Tobin Heath's absence reveals USWNT's real issue: The lack of a true creator

USA TODAY Sports-Kyle Terada

The Tournament of Nations brought more unsatisfying performances, and reminders of a key absentee.

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The U.S. women’s national team took its lumps during the recently-concluded Tournament of Nations. Despite outscoring Brazil and Japan 6-0 over the tournament’s final 100 minutes, some felt the three-game summer extravaganza produced more negatives than positives. When it was over, head coach Jill Ellis said so was the experimenting.

Some of Ellis’ decisions may appear to be little more than unnecessary tinkering with proven talent, but an overlooked element about the tournament was the absence of much of her preferred midfield. No absence has been felt more than that of Tobin Heath.

Long viewed as a future lynchpin of the U.S. midfield, Heath finally began to realize her full potential during a magical 2016. For club, Heath was the best player on the NWSL Shield-winning side, Portland Thorns FC.

For country, Heath was the straw that stirred the drink in the midfield. It was Heath who set the table for the likes of Carli Lloyd, Crystal Dunn, and Alex Morgan to constantly fill the back of opposing nets.

FIFA may have recognized Lloyd as its player of the year, but at home, Heath was named U.S. Soccer’s Female Player of the Year.

Fast forward to 2017, and Heath has not seen the field for club or country since the SheBelieves Cup in March. A back injury has lingered through the entire NWSL season, to the point that Thorns coach Mark Parsons said recently that he was hopeful Heath could return for the playoffs in October. In the meantime, Ellis and the U.S. are struggling to figure out the midfield.

At her worst, Heath can rule either flank with her possession game. At her best, she can turn that possession into scoring chances and leave opposing defenders wobbly and weary. Megan Rapinoe has been ruthless on the left flank since returning to form following a 2015 knee injury, but Rapinoe plays higher up the field than Heath and requires more of a feeding system to get enough time on the ball to be effective.

Heath is the most prominent example of what is missing: a creator.

Opponents at the Tournament of Nations were able to press the U.S. when they pleased, spreading out the Americans’ midfield. Heath requires more attention. When she is on the ball, teams have to spend more resources to contain her. In turn, that opens up players and space.

The 2016 Tobin Heath was better at finding those players and exploiting those spaces than ever before. The Sweden disaster at the Olympics aside, that element changed the U.S. attack.

Ellis’ Tournament of Nation team had no such player. The attacking was much more direct without Mallory Pugh, and even in defeating Brazil, the team may have helped future opponents develop a blueprint for how to stifle a Tobin-less U.S. attack.

Ellis’ experimenting may be over, but there need to be two different answers. One is an offense that makes full use of Heath’s ability to possess and pass, as well as drop set pieces on a dime. The other is one without Heath, in which Ellis needs to figure out the best way of getting the ball into dangerous areas.

One player who could help spread the U.S. attack from right to left is Rose Lavelle. The first pick in January’s NWSL draft, Lavelle made her U.S. debut against England at SheBelieves and made an immediate impact as a player with the potential to run the center of the park for the next decade.

Lavelle authored a similarly impressive start to her club career with the Boston Breakers, albeit with a small sample size, but she strained her hamstring playing for the U.S. in Norway and has not played since.

Morgan Brian, another former first overall pick, has also been limited by a groin injury which is in its second season of lingering. Two years ago, Ellis altered tactics midway through the World Cup, part of which was making Brian a staple in midfield. That was the first glimpse of the type of impact Brian could have at the senior international level.

It remains unclear how Ellis would like to line up her U.S. team as she begins fine tuning the side with more than a year until World Cup qualifying. Last time Heath played, and the only two times she ever played with Lavelle, the U.S. was in a 3-5-2 that Ellis sent to the scrap heap after the U.S. was torched by France at the SheBelieves Cup.

No stretch at the Tournament of Nations was anything close to as poor as that first half against France, but there was still a definitive void in cohesive midfield play. The idea of Brian being healthy enough to partner Sam Mewis, the duo sitting deep with Lavelle in front of them and Heath out wide, must be on more than one of Ellis’ blueprints for France 2019.

The midfield probably underachieved this summer anyway, but clearly some key elements were missing to Ellis’ optimum scenario.