Tobin Heath sparks U.S. women to 2-0 opening victory
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- Tobin Heath was going to be healthy by Aug. 3.
Fortunately, when the calendar reached the aforementioned date, it just so happened that she was healthy.
When it comes to the Olympics, those two sentences don't mean the same thing.
Slowed by a hamstring injury in the build-up to the Rio Games, Heath knew she would be healthy enough to play on Aug. 3, no matter what her hamstring suggested, because the U.S. women's national team took the field for the first time on that date. But in this particular instance, it didn't have to be a case of mind over matter. Her hamstring actually healed.
"Fortunately for me, I do feel fully healthy," Heath said the day before the game. "But I do think in terms of tournament modes, you always just want to feel good enough."
She was as good as her word. She was very good. Not coincidentally, the United States was good enough for a 2-0 win over New Zealand and a clean start in Group G ahead of Saturday's high-stakes second game against fellow gold-medal hopeful France (4 p.m. ET).
It was a night when the small crowd in Belo Horizonte took increasing delight heckling U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, the consensus among local media and native Portuguese speakers being that what began as chants of a slur often directed at goalkeepers upon kicking the ball soon morphed into similar-sounding chants of "Zika" in response to Solo's publicly expressed concerns about the virus.
After the game, Solo played down the reception. If fans had fun at her expense, she suggested, so be it.
Nor was it all that malicious in the scheme of things -- if the interpretation of the changing chants was correct, the first should be far more troublesome than the second that merely needled a well-known player for public comments and social media posts. But in some sense it's a shame that the whole audible sideshow took any focus off a player whose style should endear her to Brazilian soccer fans -- a player for whom Brazil is practically a pilgrimage.
"I think it's a very special place to play, as a football player," Heath said of an Olympic career that has also taken her to some of the great soccer temples of English football.
She's a phenomenal player. She's soaring with confidence and a super, super important piece to this team.Carli Lloyd on U.S. teammate Tobin Heath
Asked about the chants, U.S. coach Jill Ellis said she hoped her team played a style the Brazilian fans could embrace.
They do that better with Heath on the field than not.
Consider the goal that put the Americans ahead in the ninth minute. Heath started the game on the left side, familiar space to her but also the real estate in which teenager Mallory Pugh has so often dazzled this year. On this sequence, Heath could have made a run for the end line to set up a cross. Instead, she cut back, avoided defenders and served a perfect cross toward the head of Carli Lloyd (or to improve the odds still more, Allie Long's nearby head).
Lloyd sent a header back to where the service came from and found an empty net.
"It's really my job to get in the box and get on the end of crosses," Lloyd said. "There is really no excuse. I've been working on it. I can outleap people. It's one of those things where, it's kind of been the next step for me, just getting on the end of crosses. I knew she was going to whip in a good ball and had to somehow get up there, leap up there and find the back of the net."
The opening goal came quickly enough, but only after Heath had already served notice of her presence on the field with a free kick that gave Alex Morgan a clean header in front of the goal.
Inside of 10 minutes, Heath set up the two players this team most needs to feed.
As often as not, as in this instance, at least one of them is going to score.
"I think that was the best way we could have started," Heath said of Lloyd's goal. "Obviously we came out with a lot of energy, with a lot of determination. I think in that regard, we kind of put our best foot forward and got that goal, and I think that helped propel us throughout the game."
Morgan scored the insurance goal early in the second half.
It was yet another goal in a major tournament for Lloyd, who has scored in five such games in a row. The co-captain became one of 15 American women to play in at least three Olympics. It is her team now, and it is increasingly clear it follows her lead. But the list of players with at least three Olympics also now includes the player who set her up for the goal. Always popular but never quite one of the faces of the team, Heath has amassed 120 caps well before her 30th birthday. She has taken the field in the U.S. uniform more times than anyone on the active Olympic roster save Lloyd and Solo.
"I think Tobin has grown so much as a player," Lloyd said. "She has become such a two-way midfielder. Not to say that she didn't work hard when she was a younger player, but I think she's now got the discipline to track back and win balls, win second balls, tackle. She's a phenomenal player. She's soaring with confidence and a super, super important piece to this team."
Ellis singled out many of those same traits -- Heath's value as an attacking player, the ability to take on opponents one-on-one and her ability to put the ball on the foot of teammates. She talked, too, about the work rate, the one that forced New Zealand player after New Zealand player to bring her to the ground, either in pursuit or after turning over the ball. Sure, Heath knows how to make the most of that contact, earning a sarcastic pat on the shoulder from Ria Percival after the latter received a yellow card for a tangling of feet. Great players do.
But there is more that Heath offers, traits that Pugh, who left her Olympic debut with a minor right ankle issue, and Crystal Dunn don't have at such early stages of such astoundingly promising careers.
"The other thing we get with Tobin is a player that's been there and someone who can calm us in the storm," Ellis said. "There were moments in that game when momentum was building for them. And having players like this that are very comfortable on the ball helps take the steam out of your opponent."
If not the steam out of the crowd.
Solo was the lightning rod this night, but as she so often does, Heath sparked a team to life.