Of all the United States’ World Cup winners to have moved to the Women’s Super League this season, none have endeared themselves to fans quite like Tobin Heath at Manchester United.
Even from the first day, when Heath sat down to meet the English press for the first time via Zoom, a Lego model of Old Trafford was visible on the table behind her, ready to be unpacked and built.
When the winger spoke to the New York Times ahead of her first Manchester derby – in which she would face fellow USWNT stars Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle – she dismissed City’s claim to being a big club, with team-mates having told her “there is only one club in Manchester”.
Her goal in that game then encapsulated her passion.
Pressing high up the pitch as United desperately searched for a way back into a game they were losing 2-0 at half time, Heath helped win the ball back deep in the opposition’s half before unleashing a ferocious strike into the top corner. In celebration, she grabbed the badge and kissed it.
“She's very much integrated into the club, into the team,” Casey Stoney said after the game, which United came back to draw 2-2.
“She's a very passionate person, so when she scores a goal like that, the fact she touches her badge is great.”
That passion, mixed with her magic feet and World Cup-winning talent, has played no small part in helping Stoney’s side soar to the top of the WSL, despite it being just their second season in the division.
With four goals and two assists in eight league games, the 32-year-old has been one of the most exciting players to watch this season, never mind being one of the most effective.
TOBIN HEATH, TAKE A BOW! 👏— Goal (@goal) November 14, 2020
A stunning finish from the USWNT star in the Manchester derby 🇺🇸pic.twitter.com/iNSLed6mmx
To have been without her, then, for Sunday’s trip to Chelsea, a clash between first and second in the league, as well as next week’s game against Birmingham, would have been some blow.
Heath was invited to the USWNT’s January training camp which, combined with two friendlies against Colombia, would have ruled her out of club action for some time.
But the winger declined the call-up in order to stay in Manchester to help Stoney’s side fight to stay at the top of the table.
“I was prepared to release Tobin after the Everton game due to the contracts we have in agreement with U.S. Soccer,” her manager said, with the clash against the Toffees last week eventually postponed.
“It was a decision Tobin made, to stay in Manchester to play these games. It shows a massive commitment from her to the football club and this team.”
The impact of Heath – and Christen Press, her USWNT team-mate who also signed for United this summer – goes beyond the pitch, too.
“What you can underestimate is their mentality, what they bring to the environment and what it spreads into my players,” Stoney explained.
“The belief that they’ve got and the strong voices they have, they bring that into our environment. It’s really rubbing off on the players and it’s amazing to see.”
Winger Leah Galton emphasized that point to the Guardian this week, adding: "[They've] changed minds and our mindset. They’ve brought a different, much more positive, mentality. They’ve given us belief and the confidence to keep pushing forward, to create and to take more chances."
The significant thing about both players, with Press set to return to action for Sunday’s game after suffering with illness, is that neither were involved the last time United played Chelsea, on the opening weekend of the season.
Yet, with a very thin squad, Stoney’s side fought from a goal down to claim a point.
That proved to be the first of five points United would take from a possible nine against the ‘big three’ in the first half of the season. Reigning champions Chelsea also picked up five. Manchester City collected four, while Arsenal only grabbed one.
It puts the club in a brilliant position at the start of the New Year – one Heath in particular will be delighted with.
“It was a great opportunity to play a full season and to compete for a title,” she said upon signing for the club in the summer.
“It shows, with the club bringing over Christen and I, that they're very ambitious and they want to compete now. They don't want to wait.
“I wouldn’t come to a club that didn't have those ambitions.”
With her passion, ability and commitment to this team, the World Cup winner has helped put United in a brilliant position to upset the odds in the second half of the season.
If Chelsea give United’s wingers the same space they did in their last meeting, Heath could help Stoney’s side strengthen that position even further on Sunday.