to encourage many of its NWSL players to try something new, with former Chicago Red Star Sam Kerr signing with Chelsea in November 2019. Amid other offseason shifts, in January Portland traded away the rights to forward Caitlin Foord, who had been playing in Australia during the NWSL offseason, just before she signed with Arsenal. The same month, Portland Thorn Hayley Raso announced she was going to Everton.
The pandemic has brought even more changes. After signing a multiyear deal last fall to remain with the Thorns, Australian defender and rising star Ellie Carpenter was transferred in June to France’s dominant Olympique Lyonnais, where she joins former Thorn and French national team captain Amandine Henry. (One thing Europe doesn’t have much of is parity—Carpenter joined a team that has won 14 consecutive league titles and seven of the last 10 UEFA multi league titles.) Elsewhere in the NWSL, other marquee names are on loan to teams in France, England, Germany, Sweden, and elsewhere.
The Thorns maintain Heath’s NWSL rights, but with the Women’s Super League regular season running through May and the Olympics rescheduled for next summer, it’s unclear when she may return to the Thorns roster.
Heath, a New Jersey native who attended soccer powerhouse University of North Carolina and played in the Women's Professional Soccer league, an NWSL predecessor, has played in Europe before. She spent parts of 2013 and 2014 with Paris Saint-Germain, where she overlapped with future Thorns and USWNT teammate Lindsey Horan, and which caused her to join the Thorns after the NWSL season had started. Of course, as then-coach Cindy Parlow Cone said upon Heath’s delayed arrival in 2013, “There’s no bad time to bring on a player like Tobin Heath.” And there’s no good time to lose one like her, either. Here’s a look back to her first days as a Thorn.