Eight years ago, Tobin Heath, five months shy of her 20th birthday, was invited to her first U.S. Women’s national team training camp.
Among the players Heath took the field with were Christie Rampone, Shannon Boxx, Aly Wagner, and Kristine Lilly, players years ahead of her in international experience. But she wasn’t nervous or tentative, two things Heath is incapable of when there’s a soccer ball around.
“It was just a super exciting time for me,” remembers Heath. “I was just a young kid and it was one of those really cool opportunities that I had dreamed about. But, once I got there, I wanted to show something unique.It was intimidating in many ways, but I remember just wanting to perform. There really weren’t a lot of expectations on me.”
There are plenty of expectations on her now. National team fans not only expect her to score and create goals, but they assume they will be entertained in the process. After all, she’s a player who has completed rainbows in games, scored goals on back-heels, and she’s never seen a nutmeg opportunity she didn’t attempt. In fact, she nutmegged a Finland player with her very first touch in her first national team game.
“To be honest, ever since I started playing that was a big part of my game,” says the now 28-year-old Heath.“I was fortunate to have youth coaches who valued that part of the game. When I got to UNC (University of North Carolina) I was able to cultivate it even more.”
Now, 125 international appearances later, Heath is at a training camp to which head coach Jill Ellis has invited 11 uncapped players. With a three-year period of time between the 2016 Olympics and the 2019 World Cup, Ellis has expanded the search for players, digging deeper into the NWSL.
“Obviously, this is a huge transition time for the team,” says Heath.“I think it’s fantastic that we have this time to get looks at players who come in and experience this environment and see if they can help the team continue to grow and get better.
“Simply put, I think these next two years are years we need in order to get better,” she adds. “Having that competition and deepening the pool will create more competition and help us continue on the path to be the best team in the world.”
Of the 24 players in camp, only Carli Lloyd (231) has more caps than Heath’s 125. Becky Sauerbrunn (116) is the only other player in camp with 100 or more. Heath knows how important it is that the newcomers are able to display their best qualities. Along with Lloyd and Sauerbrunn, the team’s captains, she is expected to help the new players along.
“Obviously, it’s going to be a new environment for the first-timers so it’s important to get them up to speed quickly so they can show what they can do,” she says.
“From the very beginning, you have to be inclusive and encouraging,” she adds. “I think you need to create an environment where these players can express themselves and be unique because that’s what you want to have on your team. You want them to come in and make an impression right away and feel like they can contribute.”
She also knows there are no guarantees, even for players who won the World Cup just 15 months ago. Ellis said as much when announcing the 24-player roster of players that will compete for playing time in friendlies against Switzerland on October 19 and 23.
“It’s not about how many caps you have or what you’ve done in the past, but what are you doing in this moment and what are you prepared to do for the future,” said Ellis. “That’s going to help us. It’s going to make for a healthy competitive environment and force players outside of their comfort levels, and these players are at their best when they’re pushed.”
What does Heath say to the first-timers? Exactly the same thing she tells herself.
“For me personally, it’s the same approach as every time I’ve been called into the national team,” she says. “And that is to improve and grow, not take anything for granted and work and show my worth.”
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