US SoccerUS Soccer

Glamour and Grit

Just a few minutes remained in the USA-Germany match last October 29 at Impuls Arena in Augsburg, Germany. The American women were holding a tenuous 1-0 lead and the sold out crowd of 30,000 was urging the home team to find an equalizer.

The Germans were coming at the U.S. in waves, but the players knew victory was just a few thwarted attacks away. A long ball was sent sailing far over the midfield stripe through the chilly Bavarian night toward the U.S. backline. A tall (aren’t they all?) German striker rose to flick the ball towards the U.S. net.

Enter Heather Mitts. The U.S. right back launched her 5-foot-5 frame over the German and won the header but got submarined, which sent her cart-wheeling in the air head-over-heels. She landed in a heap but popped up in seconds, ready for the next one. Moments later, the game was over.

That play, just a glimpse of action from her 104 caps, encapsulates Mitts. Hers is a career built on perseverance, toughness and hard work.

Her debut with the national team came in 1999, but through the next five years she would play just four international games. She was never a youth national team standout (although she did play in a Nordic Cup with the U.S. Under-21s). She played her first meaningful match for her country at age 25 and she’s certainly not the tallest or biggest defender.

She finally broke through in 2004, playing in 28 games, and won an Olympic gold medal. Since then, it’s those aforementioned qualities that have allowed her to fashion one of the best runs for an outside back in U.S. history. In fact, of her last 99 caps, she has started 85 times.

“Even from when I was young and through high school I can remember never being totally satisfied with my performance,” said Mitts. “My parents used to get upset with me because I could go out and play a great game, but I always stepped off the field thinking I could do something better. “

In the rough and tumble world of the U.S. Women’s National Team, where competition for roster spots and starting spots is always intense, that’s a great attitude to have.

Mitts was not in the mix for the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup and then missed out on an almost definite roster spot in 2007 when she tore her ACL four months before the tournament. It was a potential career impacting injury, as young players are always chomping at the bit to take open places, especially when established players are out for a year. To no one’s surprise, Mitts worked hard on her rehabilitation and picked up where she left off, returning to the U.S. team just in time to earn a roster spot for the 2008 Olympics. She has been a fixture at outside back since.

“I’ve always tried to stay positive,” said Mitts. “I like to set high standards for myself and always hope to achieve more, but when I was injured, I think my work ethic and positive outlook really helped me get back on the national team. At this level, you just have to stay positive whether you are trying to make the team, trying to get into the starting lineup or trying to stay there. I’ve always done everything possible to keep that focus.”

Mitts’ off the field activities, which have garnered her some mainstream attention, have contrasted sharply to her game on the field. Her modeling exploits, work for her corporate sponsors, co-hosting a morning TV show in Philadelphia and sideline reporting for soccer and college football on ESPN have put her directly in the spotlight. As an outside back on a team full of attacking personalities, she has been more in the shadows, but that’s just fine with her.

“As defenders, we just want to keep plugging away,” said Mitts, who has distinguished herself with tremendous ball-winning, a feisty aggressiveness, steady play, and under Pia Sundhage, some quality attacking down the wing. “As long as we keep getting better and progressing towards a World Cup and keeping balls out of the net, that’s all we want. When it comes down to the big games in the World Cup and Olympics, we know how important our jobs are. Our job is not to be flashy, and I’m definitely not flashy - we’ll leave that to the forwards.”

At 31, the recently married Mitts knows she is closer to the end of her career than to the beginning. After her soccer days are done, she definitely wants to return to TV work, something that’s been put on the back-burner with the demands of the WNT and the WPS. She also wants to start a family and spend more time with her husband, NFL quarterback A.J. Feeley. The two have been so busy with their respective careers over the eight years since they started dating, got engaged and then married, that they have never spent more than 45 consecutive days together.

Still, for Mitts, there is much work left to do on the soccer field.

“My motivation, my goal, right now is not only to make a World Cup team, but to win it,” said Mitts. “For this team, it’s been a long time and my generation has never done it. I really want to get there, be healthy and contribute.”

Early in her career, Mitts got more attention for her looks than her game, but she gets full marks for leaving a legacy that is more grit than glamour.

“I think for me, my soccer career has been about overcoming obstacles,” said Mitts. “I hope when I’m done people will respect me for my work rate and effort on the field. I’ve had the chance to compete with and against some of the best players of all-time and be a part of two gold medal teams, so it’s been pretty amazing. The only thing to make it better would be to say I was a World Cup champion too.”

Now, that would be glamorous.