New Jersey native and University of North Carolina grad Tobin Heath would be closer to home if she ends up with Racing Louisville FC. The Kentucky team, which will start play in 2021, claimed the rights to Heath in November 12’s expansion draft.

Portland Thorns and US Women’s National Team star Tobin Heath has been chosen by Racing Louisville FC in the National Women’s Soccer League’s expansion draft, in advance of the new Kentucky team joining the league for the 2021 season.

Heath joined the Thorns in their inaugural season in 2013 but hasn’t appeared for the club this year, having opted out of the summer NWSL Challenge Cup and then signed through next spring with Manchester United. She and Manchester United teammate Christen Press (of the Utah Royals) were the two marquee names Louisville saved for its final two picks in the November 12 broadcast on Twitch. 

“We’re so stoked for all of you, and we’re going to support y’all no matter what,” Leigh Nieves, president of Louisville’s Lavender Legion supporters group, announced during the draft broadcast. 

Teams could protect up to 11 players from the draft, including two “allocated” players, national team players whose salaries are paid by US Soccer. Louisville could take one US allocated player or two other unprotected players from each of eight teams in the league. (The ninth, the Chicago Red Stars, headed things off at the pass by trading two players to Louisville in October.) Last week the Thorns announced its protected list, so Louisville could not have selected Canadian superstar Christine Sinclair, scoring forces Lindsey Horan and Simone Charley, defensive mainstay Emily Menges, or last year’s top two draft picks, among others. Left unprotected were all three Thorns goalkeepers, a move that had some fans’ stomachs in knots all week. US National Team backup keeper Adrianna Franch was certainly a draw, but far from the only one. Franch sat out with injuries for much of 2020, giving four-year Thorn Britt Eckerstrom and Oregon State grad and Milwaukie native Bella Bixby a chance to shine—and to catch Louisville’s eye.

The new team also selected former Thorns Caitlin Foord, an Australian whose rights were traded to Orlando last winter and who has since played in her home country’s domestic league and for Arsenal in England, and Michelle Betos, a veteran goalkeeper most recently with OL Reign. (See all 14 expansion draft picks here.)

While there could still be more moves ahead, if Heath does indeed suit up in lavender for Racing Louisville next season she’ll be part of the first major league team there since Gerald Ford was president. A sports-mad city best known for horseracing and men’s college hoops, Louisville hasn’t had a top-tier pro team since the Kentucky Colonels evaporated in the American Basketball League’s 1976 merger with the NBA. (The Colonels’ dispersal draft, incidentally, sent ABA All Star Maurice Lucas to Portland, where he joined Bill Walton on the Trail Blazers roster that made history the next season.) Heath would also be landing in another progressive river town with major Lewis and Clark vibes, an ever-growing number of breweries, and billboards that support keeping the city weird. Louisville shared a summer in the spotlight with Portland as home to some of the country’s most prominent demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism. 

The expansion draft is the latest shakeup to the Thorns’ ever-shifting roster, which saw major trades and surprise draft picks in January, picked up US Women’s National Team stars Becky Sauerbrunn (before the 2020 season started) and Crystal Dunn (right after it finished), lost its Australians to Europe, and loaned players out in Germany and France. 

The writer was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and asks that you not use Mitch McConnell as your pronunciation guide for the city’s name. He grew up in Alabama.

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