U.S. Soccer

Keeping Tobin Tethered to Earth

Tobin Heath – her long brown hair worn in a loose and messy ponytail, a few pieces always escaping out the sides – was known to skateboard through the UNC campus, her main mode of transportation since she was a kid. In Chapel Hill, sidewalks are made out of brick, not ideal for skateboarding, which meant Tobin cruised up the street, often rolling right up to the soccer field.

Anson Dorrance, UNC women’s soccer coach, comments, “I lived in abject terror that she was going to get hit.”  (Which did happen once. The “non morning person” came down the hill on her way to 8am class, just going for it, hoping a car wouldn’t be there – it was. “I ended up totally wiping out - and the car broke my board.”)

Born and raised in New Jersey, Tobin, winger for the U.S. national team, is more California in both vibe and pastime – on the national team bus, she listens to reggae and reads Surfer magazine. In the one summer she did spend in Los Angeles, rooming with fellow national team player Kelley O’Hara, the pair had a daily routine: train, skate to beach, surf, and train some more.  

Tobin Heath on Beach
The beach is one of Heath's favorite places to be

On the field, Dorrance notes, she is less Californian, more Brazilian: “She loves making players fall over. She’d rather nutmeg a player than go around her. She relishes the art of the dribble.”

In her first cap for the United States National Team, in her first touches on the ball, she nutmegged not one Canadian defender, but two.  In a send-off game against Mexico back in May, Heath’s dribbling art was on full display. Mexican commentators shouted, “Oiii, Ole” as she pulled off this elastico before sending the ball towards Abby Wambach for the finish.

“To be great, you have to absolutely love it. And that’s Tobin,” says Dorrance. “She could not get enough.”

Her freshman year at UNC in 2006, the dorm Tobin lived in had a soccer field right outside.

“We’d always end up out there at some point. Whatever hour it was. At one or two in the morning, we’d go turn on the lights and play,” says Tobin. “That was the story of our class, my group of friends – we always wanted to play, anytime, anywhere. That was our culture.”

Fetzer Field – UNC’s game field – always said “CLOSED” but they snuck out there anyway, playing pickup under the track lights just as Mia Hamm had when she was there, nearly twenty years earlier. They played in the dorm hallways (“Even people who didn’t play soccer wanted to play—it was so fun.”); they played in the parking garage, using trash cans as goals; they even snuck out onto the game field at midnight several hours after winning the national championship.  “Even though we’d just won this great thing, even though our season had ended in the best possible way, we still didn’t want it to be over,” says Heath.

Her swag and personality has made Tobin a fan favorite 

While most Tar Heels move off campus after their freshman year, Heath convinced her friends to live in the dorms through junior year. “I loved community living. I think it’s because any time of the night, I could be up and I’d hear a guitar, and I could just go there, and walk into a room and have a conversation with someone I didn’t know. Everyone lives with their doors open. I really enjoyed that.”

Her senior year, her friends sat her down and told her, Tobin, it’s time. It’s time to move out of the dorms.

She resisted but eventually folded when they presented a big house right off campus, where they’d continue to live commune-style. Tobin lived in the attic with her two teammates, Casey Nogueira and Nikki Washington, their mattresses lined up on the floor. They kept open paint tubes lying around and anyone who entered the attic had to contribute to the ever-changing mural. “Some people would do paint by numbers – but I can’t have that, I can’t have someone telling me where to paint,” says Tobin.

This natural tendency to bristle against borders and designated confines hasn’t gone away. Tobin’s known not only for her free-flowing style on the field, but also for her free-flowing approach towards the world: Since she graduated from North Carolina, she’s played for professional teams in New Jersey, California, Atlanta, New York, Paris and Portland. She has no set home and instead prefers to drift from place to place in her off seasons, visiting one coast and then the other, hopping from one friend or family member’s house to the next. She’s got a few bags of her stuff at her sister’s house, a few bags of stuff at her parent’s house.

 “When people are like, ‘Yeah, you can come anytime you want,’ I literally come any time I want. I guess most people hear that and are like, uh, thanks, and it never happens, but with me, if you invite me somewhere, and I think it would be a cool thing to do, I’ll probably do it. Don’t invite me someplace unless you mean it,” laughs Tobin. “And I don’t mind sleeping on a couch or a floor, so that helps.”

“Tobin has always been anti-establishment, but in a good way – she’s a creative type, a free spirit,” says Dorrance. One trademark Tobin story told at the end of the year banquet involved star recruit, Allie Long. Heath was hosting Long, and Long, excited for her first college party, was wearing stilettos and a mini-skirt. But Long had failed to take into account who her host was. Heath took one look at her and said, ‘I think we should go build a campfire. So Long, instead of hitting the town, spent the night out in the woods. “Tobin did things her own way. We were just trying to keep her tethered to the earth,” says Dorrance.

Dorrance’s program relied on a leadership council, composed of all seniors and one representative from the other classes.

“And in her career here, Tobin, along with Casey and Nikki, considered themselves the non-leadership council. Tobin wanted nothing to do with establishing rules. So we’d have our meetings and decide on policies, and they would have their meetings and decide on nothing,” says Dorrance. “Tobin liked to pretend like she wasn’t a leader. But she is, without question. Practice wasn’t enough for her. She couldn’t get enough – and that’s infectious.”

Tobin Heath

Gwendolyn Oxenham is the author of Finding the Game: Three Years, Twenty-Five Countries and the Search for Pickup Soccer and the co-director of Pelada.

IN PHOTOS: A Day in the Life of Ashlyn Harris

Ever wondered what a day in the life of a U.S. Women’s National Team player is like? We followed WNT goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris to get an inside look at a day inside WNT training camp, a day that included a weight session and on-field practice.

After a grabbing a quick coffee, the busy day starts early for Harris and the WNT, as they are headed to a weight lifting, the first of two trainings sessions that day.

U.S. WNT - Ashlyn Harris

“The bus ride is always total shenanigans with the people I sit around with. Usually that group is Allie Long, Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger. It’s just fun and good vibes heading into our workout.”

U.S. WNT - Ashlyn Harris

First stop of the day: weightlifting. The WNT usually spends about 90 minutes at the gym, and each player has a specialized workout sheet that is tailored to their needs.

U.S. WNT - Ashlyn Harris

U.S. WNT - Ashlyn Harris

“At lifting I usually spend time on my shoulders and continue to strengthen my back; things I need as goalkeeper. Every day I hit the ground, so I have to make sure my arms are strong. Shoulder strength and shoulder stability are key to make sure my arms are moving well and to prevent any injuries.”

As the team exits the gym, several fans await them by the bus and most players, including Harris, stop to sign a few autographs and pose for a few selfies. 

U.S. WNT - Ashlyn Harris

“It’s always just really cool to stop and have a chat with the younger generation after or before training sessions. They’re just awesome.”

“Our van leaves the hotel about 45 minutes before the field players whenever we go to the training. I always have a pre-training and pre-game routine of taping my fingers and hands. It’s a personal preference and to be honest, I’ve always done it. Being at training earlier helps us get some good stretching in, stay focused and it allows us to nail down techniques and work individually and collectively as a small group before we jump in with everyone else.”

U.S. WNT - Ashlyn Harris

U.S. WNT - Ashlyn Harris

For afternoon training, Harris, along with Alyssa Naeher and Jane Campbell, as well as goalkeeper coach Graeme Abel, all pile into a team van and head to training earlier than the field players to spend some time working on their technique and specific areas before the rest of the team arrives.

U.S. WNT - Ashlyn Harris

“Alyssa and I have very good communication and no one has a better view or can critique one another better than each other. If we see something we tell each other and help each other out.”

U.S. WNT - Ashlyn Harris, Alyssa Naeher

After training, the players all cool down, chat with each other, hydrate and reflect on the session they just completed.

“We tend to immediately grab our protein shakes. We talk about the day, what we saw on the field, what we can fix, what wasn’t good, what was good and we just overall critique the game in every way we can to become better.”

U.S. WNT - Ashlyn Harris

“Once we’re back in the hotel, it’s all about treatment. Like true professionals, we must take care of our bodies and be responsible to get the treatment we need. Our bodies take a beating from all the impact at training so we take care of it to do it all over again the day after.”

U.S. WNT - Ashlyn Harris

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WNT Apr 5, 2017