Heather Mitts: Right Player, Right Back
It took Heather Mitts five years and three WUSA seasons to get her big break with the U.S. National Team, but since 2004, she has started 84 of the 98 matches she has played, carving out a niche at right back for the USA.
Oct. 26, 2009
Meet the two sides of Heather Mitts.
© Brad Smith/U.S. Soccer
Off the field -- and yes we’re going to say it -- she’s a bit of a girlie-girl. She loves to dress up, has more than a few modeling gigs on her resume and always seems to manage to look fabulous.
On the field, she’s a gritty and feisty defender who never shies away from a physical battle or even a little scuffle with an opposing player. Truth be told, she’s just a little bit nasty.
But which Heather is the real Heather? Of course, it’s both, and that combination has made her one of the most popular players on the U.S. Women’s National Team with fans and her teammates over the past six years.
And who wouldn’t love someone who is as comfortable on a red carpet as she is slamming her 5-foot-5-inch frame into massive Germans?
“As players, we like to poke fun at one another and I guess I am a girlie-girl” said Mitts. “I find it flattering if people think that, but I just want make sure when I’m on the field, no one will ever get that impression of me.”
Many players who eventually excel at the international level start their careers slowly, but most don’t start as slow as Mitts. She debuted in 1999 before the famous FIFA Women’s World Cup that capture the hearts of the nation, but during the next five years, she earned just five caps and played a total of 143 minutes without making a start.
In 2004, at age 25, she finally got her big break when she was invited to residency training camp for the 2004 Olympics. With defensive stalwart Joy Fawcett nursing injuries, Mitts worked her way into the lineup by showing the characteristics that would come to define her career: relentless work ethic, fearlessness into the tackle, excellent team spirit and a great feel for the correct plays to be made with the ball at right back.
“I came into residency with the attitude that I really had nothing to lose,” said Mitts, who was recovering from a broken bone in her leg suffered during the WUSA season. “I think before when I was with the national team, if I had a bad day, I would be down about it, but I was more mature after playing in the pro league. I was taking it all in stride and giving it my best effort. One thing led to another and I was eventually living out my dream.”
Every coach loves a player who is consistent – a player who brings no doubts what she will deliver when you send her out in the starting eleven. Mitts is such a player. She earned a spot on the 2004 Olympic team, saw action in two games including one start, and earned her first gold medal in Greece.
Since the 2004 Olympics, she started in 66 of the 70 matches she has played, becoming a regular feature in a U.S. backline that has held opponents to less than half a goal per game in four of the last five years. Mitts says her consistency comes from making sure the best aspects of her game stay at a high level, while focusing to improve on her weaknesses over the past few years.
“I’m aggressive, feisty and a hard worker,” said Mitts. “I think I knew what had gotten me to the point where I could make national team rosters, but I also knew I had to improve to become more of a complete player. That was mostly on the technical side of the game. I’ve always relied on my athleticism, my speed and aggression, but I wouldn’t say I’m one of the most technical players. I knew that in order to continue to be part of the WNT I had to work on that side of my game.”
Mitts tore her ACL just four months before the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup and was forced to miss the tournament at which she almost certainly would have been a starter. She used the time during her rehabilitation to work even more with the ball and as a result, it did wonders for her confidence on the field. When she returned and got back to 100 percent physically, she was even more impactful on the flank for the USA.
“I just want to continue to be dynamic out of the back by going forward,” said Mitts. “I want to be an attacking threat, but at the same time, hopefully be part of one of the best defenses in the world.”
In 2008 she started a career-high 24 games, including all six matches at the Olympics in China where her tremendous performance alongside the rest of the U.S. defense played a huge part in another gold medal run. This year, she has started seven of the USA’s eight games and her leadership is starting to make even more of an impact on a team that features some young central defenders.
Now, at 31, she is posed to make a run at what would be her first and perhaps last Women’s World Cup team. Mitts has moved nine times since college due to her soccer career and the pro football career of her fiancé A.J. Feely, currently of the Carolina Panthers. She also changed WPS clubs from the Boston Breakers to the Philadelphia Independence, where she will be able to play at her natural position, a spot currently occupied by English international Alex Scott in Boston.
“Just having both of us doing something that we love, we’ve realized all the moving is just part of the business,” said Mitts. “It’s not going to last forever, so we are just enjoying the ride as much as we can while it lasts.”
And how long will it last? Mitts is always one of the top players during the U.S. fitness tests and she says she is feeling great, despite the many on-field collisions with larger players. She is excited about the run to qualification for the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and perhaps the 2012 Olympics, and then it might be time to hang up the boots after what surely will be one of the best careers ever for a U.S. outside back.
“I’m very honored and appreciative to have the experience and success that I’ve had so far,” said “It’s been a long 10 years overcoming a lot of adversity, but I’ve accomplished a lot and enjoyed some of the best friendships of my life. I’ve been all over the world and played against some of the best players in the world. To be able to play a sport that I love for a living has just been amazing, but hopefully, I can top off my career with a World Cup championship to be content with walking away from the game.”