There are no Women’s Super League titles between them. Positioned eighth and fourth respectively coming into the weekend’s fixture, there’s no sense either of these sides will be sitting on top of the pile come the end of the season.
Yet still, Saturday’s 12:30pm kick-off between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at Barnet’s Hive Stadium might be the biggest match of the weekend and of the season so far.
These two newer contenders on women’s football’s ever-expanding block are set to do battle armed with three of world football’s most established talents. In the red corner are Tobin Heath and Christen Press; in the white (and a bit of blue), Alex Morgan. Between them are six World Cup winners’ medals, three Olympic golds for the United States and, here, a showdown to clear the schedule for.
Call it “El USWNT-ico” if you must (please don’t). But there is no doubt these three centurions of one of the most dominant national teams in the game’s history are set to entice a wider audience to a match that most might have let pass them by.
It will be shown live in the United Kingdom by BT Sport and in the United States on NBC. The Football Association anticipate their non-geo-blocked FA Player will see more than its usual traffic. It’s not for nothing that the Manchester club sold more Heath and Press shirts than any other men’s player in the three days after they arrived.
Those two and Morgan, along with Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis at Manchester City, are part of the US expedition that has come over to England in search of regular football, with the blessings of their governing body and, ultimately, the NWSL sides. All have moved to shore themselves up physically for next summer’s Tokyo Olympics. Though they are all on one-year deals, there is no short-term thinking involved.
Perhaps at another time, maybe only a few years ago, a move to England would have been seen as a sabbatical. Morgan, Press and Heath have all played in Europe but only now have seen value in coming to these shores, which says as much about the league’s improvement as it does about what they are setting out to achieve. And how much they need this.
Should Morgan start, it would be her first competitive match since the 21st August last year but a vital step towards another crack at Olympic success.
Not wishing to waste this Covid-19 crisis, the postponement of the Games brought her participation back in the frame after giving birth to her daughter, Charlie. Her move from Orlando Pride to Spurs was engineered at the very last moment, driven by her.
Thus, beyond the usual framing of attention for this cover star of Fifa and Sports Illustrated comes the hook that one of the US’ most successful sports stars is not done yet.
It could be argued, albeit with one hell of a lawyer, that her biggest obstacle may be Press. The 31-year old has had to bide her time, only really getting credit for her phenomenal goalscoring touch in recent years. And her ability off both feet and in the air give some reason to believe she will thrive once acclimatised.
Similarly, Heath – with a rugged east coast roots with a chilled west coast vibe – could add a unique dimension with her work in the channels and unerring ability to create space herself or find it for someone else.
Perhaps, though, that framing is all wrong. Because while these three are paying a flying visit for benefits they and their national team will enjoy, they are being facilitated by teams who have their own accelerated aims. Indeed, both Spurs and Manchester United reached the WSL at a similar time (2019) – both boosted too by recent investment in their projects.
For Manchester United, that was investment outright, as a women’s operation non-existent for 13 years was brought back in 2018. The £5m at head coach Casey Stoney’s disposal was used wisely, orchestrating a dominant promotion campaign of 18 victories out of 20 in the Championship. A fourth-place finish in the top-tier last season followed.
Spurs would finish the same campaign in second. And though they are out in front when it comes to bragging rights around history – formed in 1985 as Broxbourne Ladies before becoming “official” in 1991/92 – access to resources and recruitment have been fundamental to their rise. As a case in point, only one of their players on the current roster, Lucia Leon, was part of the squad that finished sixth out of 12 in the National League second division – the third tier of the women’s game as it was back then.
And though you might not have either down as championship material just yet, their pull is still great. The shirt and then name were enough for Heath and Press to move to Manchester, while Morgan cited how impressed she was with Spurs’ training facilities in Enfield which the US used to fine-tune ahead of the 2019 World Cup.
In one sense, it shows just how important alignment is between the men’s and women’s codes. But it also shows how much women’s football in this country has to offer the world’s best.
So as Saturday comes, and this trio sprinkles some Hollywood-star quality over proceedings in north-west London, it will forcibly reaffirm a truth many have been speaking over the last few months. They need the WSL just as much as the WSL needs them.