Tobin Heath: 'I'm passionate about making this country and the youth passionate about football'

Courtesy Portland Thorns FC

Tobin Heath, who has more than 130 caps for the U.S. women's national team, set the single-season assists mark in the NWSL last season with Thorns FC.

There are, as Tobin Heath put it, generally only a few reasons a player would knock on the door of a team's president without an invitation. And it isn't a list with a lot of positive entries.

But even if Gavin Wilkinson, general manager and president of soccer for both the Portland Timbers of MLS and Portland Thorns of NWSL, didn't expect the worst when Heath sought an impromptu meeting less than a year ago, he was surprised to learn her purpose. Heath knew Portland was to be among the initial participants in U.S. Soccer's Girls' Development Academy. She wanted to be involved. Not when she was done playing, which she most assuredly wasn't then and isn't now, but right away. And not in a ceremonial manner.

And that's how a recognizable name, the reigning U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year, became the new assistant youth technical director for the Thorns Development Academy.

"It was Tobin that started this conversation," Wilkinson said. "It was Tobin that knocked on my office door."

Sam Ortega/Portland Thorns

Tobin Heath was on hand at the May 10 Portland Thorns Academy tryouts at Providence Park.

The 69 inaugural member clubs, including branded representation from nine National Women's Soccer League entries, will beginning this year fielding academy teams in four age groups spanning teenage years on a nearly year-round calendar. It mimics the boys academy system introduced a decade ago by U.S. Soccer.

An inventory of the mission and methods of the program could fill pages, not to mention elicit rebuttals at least as long in a soccer community in which few are without opinions on how best to develop young players. But all could presumably agree on an objective summed up this way: produce more Tobin Heaths.

If so, one Portland resident is uniquely qualified to help in that regard.

"I'm passionate about making this country and the youth passionate about football," Heath said. "To want to go out and play and feel that freedom to not have to have it be something organized, but to have it be organic and be driven by just a love for the game and a love for the ball."

She is still a curious fit as an authority figure at first glance. Heath has always been more free verse than iambic pentameter, an equal mix of genius and obsession in her command of the ball and in the way she sees the field. She is always in her own space. Even among peers who rarely spend enough time at home to keep the plants alive, she has been the nomad who wandered from continent to continent, city to city, couch to couch, following a ball.

"She has a love affair with that ball and with this game," Thorns coach Mark Parsons said.

And maybe that isn't such a strange means by which to influence others.

Parsons once sent Heath a link to some highlights of Arjen Robben, the Dutch winger who plays for Bayern Munich. Robben plays on the right and loves to cut inside. Heath plays on the left and loves to cut inside. There were some similarities that lent the clips relevance, but mostly Parsons just thought they were cool highlights. Soon thereafter Heath approached with analysis more suited to scouting video in advance of a championship game. She wanted to break down each move and talk about how she might be able to incorporate elements in her own game.

I think the most effective coaching for youth is to encourage them to try things, to be unique and be different. And to spend time with the ball and just cultivate wanting to play and this passion for the game ...
Tobin Heath

She likewise turned a 30-minute chat over coffee with Mike Smith, youth technical director for the Thorns and Timbers, into an hour and a half back-and-forth on the minutia of development.

"She always seems relatively quiet around the stadium," Smith said. "But this, her eyes lit up."

The specifics of Heath's role, by necessity of the on-field day job that Parsons only half-jokingly reminds her is still her priority, remains a work in progress. It will include all age groups and expand at times during the year when she is free of both NWSL and U.S. national team commitments. But it was important to Heath to be part of the academy from the outset, to help set the culture. She has been involved in the technical and planning meetings along with the rest of the development staff. When the Thorns recently held academy tryouts, she was on hand -- not just to take photos with the attendees, though there were plenty of requests when they saw one of the world's best players on the sideline, but to help evaluate.

"The thing that struck me most was her passion to change women's and girls' soccer in this country," Smith said of their conversations about the role.

Not to expunge competitive will, generations raised on endless tryouts and tournaments that necessarily emphasize short-term results. In addition to a New Jersey youth club that was both highly successful at winning those tournaments and still producing someone like Heath, she is, after all, also one of many products of Anson Dorrance's program at the University of North Carolina. There the seed of competition grew into more than 20 NCAA championships and the backbone of World Cup and Olympic-winning U.S. rosters. But as the global game grows, she wants to blend that Americanness with an emphasis on technical skill and an appreciation of play.

"I think the most effective coaching for youth is to encourage them to try things, to be unique and be different," Heath said. "And to spend time with the ball and just cultivate wanting to play and this passion for the game [so] that these players just can't get enough practice, can't get enough time with the ball."

It is the same message her national team coach has been delivering for years.

"Your ability to make a decision with the ball is probably the biggest indicator of whether you'll climb the ladder," Jill Ellis said. "If you have a comfort level on the ball, now we start to look at other things in your skill set. But that's the base."

That this is happening in Portland is not a coincidence. It was already Heath's year-round home, or as close as she comes to conforming to that concept. There is less need to be nomadic when surrounded by a soccer culture with no shortage of passion to match her own. That includes an organization that was already running its own girls youth academy, the first of its kind in the NWSL, in advance of the start of the current program.

To do that on the men's side was to make an investment that can directly enhance the Timbers through MLS rules on homegrown players. No such advantages currently exist for the Thorns, making it more about a longer-term investment in the sport.

"I go back to saying [owner Merritt Paulson] is invested in the women's side, and it's being shown because it's very philanthropic at the moment," Wilkinson said. "This is costing us a lot of money to run this academy program, but this is something where we're willing to give back to the community and give back to the game in developing the best players."

And they're betting that someone who has always gone her own way is the perfect person to follow.

"Tobin is a tremendous professional that stays to herself a lot of the time," Wilkinson said. "So for her to actively seek this, I know it is something she is heavily invested in mentally."

It's why he was surprised when she knocked on his door. And why he was ecstatic.

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