Don't blink... USWNT star Tobin Heath would nutmeg you in a hot second

NORTH CAROLINA COACH Anson Dorrance has always had someone like Mia Hamm or Heather O'Reilly. Someone better than everyone else. Someone like Tobin Heath.

Yet as the second half slipped away on a cool afternoon in November 2007, North Carolina continued to trail Notre Dame in an NCAA women's soccer tournament match. And Tobin Heath continued to sit on the bench.

Dorrance was exasperated by some now-forgotten miscue and by Heath's tendency to turn from teammate into solo artist. With the Tar Heels trailing, Heath approached Dorrance and pleaded to go back in. When he asked why he should accede, she said because she wanted to win.

"I want to win, too," Dorrance recalls telling her. "But here's the problem. I put you in, and all you're interested in doing is megging this girl, putting a hat on her, drible-da-vaca-ing her.

"I need a f---ing goal scorer now, or I need an assister."

Dorrance knew in some sense that he was risking -- even sabotaging -- the season to make a point. He soon relented. But it didn't save the game. For just eighth time ever, North Carolina missed out on winning the tournament championship.

"I wanted her to realize there has to be a result," Dorrance says of that moment.

Heath rarely remembers specific moments, good or bad, from games. Nearly 12 years later, she doesn't remember much of that day. She doesn't recall Notre Dame's goals, 14 seconds apart in the first half. She doesn't remember the sideline conversation with Dorrance. But while waiting for her forgotten cleats to arrive before a photo shoot in Portland, Oregon, this spring, she breaks out laughing at the description of his reaction -- right down to the specific list of tricks, including the drible da vaca move Pele made famous. It sounds like Dorrance, "to a T," she says.

It sounds familiar to her because she heard it often enough. She is among her old coach's favorites because he sees a kindred spirit, a nonconformist resistant to rules for the sake of rules. But that's also why she drove Dorrance around the bend. Since she was a child, Heath has experimented with the ball at her foot. It's why she is one of the most technically skilled players the U.S. women's national team has ever had on its roster. She's the kind of player, Dorrance says, who can make women's professional soccer successful in this country. She can sell tickets.

But her skills have sometimes been at odds with coaches and teammates seeking a result.

"I think there's kind of a duality in me, as well, where I enjoy having the football so much that it's almost, like, creating a feeling instead of creating a result," Heath says. "I think that throughout my career, it's a friction that has existed to continue to push me to make me better. Because with the feeling and the result, they're just constantly pushing each other up the path that I want to go."

Tobin Heath and her United States teammates are favored to win the World Cup this summer in France, in part because Heath accepted the truth of Dorrance's message that there must be a result, repeated across years and continents by other coaches and teammates. Heath, who turned 31 on May 29, wouldn't be where she is otherwise. The U.S., in turn, wouldn't be where it is without its most complete player.

HEATH TURNED 10 just weeks after Arsenal won its Premier League championship in 1998. She was already a fan by then, attracted by the way Arsene Wenger demanded that the team attack. She observed the premium placed on skill, the risks taken to play beautiful soccer. She decorated the walls of her childhood bedroom in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, with posters of club stars such as Cesc Fabregas and Thierry Henry. Each season, a new team poster replaced its predecessor.

"My loyalty to Arsenal is so strong, and it's kind of awful," Heath says.

She convinced her parents to let her keep a small television and VCR on a table at the foot of her bed. It wasn't hooked up to cable -- not that broadcasts were plentiful when she was growing up. But surrounded by the images on the wall, she watched tapes of compilations of great goals and highlights.

"It was my football space where I got to hang out," Heath says. "Lucky for me, my parents were super chill, so they let me be how I wanted to be. But it definitely celebrated football hardcore."

Tobin's parents had athletic backgrounds, but neither Cindy Heath nor Jeff Heath played soccer. Nor did Tobin's older sisters, Katie and Perry, or younger brother, Jeffrey, take to the sport. There was no obvious reason that a girl in New Jersey should end up with a bedroom shrine to the likes of Henry, a French star for the London team.

Tobin's mom recalls a quiet child, one equally comfortable around siblings or in the company of her own imagination.

"I thought maybe she would be an engineer one day because she would build and create," Cindy Heath says. "She'd make all these silly costumes and run around the house."

Yet while Tobin remembers building forts out of whatever supplies were on hand in the house, engineering never stood a chance against what she could create with a soccer ball.

Heath started playing soccer in a local YMCA league when she was 4 years old, part of the last generation to take up the sport before the 1996 Olympics and 1999 World Cup entrenched the women's game in the American mainstream. No one ever needed to remind her to practice or cajole her out of bed for an early game. Soccer gave her a blank canvas on which to create, and she embraced it.

"I think I always had, like, a rebellious spirit," Heath says. "But it wasn't a rebellious spirit to do wrong. It was a rebellious spirit to do something different."

After playing in local youth leagues, Heath came into the orbit of Tom Anderson as she neared age 10. Anderson, a former Wall Street executive who got involved with soccer when his children played years earlier, founded Players Development Academy in 2000, and it is now among the best-known youth programs in the country. PDA was his response to a competitive void that kept the best players from different areas of New Jersey from pushing each other as teammates.

Anderson spotted Heath during a tryout for an under-10 team with the Somerset Hills Soccer Club, where he coached before PDA. Still small and spindly, Heath caught his eye not because she was physically superior to her peers. It wasn't even that she dominated the competition. It was that nobody could catch her when she had the ball -- as if, he says, she was playing tag better than everyone else.

Anderson's program didn't foster a win-at-all costs mentality. Rather, his emphasis was on skill development -- even through training as simple as juggling, tricks and letting young players enjoy themselves. "I think we should be rolling the ball out there and letting them play and encouraging them to do every trick they see [from] Messi, Ronaldo or any other -- Neymar," Anderson says. "Any skill they see them do, they should be trying."

It wasn't a sin to try a move and lose the ball. It was a sin to not try the move at all. "She was allowed to be Tobin on the field in those early years," Cindy Heath says.

Anderson remembers that parents would sometimes approach him after games and, in the course of conversation, wonder if Heath dribbled too much or played too fancy. It was often a passive-aggressive inquiry, a-less-than subtle suggestion that she was playing a solo game in a team setting. No matter that the moves were a way to set up the assists she wanted more than goals.

"I'd say absolutely not," the coach recalls of those conversations. "Because the idea was that's what they were told to do: Take the ball and figure out how to dribble by somebody and beat somebody with the dribble. She wanted to do that. She wanted to excel.

"She wanted to learn, she wanted to do better, and she wanted to try it on the field."

She craved the ball and what she could make it do -- what it would allow her to do. She craved the feeling of pulling off a move she learned watching players such as Ronaldinho. Here was a culture that celebrated what she loved in the game.

"The way I live and feel my life is very similar to the passion and the heart that they have for the game," Heath says. "The things that would excite me about football excite them about football. Even today, when I watch and I support and cheer, my heart feels like that."

Heath emerged as one of the top-rated college recruits in the country. She stood out on a PDA team that was collectively good enough to win a U.S. Youth Soccer Cup U-15 national title in 2003. She caught Dorrance's eye at North Carolina. But he wasn't especially impressed by Heath's defending at the time. The assessment, of which Heath learned via Anderson, stirred fury in her.

"Defending is easy. You just have to want to defend," Heath says. "It's not like defending is hard. It's just, like, more of an attitude. I was bothered that somebody said I couldn't do something.

"I thought, 'It's not like I can't do it. It's that I don't want to do it.'"

But a player who left Basking Ridge for Chapel Hill was too good to miss out on -- too creative in the ways she dribbled past defenders, too imaginative in the passes she saw that others didn't. She was too different from everyone else in the way that, as Dorrance put it, she loved the ball.

"There's two Tobins," Heath says. "I think defending is more of, like, a science, and it's fun to learn that. And then I see attacking as an art. I'm [one kind of] player when I'm defending -- and I really do take a lot of pride in my defending. And then as soon as the ball comes, it's like, 'Oh, yes,' and I get to play. I want to get the ball back. I hate when the other team has the ball."

EVERY NORTH CAROLINA season first takes shape in Ocean Isle Beach, a vacation town south of Wilmington and several hours from Chapel Hill. For a week, coaches stay in one rental house and golf after practices at a local high school. The players stay in their own house, no more than a few dozen yards from the ocean by way of a private wooden promenade.

There's a photograph of Heath standing on the beach at the start of her senior year. Her back is to the camera, arms outstretched as if embracing the sun rising in shades of orange and yellow on the horizon. To Brittani Bartok, the teammate who snapped it, that photograph and the story behind it reveal as much about Heath's time in college as any image from the soccer field.

Instead of claiming one of the relatively scarce beds as soon as the team arrived that week, as her seniority and stature would have warranted, Heath took one of many inflatable beds and slept on the floor next to underclassmen. The layout made it easier, she told Bartok, for them to get up and out of the house before sunrise without disturbing the sleeping masses.

The inflatable bed also had a second benefit -- namely, buoyancy.

"I'm sure they still use this AeroBed," Bartok says. "A freshman every year is probably like, why is my bed sandy? And it's because Tobin used it as a surfboard."

In the same way that Heath tested the limits of her imagination on the field, she found the freedom of nonconformity while transitioning to adulthood off the field at North Carolina. She rode her longboard around campus. She remained in the dorms, preferring that camaraderie -- and easy access to soccer fields -- to the private housing most teammates chose as the years progressed. No one asked her to be as focused or as tightly wound as Hamm or O'Reilly or dozens of other All-Americans who had played for the Tar Heels. She could be herself.

"She just has this aura about her that -- when someone says Tobin, I not only think of the person but as a name to describe a vibe," Bartok says. "You could totally use her name as an adjective. She was like my Buddha."

Nor did she struggle to fit in on the field. Heath's highly touted freshman class played the supporting role to O'Reilly, then a senior and an established part of the U.S. women's national team. Although the Tar Heels lost their opener in 2006, they went on to win 27 games in a row and claim a national title. Heath missed the start of the season to compete in the U-20 Women's World Championship in Russia, but she still earned second-team All-America honors and was a member of the all-College Cup team.

All the while, the tug of war for her soccer soul continued.

"They delivered me this absolute gem," Dorrance says of Heath's arrival on the scene. "She came in with a quality that was the hardest thing to teach: this incredible love of the ball and love of the game. The challenge for us with Tobin, but also obviously the national team coaches, is she was so into the beautiful game that she was more interested in the duel than the result."

He and others who talk about results and outcomes don't mean that Heath had to learn to care about winning. Her creativity never came at the expense of competitiveness. She won at PDA. She won at North Carolina -- whether the games counted or not. Dorrance loves to tell stories about the 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 tournaments the Tar Heels staged at practice and of stacking the deck against Heath when choosing sides. All the better to watch the inevitable outcome.

"She'd assemble the garbage she had been left with, and then she would figure out a way to win with them," Dorrance says.

The challenge for Dorrance was putting Heath's creativity and competitiveness into the bigger picture. That was the message he sought to send in that sideline conversation during the 2007 tournament. That season, in which the Tar Heels lost almost as many games as in Heath's other three seasons combined, turned out to be the most frustrating of her time at North Carolina. She fidgets in her chair while discussing the missed sophomore year championship.

"It was an interesting four years for Tobin," O'Reilly says, "To learn, 'OK, I can be me, but I also have to be accountable to my teammates.' ... And if she could mesh these two worlds of being uber-competitive and uber-fit with being ridiculously comfortable with the ball, then the world was her oyster because she had it all. She had all aspects of the game."

Heath was already an Olympic champion by the time she finished college, the youngest player on the U.S. team when she made three substitute appearances en route to gold in Beijing in 2008. So it was no surprise when she was the No. 1 overall pick by the Atlanta Beat in the 2010 Women's Professional Soccer draft, selected ahead of three of her future U.S. teammates in Lauren Holiday, Alyssa Naeher and Kelley O'Hara.

WHILE HEATH DEFTLY steered through life in Chapel Hill -- whether slaloming through defenders on the field or around potholes on her longboard -- her entrance into the pros was a wipeout.

Heath's 2010 rookie season was all but erased by an ankle injury. She spent the next two years juggling major international events for the U.S., with the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics. Making matters even more challenging for a young player looking for room to grow, Women's Professional Soccer folded after the 2011 season. The national team isn't a developmental environment at the slowest of times, and it's even less so during major tournament years. Pia Sundhage, then-coach of the U.S. team, clearly valued Heath's potential -- she took Heath to the 2008 Olympics -- but by the 2011-12 cycle, what had to matter was what Heath offered in that moment. It was becoming a recognizable refrain.

"I remember Pia being really mad when Tobin would try and meg somebody in the 18 [yard box]," O'Reilly says of Heath's attempts to beat an opponent by slipping the ball between her legs.

Heath's former teammate also recalls that it was Sundhage who nudged Heath to start treating the game like her profession. That nudge pushed her all the way to Paris.

In 2013, Heath signed with Paris Saint-Germain, delaying her arrival for the National Women's Soccer League's inaugural season. The French giant was as close as she could get to the culture of the elite men's professional teams she grew up following.

"I don't want to use the word 'hardened' or something like that, but I think it took the kind of seriousness and professionalism of football to another level for me," Heath says. "The culture over there -- there's not, like, a big difference between how a female soccer player and how a male soccer player sees himself, where here in the U.S., I think it's very, very different. That is, team culture, team camaraderie and stuff like that."

With affectionate disparagement, Heath uses the phrase "sorority soccer" to describe the American culture of all-encompassing camaraderie.

Her teammates at PSG, by and large, came to work, practiced and went home to families, studies or other activities. (Even though the team was better financed than many women's teams at that time, the club still had veterans, such as French international Jessica Houara-d'Hommeaux, who played while holding down separate full-time jobs.) Teammates didn't offer a conciliatory "good shot" after Heath put an effort well over the crossbar. They weren't silent when she gave away the ball on a step-over in practice or a game. They shouted a frustrated "allez," or "let's go," in response to a wasted opportunity. They reminded her in unsympathetic terms that they had to cover for her errors.

"This is your job." Heath says. "So come and do your job really well, and then you go home and find balance in your life."

France offered Heath, 25 years old when she returned to the States, a chance to mature.

The renowned couch surfer bought an apartment in Portland after she returned from France. She didn't pick the city, instead was sent there when the NWSL launched, but she quickly took to it. Granted, the apartment remains even now a furnished storage locker as much as a residence. Heath simply can't be sedentary. If not traveling with the national team or sponsors, she is more likely to be visiting family or friends than in Portland in the offseason. But if her time in France and separating life from soccer were an introduction to "adulting," as she puts it, buying a home continued the theme.

"I think having that disconnect actually was a really powerful thing for me," Heath says. "It almost allowed me to then give more to my profession with that change of mindset."

Equally telling is what O'Reilly saw when Heath returned. A teammate at North Carolina, in two Olympics and in one World Cup by that time, O'Reilly saw someone more committed to physical maintenance, someone who took seriously the stretching and warm-ups prior to a U.S. practice, rather than drifting to one side juggling a ball.

Still, when Jill Ellis took over the national team full time in 2014, Heath -- who played as a substitute in the 2011 World Cup and started through much of the 2012 Olympics -- was far from a lock for every lineup. As she entered the second half of her 20s, she was running out of time to be considered a building block for the future.

The reason was a distinctly familiar one.

Ellis and assistant coach Tony Gustavsson met with Heath before qualifying for the 2015 World Cup began.

"We just had a discussion about translating her creativity to assists and shots and goals and there being an outcome to her creativity so that helps her and helps the team," Ellis says. "It was not just about being able to nutmeg a player at the midstripe. It was, work to get a quality service in the box or get on the end of a cross. So now there was a more tangible outcome to her game."

In all likelihood, Heath's international future hinged on her response. She didn't wake up a new person. There wasn't a moment of revelation. She just took the next step -- as she had when she responded to Dorrance's questions about her defense and when Sundhage nudged her toward the professionalism she found in France and when she returned with a newfound attention to fitness.

Heath is intensely interested in developing the next generation, and it drives her crazy when she sees young players robotically dribbling around cones in specialized individual training. It drives her crazy to see them doing what they're told without knowing or thinking about why they do it. It makes no sense to her to teach someone how to win before she understands how to play.

Heath first learned to play. Everything since has been figuring out how to win. What Ellis wanted was just the next step.

Heath scored in the final warm-up game before World Cup qualifying in 2014 and twice in her first start in qualifying. She started the final five games in the World Cup, as the U.S. gradually found its attacking footing. She scored her first World Cup goal in the final against Japan.

With the well-worn patience of someone who heard all of her life that her talent should translate to more goals and assists, Heath notes that there is more to the game than those statistics reveal. But those numbers, the most tangible outcomes of her creativity, speak for themselves.

She totaled 12 goals and 21 assists in her first 106 games with the national team through the end of 2015. By the end of the SheBelieves Cup this past spring, she had totaled 15 goals and 15 assists in 40 games since the beginning of 2016. Heath was the U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year in 2016, as well as a first-team all-NWSL selection in both 2016 and 2018.

"I think because of our society, and the way that I grew up in soccer, I had to become well-rounded, but I also cherished the parts of me that made me special," Heath says. "I'm thankful for that because it's made me a better player. It's definitely been challenging in terms of my personality, but I think it's also been expanding and made me grow."

TOBIN HEATH IS now the complete player. She's physically conditioned, technically savvy and tactically inquisitive.

If the field is a chess board, some players are rooks or knights. Heath is a queen, bound by no single role or path. She is faster than most and loses little of that speed with the ball at her foot. She has the fitness to maintain that pace after those defending her tire. She sees passing angles that others don't -- or at least aren't willing to use. She has the technical ability to bend in a shot from long distance and the body control, not to mention the fearlessness, to find a ball in traffic and finish with a back heel in front of goal.

"What you see in Tobin, even now at the most elite level, is a passion," Ellis says. "For young players, that can potentially [become] so outcome-oriented when they're young."

At the photo shoot in Portland this spring, while waiting for forgotten cleats to arrive, someone hands Heath a ball. She begins to juggle, bouncing the ball on her head, her knee, her foot, those actions as natural and unconscious a means of killing time as someone else checking their phone.

Nothing could be more authentic than this scene that has played out across continents, in locker rooms and hotel rooms, morning and night. Just Heath and a ball to juggle.

There has to be a reason you play. For Heath, it remains the feeling that comes with the ball and a game that offers limitless possibilities if you know how to control it.

"It's a place of kind of serenity and peace sometimes," Heath says. "It's so crazy because we complicate things so everything becomes so much bigger and louder in moments.

"But at the end of the day, it really is just, like, a ball at your foot."