Manchester United fans will be desperate for the club to keep hold of USWNT duo Tobin Heath and Christen Press for another year, having been denied the chance to see the two-time World Cup winners live and in the flesh all season because of coronavirus restrictions.
Doors at Leigh Sports Village remained closed to the public throughout 2020/21, meaning that the two most high profile signings in the club’s short history have never played in front of fans.
Heath and Press each signed one-year deals with United last summer and if they were to leave at the end of their respective contracts before next season it would be a bitter blow to supporters, who are some of the most vocal in the WSL thanks to the self-styled 'Barmy Army'.
The circumstance of their double arrival was driven by the impact of the pandemic on the 2020 NWSL season at home in the United States, which was cancelled and replaced by two hastily arranged mini-tournaments months apart. Staying put would have meant playing precious little football for most of a year and a move to the WSL was an opportunity to avoid that fate.
The pair were also not the only NWSL players who took that option.
Alex Morgan took that route by joining Tottenham to try and aid her fitness and comeback after giving birth earlier in the year. It didn’t really work out and she left when the initial deal expired in December rather that trigger a clause to extend it until the end of the season.
Rachel Daly joined West Ham on loan from Houston Dash to keep things ticking over and is already back stateside, while Sam Mewis is also rumoured to be returning to NWSL after a successful season with Manchester City that has resulted in her being nominated for WSL player of the season.
The hope is that some can be convinced to stay for a little while longer, as had already been the case with Canada international Shelina Zadorsky at Tottenham.
Heath in particular proved to be a big asset for United. The 33-year-old’s quality shone through and she won WSL player of the month for November, but it has been a shame that her season was ended prematurely by a knee injury in January. Her absence also coincided with United’s decline.
Press made less of an impact than her USWNT colleague but has still been an important player.
The WSL season finished before UK restrictions allowing a controlled numbers of fans back into outdoor sporting events will come into effect from 17 May. With remaining restrictions due to end in June, the 2021/22 season should see a return to relative normality but it has come too late for United supporters if Heath and Press do leave rather than stay on.
There is also an element of unfinished business, especially for Heath. United were top of the WSL when she suffered her season-ending injury and eventually fell out of the top three altogether thanks to a slump in the second half of the campaign and missed out on Champions League football.
Had the former Portland Thorns forward still been available after January, would United have avoided costly defeats against Reading and Brighton and stood more of a chance against Manchester City and Arsenal? The answer is almost certainly.
Qualifying for the Champions League, now revamped and more lucrative than before, is the next big goal for a United side that has undergone massive growth in three short years. Heath and Press could potentially be a part of that, but they have to agree new contracts first.