USWNT Tobin Heath GFX ArsenalGetty Images

USWNT star Heath’s unprecedented path from Man Utd to Arsenal

For a long time, the career of U.S. women’s national team star Tobin Heath looked relatively straightforward.

When the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) was established in 2013, Heath was allocated to the Portland Thorns. For seven years, she was as settled and as comfortable as a player in such a crazy league can be, winning two NWSL Championships and an NWSL Shield. She’s a legend in the City of Roses and synonymous with its club.

However, coinciding with a global pandemic, the last 18 months have been in stark contrast to everything that came before.

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“In our minds, we all think our club career is going to go a certain way,” Heath said this week, speaking to the media for the first time since a sensational move to Arsenal was announced earlier this month.  She arrived at the club on Friday, fresh from international duty, ahead of Sunday's huge clash with title rivals Manchester City.

“In the last couple of years, a change in my plans has given me opportunities I never thought I'd be able to get - and this is one of them.”

The road to north London has certainly been eventful. When the 2020 NWSL season was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Heath was one of many U.S.-based players who decided to move to England to get a full programme of games. Manchester United was her destination, a club where she would immerse herself in the country's football culture.

“I love learning about all the history,” the winger told the New York Times at the beginning of last season. “We were taught that Manchester is red. Like, nobody goes to Manchester City games. I feel like, City, because they’re this modern global team, in the United States we think they’re a really big club. But here in Manchester, it’s not a big club."

If those words, tongue-in-cheek, didn’t endear her to the United faithful, her passionate celebration after scoring against City in November certainly did, grabbing the badge as she led her team to a 2-2 draw from 2-0 down.

It was that same week that things had changed again in her career. The NWSL Expansion Draft had taken place in the United States, with Racing Louisville coming into the league for the 2021 season. Portland left Heath’s rights unprotected and the Kentucky-based outfit snapped them up.

In July, the Athletic reported that Heath has no intention of playing there. That, then, opened up a new window of opportunity. Instead of returning to the U.S. to play in Louisville, Heath has secured a move beyond her wildest dreams.

“I'm a huge Arsenal fan,” the two-time World Cup winner said this week. “It was my first childhood team that I really followed and I fell in love with at a young age.

“I think it's serendipitous that the time that I was becoming passionate about football and the way Arsenal was as a club, the amount of the players that were playing there, the amount of trophies that were being won was incredible. Obviously having a coach like Arsene [Wenger] that was completely revolutionising the game of football and also being successful doing it. I was attracted to the style of play, to certain players that were playing there.”

It’s a dream move, in another way, for the Gunners. Questions have been asked of the club’s investment in the women’s team in recent years, with Chelsea smashing transfer records and City recruiting a number of big names, including three of the USWNT’s World Cup winners.

Following two big moments this summer for Arsenal - the contract renewal of defender Leah Williamson, who outlined the club's ambition as a big reason for that decision, and encouraging communication from the board regarding their commitment - this is another statement.

A world-class winger with incredible ability, Heath will bring high standards. She will bring a winning mentality and the hunger for trophies, plus plenty of passion.

Christen Press Tobin Heath USWNT 2019Getty

As has characterised the last 18 months for the forward, there is uncertainty looking to the future, at least from the outside.

Heath’s contract is described by Arsenal head coach Jonas Eidevall as ‘short-term’. There are rumours, also, that she is wanted in San Diego by Casey Stoney, her coach at Man Utd who is now in charge of one of the NWSL’s 2022 expansion clubs.

But for all the uncertainty, there is certainty in that Heath will make the most of this opportunity, especially given the way it has all happened.

“Your first love of a club is something that is kind of unchanging and unwavering through it all,” she said.

“I'm excited to be challenged and I'm excited to have to work hard and perform, day in and day out, to be a part of a squad that's really ambitious to win a lot.”