"Thank you, Tobin" | Heath's departure from Thorns leaves a singular, indelible mark

At some point this year, Tobin Heath left Providence Park as a Thorn for the last time, only at that time, nobody knew it. She had just finished training, in all likelihood, concluding her session the same she had concluded so many other sessions before. At some point before signing with Manchester United, she collected her equipment, left her home field, and embarked on a path that would take her from the Thorns. If anybody knew, they would have stopped and caught the moment.

But who could have known with any certainty that those would be Heath’s last moments as a Thorn? Are they the same clairvoyants who knew last fall’s playoff game in Chicago would be her last in a Portland uniform? Those people certainly don’t exist. Because who beyond the paranoid, pessimistic and cynical could have predicted her September finish at home against the Houston Dash would be her last goal for the club? Or that her tenure as a Thorns original would end like this, with her rights being transferred to a team that’s yet to take the field?

That’s what happened today. Surprisingly, Racing Louisville, a team set to begin their NWSL journey with the 2021 season, selected Heath in Thursday’s NWSL Expansion Draft. With the choice, the Thorns became exempt from more losses in the day’s dispersal, and they will receive $75,000 in allocation money for their loss. But that loss means Portland loses one of the last two Thorns FC originals. Christine Sinclair is now the last Thorn standing from the team’s inaugural, 2013 season.

“Tobin has been with our club since we started in 2013 and has given so much to the Portland Thorns, playing a massive role in winning two NWSL Championships and an NWSL Shield,” the team’s owner, Merritt Paulson said in a club statement. That Paulson was quoted at all spoke to the gravity of the moment.

“Tobin gave 110 percent every time she put on a Thorns kit,” he said. “I am forever a huge Tobin fan and wish her the very best. Thank you, Tobin.”

“Thank you, Tobin,” will be one the sentiments you read a lot over the next 24 hours. It will come from the club and the fans; from teammates as well as those she inspired during her eight years in Portland. That she’s a singular talent has been said so often, we stopped saying it some time ago, but Heath is a singular talent – a player who connects through the sure passion conveyed on the field – and she’s somebody who will forever be connected with the Thorns.

Another sentiment we’ll see is some form of “Why?” Why now? Why did this happen? And why couldn’t it be prevented? They’re the questions you ask when something ends unexpectedly, abruptly, or after you have been in a relationship for so long, you don’t remember what things were like before.

All those questions have straightforward answers, yet they’re all still relevant for the same reason: Tobin Heath mattered to the Thorns. That may seem obvious, but a lot of other players have mattered to the team, too. Heath mattered in a way that was more persistent, with more magnitude, and in a way that was tied to the team’s identity more than most. She mattered in a way that connected to fans across the world and broadened the team’s impact in a way few others could. Portland Thorns FC may be the one global brand in the National Women’s Soccer League, and it’s hard to imagine that status without Heath’s help.

Just consider how awkward that last sentence reads. That awkwardness isn’t in the “global brand” language, or the role she had in creating it. It’s in the “Heath” part. Beyond the formalities of broadcast television or the blueblood edits of old-style journalism, no one calls her Heath. She is “Tobin.” That’s how we know her, and not because we’re particularly close to her. There is something to her game, and the personality she puts into it, that takes us beyond the formal. There is risk and vulnerability, but there’s also something assertive. Tobin is a choice, and it’s a style, and it’s something that, if you only call her Heath, you’re choosing to ignore. You wouldn’t call her Heath any more than you’d call Pelé “Nascimento.”

Tobin was instrumental in the Thorns’ first title, scoring the long-distance free kick that gave Portland an early lead they would never relinquish. Local legend says she scored that goal with a broken foot, somehow making an unforgettable goal even more indelible. She set the NWSL assist record in 2016, when she helped the team to the NWSL Shield, and was part of the group that claimed a second star in 2017. Two more NWSL title-game appearances meant that for half her time in Portland, the Thorns played in the last game of the season.

She won two World Cups with the U.S. while she was a Thorn, and she grew. She went from a prodigy who’d yet to have a chance to thrive at club level to someone who leveraged her new platform. Perhaps no other player’s majesty matched the energy of a full Providence Park, just as few fanbases were ready to be captivated like those who packed Goose Hollow. There, she fully rounded out her identity as a professional, finding the stage her love of the ball had earned.

Tobin’s identity is defined not only by her talent but her drive to bring her very specific, very personal vision of soccer to the field. In Portland, Tobin was singular; she was expressive; she was dominant and creative. She was aggressive, and unrelenting, and she was foundational. Even now, in these moments when we cope, it’s impossible to imagine another player occupying her left wing, combining with Meghan Klingenberg, crossing for Lindsey Horan or cutting back to Sinclair.

It’s impossible to imagine because it’s never happened before, but now’s the time for imaginations to start. Still, no matter what we project into her place, the left wing will always be hers. No matter who comes next, no matter what they accomplish, there is only one Tobin Heath; there is only one Tobin.

She is no longer a Thorn. She will forever be a Thorn. “Thank you, Tobin.”

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