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NWSL week 2 in review: Tobin Heath finally getting the most out of her tricks

With another assist this week to help salvage a draw for the Thorns in Kansas City, Tobin Heath is already having what could be one of the best seasons of her career. But the road to finding a place where her individual skill fit in with the team wasn't always a smooth one.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

There's this old YouTube video. It's not cats or other people's crappy vertical iPhone footage of their favorite band that they could have saved us all from by just watching the show through their eyeballs instead of their phone, or whatever other things are probably on YouTube, and it's how I know there are, in fact, other things besides cats and bad concert videos on YouTube.

Press play, and you'll see the (former) U.S. Soccer crest. The title card informs us first that it's all_access, underscore theirs, presumably because that was a thing someone decided made things look futuristic and we were definitely going to be using lots of hitherto underused characters in future times. Or they made it on a typewriter. Anyway, once we've celebrated that we now have all the access, the first beats of Jurassic 5's "What's Golden" come in, and then we see two soccer players, Casey Nogueira first, then Tobin Heath, wearing hotel bathrobes, getting pumped up in some kind faux-boxing situation that's taking place on the roof of a building the description of said video reveals is in Russia, which is where all of your faux-boxing set to J5 songs from the early aughts videos would naturally take place.

The video is called "Tobin Heath and Casey Nogueira Ball Tricks Battle" and it is from 2006, but U.S. Soccer won't let us embed it here for some reason. Heath and Nogueira, again according to the accompanying description, "had some free time during the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup" and thus will face off in "a battle of ball skills." Unexplained in the description is if you are actually allowed to take hotel robes outside of the hotel.

Soon Nogueira and Heath have ditched the robes -- or they've been confiscated by security, something we'll never know thanks to the magic of editing -- and begin to engage in said battle of the ball tricks. It goes on for four minutes. I have no idea who wins, or if someone even does, because the song ends at around the 2:30 mark and that's half of what I'm into it for at this point.

Heath is just 18 in this video, pre-UNC and national championships, pre-USWNT and Olympic golds and World Cup win, pre-professional career. But she is clearly already Tobin Heath, person who can do things with the ball that range from confusing to awe-inspiring and everywhere in between. If you check the recommended videos that come up from watching the ball trick one, you'll see it's spawned hundreds more, including a few produced by U.S. Soccer. Most of them are highlight reels of things Heath can do. Nutmegs, fancy moves, speaking rudimentary French, playing some kind of Harry Potter related game that I don't understand because I've never seen nor read Harry Potter.

All of these videos are just clips though, little snippets of an individual talent. And while that individual talent is fun to watch, it doesn't always fit in on a team. For that, you have to go much more recent than a decade-old video shot on the roof of a building in Russia. For that, you have to go to France, and then to Portland.

By the time Heath finished her career at UNC in 2009, she'd already had a successful youth national team career and been capped 19 times by the senior team. But despite that success, and being taken first overall in the 2010 WPS draft, things didn't go quite as well for Heath the professional player, or at least not right away.

The Atlanta Beat were an expansion team in 2010, and used the first pick that came with being WPS's newest entrant on Heath, something that surprised absolutely no one. It was the heyday of WPS, or as much of a heyday as a perpetual disaster can have. There would be nine teams, including two expansion sides in the Beat and Philadelphia Independence. Puma, as the league's jersey sponsor, threw a party/fashion show that coincided with the draft to debut that season's uniforms using players, Heath among them, as the models. And Heath, then just 21, did countless media interviews, all of them polished and perfect. She was to be the new face of the still growing league, a symbol of progress and the future and all the good that would come. And then Heath played just three games for the Atlanta Beat, injury and illness sidelining her for the remainder of the season, as well as from any national team play.

When Heath took the field as a professional again a year later, it was for Sky Blue FC, an offseason trade that was either a massive salary dump by the Beat or some kind of blackmail situation bringing her back to her native New Jersey. The 2011 World Cup wreaked havoc on WPS rosters that season but of the 12 appearances Heath made for her hometown club, just three were starts. By the next season, the league was gone, and Heath with it.

When she turned up again, Heath was in France. After WPS's demise, Heath signed a contract with PSG. But where everything stateside had been bad for Heath as far as pro soccer goes, Europe was immediately very, very good. In 12 appearances for PSG in the 2012-13 season (eight league, four in the Coupe de France Féminine), Heath scored five times (four league, one cup).

That brings us to Portland. To the first season of NWSL. After finishing her contract with PSG in 2013, Heath joined the Thorns team to which she'd been assigned as part of the original USWNT allocation. Heath was immediately an impact player for Portland, putting an exclamation point on her return to the U.S. with the game-winning goal, a rocket of a free kick from some 30 yards, in the 2013 NWSL championship game. It was the kind of goal that Tobin Heath would score, because it's the kind of shot that Tobin Heath would decide to take. It was audacious and kind of ridiculous, and it was confident.

And that's the thing about Heath, about Portland. So naturally, here's where we're going to take a moment to talk about Carli Lloyd. Lloyd, like Heath, had a bit of journey to get to her current happy place in Houston. There was Chicago, New Jersey and Atlanta in WPS; Western NY before Houston in NWSL. And in all those places, Lloyd wasn't the Lloyd she is now, often struggling through less-than-impressive seasons. And sure, part of this, the Lloyd story and the Heath one and the story of dozens of other players, can be chalked up, at least in part, to maturity and training and the peak of a career, but there was always something else about watching Lloyd play for all those other teams. To watch Lloyd then was to watch someone that seemed stifled somehow, almost like she was playing more out of obligation than any real desire to be there. In Houston though, that changed. Lloyd fit, could run the midfield, could run through things and people, could run whatever she damn well pleased. She could be Carli Lloyd.

Heath often struggled with that same kind of general malaise in through her limited appearances in previous iterations of professional women's soccer in the U.S., but not now. Through two games this season, the Thorns are second on the table and unbeaten, with a win in week one and draw on Saturday in Kansas City. Lindsey Horan, a teammate of Heath's at PSG and with the USWNT, scored both the game winner last week and the tying goal this week, both on assists from Heath.

And while Heath might prefer a nutmeg or some little flick to just barreling though an opponent, the end result for her is the same as it's been for Lloyd. For Heath in Portland, just as it's been for Lloyd in Houston, it's that she's finally not just allowed to be Tobin Heath, but encouraged to be. And so far, it's worked out pretty well for everyone involved.



Chicago Red Stars 1 - 0 Western New York Flash
Orlando Pride 3 - 1 Houston Dash
FC Kansas City 1 - 1 Portland Thorns FC


Sky Blue FC 1 - 2 Washington Spirit
Boston Breakers 0 - 3 Seattle Reign FC