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He was a late bloomer who didn’t play a minute of varsity soccer in high school, admittedly a high bar at Christian Brothers in his native Saint Louis who were No. 1 in the nation when Heinemann was enrolled. “I had a medical red-shirt in college after walking on at a Division II school,” he said, thoughtfully, careful not to leave out any details in a list of obstacles that might have stopped lesser men right in their tracks. “I tore my ACL twice and had seven surgeries.”
The 30-year-old striker has an unshakable faith in a higher power. He believes he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be right now. He’s earnest and has the kind of perspective and empathy you find in people who’ve hit bumps in the road, had their share of ups and downs, and pushed right on through. Heinemann has played at every level of the American soccer pyramid, from college to the Premier Development League (PDL), United Soccer League (USL) and even a brief stint at the top of the heap in Major League Soccer (MLS). Now he’s in the second-tier with San Francisco, playing in the Deltas’ first season in the North American Soccer League (NASL).
Late Bloom & Bad Luck
“I was a late bloomer in the game of soccer,” he said with a chuckle after killing off Phoenix Rising, a side with big ambition and Didier Drogba and Omar Bravo on the roster. “I was a small kid, quick with the ball. I learned the game by being small.” It’s hard to believe to look at him now, 6’5” and stone solid, pushing the scales near 200 lbs. He’s the kind of physical presence that backs defenders down. “But when I was 16 and 17, I shot up something like six or eight inches really fast. I turned out to be a lot taller than my mom and dad and it’s kind of weird.”
He might have been a late bloomer but when he bloomed, Heinemann bloomed hard. In his two years at Rochkurst University he was an All-American striker and averaged nearly a goal every other game. With his PDL team, St Louis Lions, he did even better, racking up 35 goals in 36 games. It was enough for second-tier pro sides Charleston Battery and Carolina RailHawks to take a chance on the wild-haired front man. He scored goals wherever he went and Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer soon came calling. He signed with the 2008 MLS champions in 2012 and soon after suffered an injury that ended his season. It was a micro-fracture that required surgery and by the time he returned to fitness, Columbus weren’t too keen to renew his contract.
Heinemann was no stranger to injury and he admits to never thinking about calling it quits. “There’s been a lot of rehab and recovery,” he said, his voice quiet as he chooses his words carefully. “But you get taught a lot in those moments. Now every time I get to lace up my boots I’m so grateful. Ask anyone who’s had serious injuries and they’ll tell you that it makes you take a step back and be grateful for the moments you get to play the game you love. When you’re a pro, and soccer’s what you do day in and day out, it leaves a big hole when it’s taken away.”
Settled in NASL
After leaving Columbus, Heinemann spent the next season at MLS side Vancouver Whitecaps, where he was again off-loaded at the end of the side’s inaugural run in the top flight. His flirtation with MLS over for now, it seems like Heinemann has found his level after years of pain, sacrifice and uncertainty. “It’s been a privilege to experience the whole pyramid,” he said, getting set for the Fourth Round of the Open Cup against Major League Soccer outfit San Jose Earthquakes. “The level is higher in MLS for sure, but that’s the beauty of the Open Cup. It’s one game, one moment and anything can happen.”
His impact for his new club, playing in their first Open Cup, has been astonishing. “Tommy is a reference for us in the penalty area,” said coach Marc dos Santos, schooled in Portugal and a mad scientist who doesn’t believe in fitness training. “He’s so important to the team. And he has experience in those moments where everything is on the line. He knows about the Open Cup, too, as you can see.
When you hit the kind of form Heinemann’s in right now in any Cup competition, the superstitious take it as a sign of something big on the horizon. “When you win a game with the last kick of stoppage time, it gives you a sense that maybe something special’s going on,” he said, talking about the scrappy goal he scored five minutes deep into added-on time to see off the men from Phoenix in the Third Round. “But we can’t get ahead of ourselves.”
With his Zen-like calm and gentle cadence, you might think Heinemann’s accepted his place in the pecking order of the American soccer scene. He’s a family man who’s fond of the phrase, 'everything happens for a reason.' But still, there’s the drive. There’s that little part of him, even at 30, that wants more. It’s the same part that pushed him through his recoveries and professional setbacks, through the heartache of not making the cut in high school. Faith, determination, endeavor, grit. You can call it whatever you want, but Heinemann’s got it.
“Inside, I always have that part that still wants to be the best,” said the striker, who lives on a modest professional salary that he augments by running soccer camps in his native St. Louis. “My biggest dream has always been to play for the U.S. National Team. “It’s not easy to do that from the second division, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”
Speaking with Heinemann, you get caught up in his enthusiasm, decency and optimism. You begin to believe anything’s possible. It’s a hard thing to resist. “I’ve always loved the game, playing it,” he said looking ahead. Always ahead. “It’s all about opportunities and chances and I’m here with both of those in San Francisco.”
His record in the Open Cup is proof that Heinemann takes his chances when they come. He won’t stop because it’s easier to quit. He won’t be intimidated by San Jose and their raft of top-tier talent who’ve made a home at the top of the pyramid. He’ll believe and scrap and wait, patiently, for that moment when a second division player can rise those few inches above one from MLS. One of those moments that only come in the Open Cup.
“It’s my job to be ready,” said Heinemann, thinking long and hard about his answer in a conversation that’s gone longer than expected. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more professional player in the whole of this country. “It’s my job to stay focused and prepared and to make the difference when it’s in my power to do it.