JERSEY CITY, N.J. – If Tobin Heath remains a magnificent enigma in her 10th year on the United States women’s national team, that’s less by design than indifference.
Unlike most of her fellow stars on the team, you won’t see much of her away from the field. She doesn’t do bikini shoots. She’s isn’t on magazine covers. The USWNT’s reigning Player of the Year has a habit of ignoring interview requests, actually.
It isn’t some studied mysteriousness or aloofness. She would just rather play soccer and play it beautifully.
“I’m not opposed to it,” she said in an interview with Yahoo Sports that she was somehow talked into doing. “I think I’m more traditional in how I do media. I want my brand to be about football. I’m a footballer through and through. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be.”
And it’s what she became. So now it’s all she wants to be doing – aside from surfing and skateboarding and purposeful homelessness and not wearing socks, that is. But we’ll get to all that.
“I grew up loving Brazilian soccer,” Heath said. “What made me think soccer was cool was these guys making soccer look like fun and easy, and they would just destroy people. It was an art. I loved that. And that’s the way I learned the game and mimicked a style. It’s just so beautiful.”
Even longtime U.S. women’s national team fans still don’t entirely know what to make of the 28-year-old Heath. She was always a towering talent, her surpassing and unprecedented skill evident from the day she made her senior national team debut as a 19-year-old in January 2008. But it took much of the following nine years and 131 national team appearances for her to finally shed the prospect tag and become a fully-fledged national team star – on the field, at least.
Until then, Heath was mostly known for her juggling skills.
And her love for the nutmeg.
And her penchant for scoring outrageous goals, on the rare occasion when she did get a goal.
And for pulling mind-bending tricks like this.
For all this, she was beloved, even though all that ball magic wasn’t always put to good use on the field, where Heath remained maddeningly inconsistent. She was unique, though. And an untold number of young players modeled their games on her.
Heath is an avid surfer, in spite of being a proud native of decidedly non-surfer New Jersey. “The ocean is so powerful and so healing at the same time,” Heath said. “It’s kind of like a sanctuary. And the culture of the people in surfing, I love that. It’s such a community. It’s just got this, like, chill way about it. When you’re in the water, it’s very inclusive.”
She skateboards to practice every day with her National Women’s Soccer League team, the Portland Thorns.
She was effectively homeless after her graduation from the University of North Carolina in 2009 until just before the 2015 Women’s World Cup, when she finally bought a place in Portland. For those six years – save for a spell spent playing with Paris Saint-Germain in France – Heath couch-surfed between friends and family all over the country when she wasn’t with the national team or her clubs. She still doesn’t spend much time at home, since all of her family lives along the Eastern Seaboard.
“It’s a glorified storage facility,” Heath said. “Because of our schedule, we’re always all over the place.”
“It’s kind of the way I feel more comfortable,” Heath explained. “Because since I started with the youth national teams back when I was 13 or something, that’s just how it’s been. It’s been life on the road. So now I feel the most comfortable when I’m always having somewhere to go.”
She is deeply spiritual, although she’s rarely public about it. Every now and again, she’ll allude to it on Instagram.
She lives on Tobin Time, moving at her own speed. She isn’t sure what Tobin Time is when she’s asked about it – it’s a term used by some of those around her.
“It sounds like something fun is going to happen,” Heath said before she burst out laughing. But she sort of gets it. “I definitely don’t abide by most rules.” More laughter. “I don’t ever know the schedule. I guess I do live on my own planet sometimes.”
There’s a reason her socks always have that signature sag. “Because I have big calves and I don’t like socks,” Heath said. “Plus, I get kicked on my ankles. You don’t get kicked high up on your leg.” So she likes her shin guards lower down. It’s mostly the sockophobia, though. It should be noted that, on a frigid day, she’s wearing flip-flops for our interview.
But most of all, it’s hard to convey just how besotted Heath really is with her sport. She skipped her senior year of high school soccer in Baskin Ridge, N.J., to better prepare herself for the under-20 national team by practicing with boys instead. She and her family got a lot of grief for that. But she felt it would be better for her development. For the mellow surfer chick exterior, there was also a certain ruthless determination within to make it.
“It was a great decision,” Heath said. “It obviously helped me accomplish what I wanted to do.”
At UNC, her dorm was next to a soccer field. She loved living in a dorm and stayed all four years because there was always someone around to hang out with. But above all, it was that field.
“They probably changed this because of me, but my first year the field had lights you could actually manually turn on,” Heath said. “At any time of night I could turn on the lights. I was like, ‘This is a dream.‘ It’s what I always wanted in life. I’d go out there and turn on the lights. But the second year, they shut off [the power] at 10 o’clock.”
“What happened with me is I came into the national team so young [at 19] and everybody had an idea of me, even the coaches, too,” she said. “And sometimes it’s hard for you to be taken seriously when you come on as a kid. It’s also my personality. I almost give off [an impression] that I don’t really care that much – that I’m just out here playing soccer. Sometimes it’s hard for people to see you grow and evolve into not just a kid anymore.”
Broadly, 2016 was a difficult season for the national team. A worst-ever performance at a major tournament – when the Americans were bounced from the Olympics by Sweden on penalties in the quarterfinals – overshadowed a good year before and after the Rio Games. But it was also the year when Heath finally came good. She scored a career-high six goals – taking her total tally to 18 – and was tied for second on the team with eight assists.
Yet while Crystal Dunn, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Christen Press all had far higher combined totals for goals and assists, it was Heath who was named U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year. She was recognized for an influence that had slowly ballooned from building up attacks, creating room and chances for teammates and quietly covering an enormous amount of ground on defense.
“I’ve never felt like I’ve arrived at any point in my national team career,” Heath said. “It’s been that way forever. As soon as I’ve started on this journey, I’ve just taken it step by step. I don’t think it should be described as an explosion because I think it’s a culmination of my, like, life’s work so far.”
She chuckles at this thought, probably because it sounds so serious. But in U.S. head coach Jill Ellis, Heath has been met with an appreciation for what she brings.
“Tobin’s been one of our most consistent players for quite a while,” said Ellis of the player who was once known for being mercurial. “She’s a very dynamic player, a very accountable player on both sides of the ball. She’s one of the best one-v-one players in the world. She’s become one of the best set-piece takers in the world. She’s going to be a player we lean on, for sure.”
Heath feels that she has Ellis’s confidence, whereas other national team coaches might not have offered it unconditionally. Ellis has given her a margin for error to try things.
“It’s OK to be you on the field,” Heath said.
In a way, Heath has been waiting around for the sport and the national team to catch up to her. In her technicality and creativity, she was ahead of her time – a creative, round-ish peg squeezed through the square hole of a muscular and direct national team.
“My style of football,” Heath conceded, “is a little bit unique.”
Ellis has built a national team that flows better, tries to keep the ball on the ground and leaves room for individual improvisation. “Tobin has benefited from how we’re trying to move the ball, and players around her that she can play off of, and trust that they’re going to get her the ball,” Ellis said. “In the past year in the half, as we’ve evolved, her quality has shined even greater.”
“I was around a culture that viewed it very differently,” Heath recalled. “Here in the U.S., I always call it ‘sorority soccer.’ Where it’s just fun and you do it because everyone else is. You don’t realize that it’s part of what society has made female sports in a lot of ways. You can’t be a real professional. But when I went to Europe you were a real professional. They don’t see themselves as female soccer players. They see themselves as soccer players. Their standard is everything they see on the men’s side.”
Lloyd, one of the team’s co-captains, saw a change in Heath. “Tobin used to be a player who maybe didn’t quite take care of herself and didn’t stretch and didn’t warm up and would just kind of go out there and play,” Lloyd said. “And she’s really become a true professional on and off the field. She’s just taken her game to another level.”
But if Heath has arrived, she is still not into the spoils. She’s still not home much, or likely to be on time for things, or willing to pull her socks up.
When the interview is over, however, she doesn’t seem to have had a bad time. She laughed a lot. Now, she gets up and smirks at her interviewer.
“That,” she says, “was fairly enjoyable.”