MANCHESTER, England — Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis are waiting to see where, precisely, Tobin Heath is going with this. The first sentence was not, from their point of view, an especially promising start. “We were taught that there is only one club in Manchester,” Heath began. That was probably the point at which their ears pricked up.
“I love learning about all the history,” said Heath, whose own Manchester United history is still measured in weeks. “And we were taught that Manchester is red. Like nobody goes to Manchester City games.” (This is, it is fair to say, a contested interpretation.) “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.”
Lavelle and Mewis, wearing matching City tops, have leaned in a little closer to their laptop screen now. Heath has paused, trying to find the shimmy that might get her out of this one. “And this,” she said, choosing her words carefully, “is what we’re being taught.” It is something of a drop of the shoulder, but it works. Lavelle and Mewis have started laughing.
“I was waiting to see how you were going to wrap that one up,” Mewis responds.
All three of them, of course — together with Christen Press, who has wisely chosen to stay out of the whole thing — are far more used to being teammates than rivals. When healthy, they have all been mainstays of the United States’ national team since 2017. All four appeared in last summer’s World Cup final.
Now, though, they find themselves on opposing sides of an intractable divide. This summer, first Mewis and then Lavelle signed for Manchester City in England’s Women’s Super League. A few weeks later, Heath and Press agreed to join Manchester United. Since then, all four have had a crash course in the tropes of the relationship between the teams.
“The pride of the club is very real, and very strong,” Heath said. Though United has had a women’s team only since 2018 — a delay their fellow U.S. star Megan Rapinoe has described as “disgraceful” — both the staff at the club and her new teammates have informed her that the enmity still applies, that it “spills over from the men’s team to the women’s.”
She has no doubt that this weekend’s derby match between the sides — with United, a little unexpectedly, top of the table and City, still finding its bearings in fifth — brings with it an added frisson of tension.
It is the same, evidently, for Mewis and Lavelle across town. Because of the pandemic, Lavelle has done little exploring of her new home beyond “getting takeout coffee,” but both she and Mewis have internalized the idea that “Manchester is blue.” “We’ve adopted that, and we take pride in that,” Mewis said.
Far more pronounced than their new differences, though, are the similarities between them. It is telling, for example, that as much as the four players have bought into the Mancunian rivalry, when any of them refers to “our team,” the others know they mean, first and foremost, the United States.
Though the national team has not played a game since March, the four players remain connected to it not only through frequent Zoom meetings with the coaching staff but by a shared, and deep-rooted, culture. “The identity of the team is something you take with you,” Press said. “Every time you play, you have it there. It can’t be lost. We all just carry it a bit differently.”
The reasons that have brought them all to Manchester, too, are held in common. They are here, by and large, simply to play: to “feel like a normal soccer player again,” as Heath put it, to enjoy what Mewis sees as the unadulterated pleasure of “having games and having practice.”
None could have found that by remaining in the United States. The National Women’s Soccer League season fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic in March. Though it was eventually replaced by a summer cup competition in Utah and an abbreviated fall series, both Heath and Press opted not to take part. With that over, it is not clear, at this point, when the league will return to the field.
As Europe’s leagues started to return, then, the appeal was obvious. “It has been such a blessing,” Press said. “Tobin and I have been out since March: no team environment, no games. What a source of joy it’s been to run on a beautiful grass pitch every day, to be around a team again.”
Initially, after months of isolating, Press worried that she might find it strange to be in such close contact with teammates. “It had been so long since I had social contact, I was worried how I would be that first week just being around people,” she said. But it came back, she said, “quickly and easily and joyfully.”
“It’s the longest I’ve been away,” Press said. “There’s the saying that you only know how much you love something when it’s taken away. I feel such a sense of nostalgia for what football is supposed to mean to me. I feel that joy every time I go on the pitch.”
Their impression of the league they have found, too, is uniform: the Women’s Super League has the air of a rising force. They are not the only global stars to have found themselves in England: Alex Morgan joined Tottenham in September and made her debut this month; Sam Kerr, the Australian striker, arrived at Chelsea at the beginning of the year. Arsenal can call on Danielle van de Donk and Vivianne Miedema, two stars of the Dutch team the United States defeated in last summer’s World Cup final.
“I feel bad pitting the two leagues against each other,” Lavelle said, when asked to compare the style of play in the W.S.L. to that of the N.W.S.L. “I wouldn’t put one over the other. In America, it is more aggressive, more transitional, you run a lot, cover a lot of ground. Here, you have to break teams down more tactically. I had high expectations, but it’s exceeded them.”
Press has found much of the same. “It’s an oversimplification to say one is transitional and one more organized,” she said. “Organized does not mean slower. It is a different challenge: like Rose said, it’s more of a puzzle how you’re going to break a team down.”
That, though, is just one part of the adventure. Press and Heath have played in Europe before; for Lavelle and Mewis, it is their first taste of professional soccer away from home. “Packing up your life and moving halfway around the world” is never easy, Press said, but doing it in the midst of a pandemic it is more difficult still.
The measures in place to combat the spread of the coronavirus — Manchester spent months in various forms of local lockdown before nationwide restrictions were imposed earlier this month — have made it harder to socialize; all four have had to make do with bumping into each other occasionally near their apartments in the center of the city.
But even in that atomized environment, they have taken the same approach: embracing the challenge. The best gauge of just how positive they have been is their acclimation to Manchester’s weather. The city has a reputation in Britain for rain; occasionally, it will be reported with some pride that it is not, actually, the wettest place in the country. It is only the 15th wettest.
“Mancunians talk about the weather all of the time,” Press said. “They complain about it all of the time.” She, however, loves the climate. “It has the most beautiful sky,” she said. “It is so moody.” Heath has noticed the abundance of rainbows (there is certainly no shortage of opportunity). Lavelle keeps telling people that she loves how it is “perpetually fall.”
They have even identified the same frustrations. When Heath mentions that she is looking forward to debriefing how they found British culture, all four minds travel to exactly the same place: it is, apparently, very difficult to do laundry in Britain.
Heath declares the country’s washing machines “impossible.” Lavelle is tired of spending “four hours doing laundry, and when the clothes come out, they’re still wet.” “We’ve said this in every interview and everyone thinks we’re nuts,” Mewis said. Press believes appliances here lack — and this may or may not be a technical term — “oomph.”
“What a shame they don’t know a dryer exists,” she said, with what appears to be genuine sympathy. “And that it makes your clothes warm and fluffy and perfect every time.” Even across their new divide, this is a subject on which there is absolute unity. But they are dealing with it as they are dealing with everything else on this adventure.
“It’s very present-moment awareness,” Heath said. “You have to make a thing of it.”