'Chill' Heath's time is coming to develop into U.S. playmaker
The two sides of Tobin Heath don't quite seem to match up.
On the field, she's the swishing ponytail flying ahead from the U.S. women's national team's midfield, making zig-zagging cuts that would look wildly out of control were the ball not somehow staying glued to her feet. She sizes up opponents like a headstrong point guard in a pick-up hoops game, hungry for one-on-one battles that end in scoring chances for teammates and leave foes looking foolish.
Her playing style suggests a direct, aggressive and maybe even cocky personality, but Heath is far from that. If you didn't know she was a soccer player from New Jersey, you'd guess surfer from California.
"If I had one word, I would just say 'chill,'" said Lindsey Horan, Heath's teammate with the national team and French club Paris Saint-Germain. "She's one of the most relaxed, chill girls I've ever met."
U.S. coach Tom Sermanni's first impression was "reserved." Call it the generational equivalent of Horan's description.
Both traits make Heath, 24, a good bet to be one of the team's most valuable assets in the buildup to the 2015 Women's World Cup. The skills are an obvious plus (Sermanni called her a "Barcelona-type" player), and the even-keeled nature is a must on a roster where there aren't enough minutes to go around.
The U.S. continues its path to 2015 with the Algarve Cup in Portugal starting this week. The time is coming for Heath to make the leap from contributor to consistent playmaker, and her recent move to PSG figures to aid in that development. She signed with the French club in January and will be there through the end of the season with a scheduled return to play for the National Women's Soccer League's Portland Thorns in late May.
"For me, life and football is just an adventure, and I'm constantly trying to push myself to see ways that I can be challenged and ways that I can grow," Heath said by phone from Portugal. "It seemed like a good time in my life and where I am in my game right now to do something like this. The French style of play has really attracted me, and it's something I thought could help my game."
That style emphasizes technical ability, less of the physical prowess that served the U.S. so well in the past.
As women's soccer evolves, Sermanni said, that athletic advantage is shrinking, and cultivating creative players is key. Players like Heath.
"Very, very, very much so," Sermanni said. "She's the type of player that could walk into the Japanese team and not look out of place."
She's not quite the finished product yet, though.
A three-time NCAA champion at North Carolina, Heath broke into the national team in 2008 as the youngest player on the Olympic gold medal-winning side before illness and a serious ankle injury prompted an 18-month absence. She came back strong and moved closer to regular starter status under former coach Pia Sundhage. Heath played in four of six games as a sub at the 2011 Women's World Cup and in 26 of 32 matches last year, with four goals and seven assists in 16 starts.
She has had jaw-dropping moments, like the consecutive nutmegs of Canadian players in 2009 that brought Sundhage to her feet. Sermanni has enjoyed watching her Houdini escapes from tight situations, as well as her habit of calling out nutmegs in training before slipping the ball between a defender's legs.
But there's a higher ceiling.
"She's very unpredictable," U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd said. "She can kind of just float in between the spaces and gaps, and I think the next step of her game is taking it into that danger zone and creating things, and I think she's doing a great job. She's on her way."
Sermanni calls Heath's missing piece a "ruthless streak." He saw flashes in a recent friendly with Scotland, when Heath notched an assist and played incisive first-touch passes to find teammates in space. He expects her time with PSG will help translate skills into goals and wins.
For Heath, the first issue is translation.
The move across the pond in January -- which U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe had made a few weeks earlier to juggernaut Olympique Lyonnais -- hasn't been the smoothest adjustment.
While she says soccer is a universal language, everyday experiences like ordering food are a challenge, one that she and Rapinoe detailed in a comical video last month.
Then there are the pregame speeches.
"It's basically me sitting there listening to my coach speak in French for maybe 20 minutes, and then he'll say maybe three words in English," Heath said with a laugh. "Some of the girls will help out a little bit if they think it's really important that I need to know. But when he draws on the board, I can understand. Whenever I hear my name, I kind of look up."
During a 3-0 loss to Rapinoe's Lyon on Sunday, an iffy handball call against PSG led to a Lyon penalty kick. Heath ran to protest to the official, began speaking and then devolved into a kind of half-mime routine before realizing it was a lost cause.
"I came off the field after the game, and I was like, 'What was I doing? She (the referee) couldn't even understand me,'" Heath said. "I was speaking in English -- in the most polite words possible."
Horan's presence has been a boost. The 18-year-old forward signed with PSG out of high school in the summer, and she and Heath wound up living across the street from each other.
Things are coming together on the field as well, though second-place PSG might be hard-pressed to catch leader Lyon. Horan is seventh in the league in goals, while Heath scored in her first league match and has brought the attacking ability that's to be expected.
"Tobin is just a really creative flair-y kind of player, and we needed someone that could change our game a little bit," Horan said. "She can play right or left or in the center, and I just think she adds an extra bit to our game individually. She's so crafty and so intelligent on the ball, I just think it's awesome playing with her."
(Heath hasn't run into PSG's other big January signing, David Beckham, but she figures it will come soon: "I think he was looking for me actually," she deadpanned.)
The U.S. opened the Algarve Cup with a 3-0 win over Iceland on Wednesday and will face China on Friday and Sweden on Monday. The Americans could play Japan or Germany in a potential final. The tournament is a chance for Heath to draw on the French experience and lay more claim to a spot in the 2015 World Cup midfield.
Rapinoe, 27, figures a sure-fire starter, and veterans Heather O'Reilly, 28, Lloyd, 30, and defensive midfielder Shannon Boxx, 35, are proven, too. The young talent, along with Heath, includes 2011 World Cup breakout Lauren Cheney, Yael Averbuch, Kristie Mewis. Forwards Sydney Leroux and Christen Press can also play in the midfield.
Of all, Heath could develop into the cornerstone. Her European stint will likely be a large factor, in terms of both playing style and focus.
"American soccer became very comfortable for me," Heath said. "I could sit through a meeting or even practice and kind of know exactly what was going to happen or what my responsibilities are. Nowadays, I go to practice and I 100 percent have to be there and be focused because I really don't know what's coming next. That for me is very exciting because I feel like I'm just learning the game all over again."