First in a series of previews for the Women's World Cup.
When Heather Mitts began her professional soccer career in Philadelphia in 2001 with the now-defunct Charge of the WUSA, she was a spry 22-year-old defender who made a favorable first impression. At that time, Mitts was building a resume that would eventually lead to a regular spot on the U.S. national team.
Now, a decade later, the 33-year-old Mitts is admittedly in the twilight of her soccer career, at least in terms of the national team.
So she has embraced her role as one of the elder stateswomen of the U.S. team, which begins World Cup play in Germany next Tuesday against North Korea.
"I am one of the old fogies," Mitts said, laughing.
And her teammates aren't afraid to razz Mitts about her age.
"They give me a hard time, but they tell me I don't look my age," he said.
Once a mainstay as an outside defender, injuries and, yes, age have robbed Mitts of a starting role with the team. Yet she is happy to be along for the ride, which wasn't a certainty until she played in the second half of the United States' 1-0 win over Mexico in a final friendly tuneup June 5 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
U.S. coach Pia Sundhage had said that Mitts would have to prove she was ready physically in order to be on the roster. Immediately after the game, Sundhage told Mitts she had gotten the job.
"It felt so great when she told me I had the spot," Mitts said.
Mitts has played in two Olympics for the U.S., in 2004 and 2008. During the 2008 games in Beijing, Mitts started all six games as the Americans won the gold medal.
She began seeing regular duty with the national team in 2004, but this is Mitts' first World Cup. Mitts was poised to compete in the 2007 World Cup but suffered an ACL injury in May of that year while playing against Canada.
"This is my last opportunity at the World Cup because of my age," Mitts said. "It's something I've been working on eight to 10 years, and it's the last thing I am looking to accomplish."
Mitts returned to Philadelphia last year to play for the Independence in Women's Professional Soccer. But as much as she anticipated her homecoming, things never worked out. She suffered a series of nagging injuries and was never 100 percent. She is now a member of the Atlanta Beat.
Those injuries have held her back this year, but if her performance against Mexico was any indication, Mitts looks well on her way back. She played the entire second half and looked strong although admittedly not 100 percent.
"At one point in the game I kind of got a little fatigued, but I got my wind back, and it felt great to get 45 minutes under my belt," she said.
Mitts' teammates, the ones who tease her about her age, were thrilled that she passed the last test to stay on the World Cup roster.
"She worked so hard off the field to get back on the field and proved she is ready to play, and we're so excited about her joining us," said forward Amy Rodriguez, a World Cup teammate and a star for the Independence.
With an ability to generate offense from the back, Mitts could be an option off the bench during the World Cup.
"She gives us that option," Sundhage said. "Heather brings great experience to the team, and the only question was whether she would be healthy enough to compete."
This has certainly been a hectic time for Mitts. With her duties for the national team and the Beat, Mitts says she hasn't seen much of her husband, former Eagles quarterback A.J. Feeley, now with the St. Louis Rams.
"A.J. and I have seen each other about once a month," she said. "There has been a lot of travel, but this is what I do, and I love doing it."