Tom Anderson first saw Tobin Heath play soccer when she was an 8-year-old trying out for his youth team in Somerset Hills, N.J. He sensed right away that Heath could be special.
“She was quicker than everybody else out there at 8, and the other kids were 9, so we put her on the team," Anderson said. “She had the quickness which you can’t teach, and she had the intelligence that also goes with it."
Anderson’s hunch proved right, and then some. Over 20 years later, Heath is now a U.S. women’s national team’s superstar, and a force of creative wizardry almost unequaled in all of American soccer — men’s or women’s.
On Wednesday, the U.S. women will play their first home game of the year, against Japan at Talen Energy Stadium. In three-and-a-half months, they will play their first game at the World Cup in France. Heath arrives at this moment at the peak of her powers and skills. And if the Americans are to bring home a second straight World Cup title, she is likely to be a big reason why.
“Tobin’s role has exponentially grown within the women’s national team program,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. "Tobin is now one of our most experienced, most seasoned, most composed players in big moments, and that’s important for us to lean on.”
Anderson has seen it coming for a long time. He coached her for a decade. When she and her under-13 team became too good for the competition, Anderson helped launched what became the New Jersey youth soccer powerhouse Players Development Academy to give the players a higher level of training.
“When we taught her a new dribbling move, she couldn’t wait to try it,” Anderson said. “Whether it was working against her teammate and practicing it on the pitch, or when she went home, dribbling the ball through her mother’s legs or dribbling against the dog, whatever — it was just working with the ball, and doing the tricks and the flicks were fun for her.”
Michael O’Neill, director of PDA’s girls team coaching for 19 years, has known Heath since she was a teenager.
“She always had a ball at her feet,” O’Neill said. “She watched some of the most entertaining players in the world play, and the way they went about their game, and she brought that flair to our team. But she spent so much time developing that. And then I think the thing that’s most important is, it’s not only spending the time to develop that, but it’s having the courage to step on the field and actually do it. When you have success, it’s awesome, but when you don’t have success, she just got more determined.”
Anson Dorrance recruited Heath to his North Carolina college soccer dynasty in 2006. His memories of her time there are still vivid.
“She was more interested in the individual duel than the game result. I was trying to get her to accept that it was better to score a goal than to nutmeg someone,” Dorrance said. “My biggest challenge in coaching her was to take this incredible love of the ball she had and turn it into love of winning the game.”
She never stopped nutmegging people, including Dorrance. He claimed that “of all the players I’ve coached, she’s nutmegged me more than probably all the rest of them put together.” But Heath also became a winner. The Tar Heels swept all four ACC titles in her time there, and lifted three national championships. She got her first senior national team call-up at age 18, and won her first cap at age 19.
Heath has kept winning ever since. The 30-year-old now has two Olympic gold medals, a women’s World Cup title, and two NWSL championships with the Portland Thorns. And she still has a free spirit, uncorking those tricks and flicks and nutmegs on a regular basis. Every time she does, millions of fans swoon collectively on social media.
“The reason people pay money to watch our game is for players like Tobin,” Dorrance said. “She’s a bit of a rebel in a positive sense, which I think is a part of what makes these creative mavericks unique."
Even Thorns manager Mark Parsons can’t help swooning sometimes.
“She crosses a ball and you just sit back and are, like, ‘I don’t see many players in the world cross the ball like that,’ and she does it [with her] left and right foot,” Parsons said. “Or she drives and beats one, beats two players, then flips a ball through to someone and goes in on goal. Or she’s in on goal and she finishes like the finish [last April] away at Utah, where she chips [the goalkeeper]. … It was the only way she was going to score, and she found it, and she executed it.”
How often does something like that happen?
“I mean, once a day, twice a day,” he answered.
By the numbers, 2018 was the best year of Heath’s career. Even though she missed the first few months because of injury, she delivered eight goals and seven assists for the Thorns, and seven goals and six assists for the national team.
Off the field, Heath has increasingly embraced the spotlight that comes with her stardom. She is not the national team’s most ebullient personality, at least not on camera. Her public persona, what fans see on television and social media, is often reserved.
That’s not just a perception. It’s how she describes it.
“I feel like, for myself personally, I’m more reserved as a person,” she said. “Having all this exposure and stuff like that in life is not comfortable for me. In a lot of ways, you kind of have to find comfort in that kind of uncomfortable setting, because you don’t really have a choice. But I think as much as you can control what’s inside of you, then the external factors don’t become such a big deal."
But once she’s on the field, she unleashes everything she’s got — and often without having to think about it. When asked how many of her fancy moves are instinctive vs. planned, she didn’t hesitate.
“It’s 100 percent instinct,” she said. “It’s stuff that I’ve been training and messing around with, and it’s just stuff that naturally comes in the moment. Because it’s what you see, it’s what you dream about. … It’s an expression of the things that I love about the game.”