Tobin f***ing Heath is on fire
Mark Parsons was slightly more understated this week when discussing his captain, Tobin Heath.
“I think it’s just the beginning. It’s been a good start for Tobin,” the Portland Thorns FC coach said.
Heath had earlier that day been named the April NWSL Player of the Month for her three assists (she added another on May 1, assisting on ever Portland goal this season). Even those numbers don’t do justice to Heath’s run of form, and they never have. The flashier, viral moments are better examples of Heath’s capabilities and current confidence, and there have been plenty of those short videos to go around thus far in 2016.
We've got Tobin f***ing Heath."
One such moment was a mid-air elastico around two defenders in Portland’s home-opener against the Orlando Pride. It came just moments after Heath pushed the ball around three defenders while tight-walking the sideline and leaving her opponents with no other option than to foul her. Those highlights also came not long after a halftime speech which Parsons revealed to media postgame. His message at the break – when his team was level at 1-1 and hardly dominant against the expansion Orlando team – was simple:
“We’ve got Tobin f***ing Heath.”
— Ben Jata (@Ben_Jata) April 18, 2016
That is a more emphatic statement than ever, for Parsons and for U.S. national team coach Jill Ellis.
Heath is the United States’ most creative player on the ball – possibly ever, with a lack of consistency through the years being the primary counterpoint. Her ebbs and flows and her need for freedom have all been discussed and written about for years – more so than Heath has probably cared to discuss. Away from the field, Heath is a free soul, a nomad who says she doesn’t actually own or rent a dwelling, instead spending the little free time she has outside of soccer by bouncing between family and friends across the globe. She thrives on the field when she has similar freedom. To bottle her in a contained or more defensive role is like giving an artist a stencil to trace a shape.
That concept isn’t new, but there is a different tone to the conversation now. This is Heath’s most consistent stretch as a professional. Her performance in that home-opener came 11 days after Heath dazzled again in her U.S. jersey, spectacularly beating five Colombia defenders on a cold Wednesday night in Connecticut to further widen the eyes of observers.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) April 6, 2016
After that U.S. match, Heath was beaming, and her coach was, too.
“I feel really great. I feel, physically, probably the best I’ve ever felt,” Heath said after that 7-0 victory over Colombia on April 6. “Thank God, I’ve been without injury, which always helps, and I just feel really good about my football right now and I feel really good about the way that we are trying to play. It’s really great to have people with a lot of soccer sense on the field with good feet, so it’s really positive.”
Ellis has seen the improvement, too.
“Tobin has had a lot of history with the national team. But I think that where she started when I came on board in terms of just – I think she’s built her game. First we asked for more output from her, and she’s given us that. Now it’s just her decision-making and her creativity. I think her confidence is knowing that she is an impact player that we rely on now. She always had that reserve, starter/reserve role, off and on, under previous coaches. Now she’s a consistent starter and I think she’s embraced that. We’ve certainly seen the maturity of her game and the confidence and she is incredibly valuable. Now, asking her to almost embrace a leadership role on this team.”
— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) May 5, 2016
Delivering these sorts of performances at the Rio 2016 Olympics this summer will be paramount for Heath. The U.S. will play four more time between now and that August 3 kickoff in Brazil. Heath will play a handful of games with Portland between now and then, too, the next of which is pivotal: a Saturday road meeting with the Washington Spirit, the only team in the NWSL with a perfect record through three rounds of matches.
Saturday’s match in Maryland is a homecoming for Parsons, who was part of the offseason coaching shuffle which saw three coaches leave one NWSL team for another. Parsons left the Spirit for Portland after leading Washington to back-to-back NWSL semifinal appearances in his two full seasons in charge. The young Brit says he’s focused on the game, but he admitted that after the match, he will catch up with some family and friends.
Saturday is Portland’s third straight match on the road. The Thorns chose to stay out on the East Coast after defeating Boston on Sunday, a luxury which
“It’s a huge benefit of being in Portland,” Parsons said. “Every club has the money to do this. Of course there is money, but not everyone decides to invest it.”
A victory on Saturday would send Portland to the top of the NWSL table and mark the Thorns as the team to beat. They still have Amandine Henry – the French midfielder who is probably the second-best player in the world right now – waiting to arrive in June.
All of that adds up to a scary proposition for the rest of the NWSL, should teams have to chase Portland.
“I feel over the next 4-6 weeks we’ll be a better team,” Parsons said. “And I think that will lead to better performances from Tobin, which is a scary thought.”
Jeff Kassouf is the editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @JeffKassouf.