On May 22, 2009, the longest total solar eclipse during the 21st century occurred. For those that believe in astrology, that was perhaps a bad omen for U.S. midfielder Tobin Heath, whose U.S. Women’s National Team career has been dark since that day when she played the second half against Canada in Charleston, S.C.
That eclipse lasted six minutes and 39 seconds in some parts of the world. For Heath, it’s been almost 18 months since she’s worn the U.S. jersey, stuck on 19 caps after a still promising career was put on hold by sickness and injury.
“The hardest part was not being able to play at all for that long a time,” said Heath, who is known for the joyful way in which she plays the game. “Not being able to touch a soccer ball and being physically limited in what I was capable of doing for so long was just plain frustrating. Needless to say it makes me so thankful for what I am doing right now, just getting to run around and getting another opportunity with the national team.”
All was well for Heath in the spring of 2009. She was the youngest player on the USA’s 2008 Olympic gold medal team and was coming off a junior season that included an NCAA title with the North Carolina Tar Heels. She would win another NCAA title as a senior.
She was one of the top talents coming out of the USA’s youth national teams, for whom she had excelled at every age level.
Life was treating her well. But life can be a fickle friend.
During her senior year at North Carolina, Heath was called up to the U.S. team in October of 2009 to travel to Germany for a monster friendly against the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup hosts in front of what would be a sold-out crowd of almost 30,000 fans in Augsburg. Heath was set to be in the starting 11 and it would have been just the fourth start of her young career. The day before the game she got violently ill, so much so that she didn’t even attend the game, a 1-0 victory for the USA.
She finished her college season, but the illness, which despite a voluminous battery of tests was never diagnosed, persisted for about five months. During some of that time she was so weak that she could do nothing but lie on her couch.
Still in January of 2010 she was taken as the top overall pick in the WPS Draft by the Atlanta Beat. She gutted it out through pre-season but was clearly not herself. Then just three games into the Beat’s inaugural campaign she suffered a bad ankle injury, which turned out to be worse than initially diagnosed.
Heath gave the ankle six weeks to heal, but when it didn’t, she was forced to undergo reconstructive surgery on her right ankle, a procedure that has a high success rate but also carries a long rehabilitation period.
“It’s harder when you’re not really in control anymore,” said Heath of her lengthy time away from her cleats. “When it comes to making rosters, and you are healthy, you just work as hard as you can and show your abilities and the rest is up to the coaches. But when that control is taken away from you, and it’s not really your choice anymore and your success is not determined by how hard you prepare and work, well, that’s really hard. If you’re injured, it doesn’t really matter what you can do on the field because you’re not on the field.”
She came into the USA’s training camp in Atlanta last September, but didn’t play. She did rehab work and if she was lucky, got to serve a few balls. She didn’t start playing full out until mid-November, giving her a few months to get ready for the WNT’s January camp.
Even though she was out of sight for a while, she wasn’t out of mind, as U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage is well aware of her prodigious talents. Heath possesses a unique skill set of, well … skills. One of the most technical players on the U.S. team, neither the ball nor a charging defender seem to cause her much distress. We’re talking about a player who on her first two touches of her first full international cap collected the ball and then nutmeged an opponent.
“Most of my goals are pretty short term right now,” said Heath. “I just want to keep playing and stay healthy. I just want to get through camp and enjoy it and feel good with my soccer and just feel encouraged from the camp. I’m not looking at the big picture right now because you really have to take it day by day at this point.”
First things first, which for Heath will be making the 23-player roster for the Four Nations Tournament in China at the end of January. It would be an appropriate place for a rebirth of sorts as she earned her first cap at the Four Nations Tournament in 2008. And with the retirement of Kristine Lilly, the depth chart at left midfield – likely her best position – just got a bit shallower.
But what is she expecting from this brief camp in Los Angeles?
“To be tired,” said Heath. “Let’s just say I’ll be fitter after this camp. Coming back from this situation, I have a lot to prove. There’s always going to be opportunities, but you have to earn them and an experience like this shows how you can take the little things for granted, like just being able to run. It sounds so silly, but when you can’t do it, it’s not so amusing.”
It’s a good thing for Heath, and the USA, that her smile is back.