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Professional Apr 23, 2010

Dougherty: Freedom stars agree – Tobin Heath is for real

So how good is Tobin Heath?

Good enough that Washington Freedom and U.S. National Team star Abby Wambach says watching Heath play reminds her of Barcelona great Lionel Messi.

Good enough that Freedom defender Cat Whitehill, who along with Wambach has seen the world’s best players up close, calls Heath “one of the best players in the world.”

Good enough that she was the youngest member on the 2008 Olympic gold medal winning team, and was the top overall pick in the WPS draft in 2010.

Against the Freedom Saturday at the Maryland SoccerPlex, Heath – playing as a withdrawn forward and central midfielder for the Atlanta Beat – was good enough to draw minute-by-minute attention from Whitehill and the rest of the Freedom team. And although Heath did not score in Washington’s 3-1 win, the University of North Carolina graduate was a danger from the opening whistle.

“She’s just so crafty, so good with the ball at her feet,” said Wambach, who was careful not to make a direct comparison with Messi – who can, after all? – but said her style of play is remarkably Messi-like. “She has really stepped up her game. With North Carolina she used to be role playing – now she’s leading.”

“You know how skillful Tobin is,” Whitehill said. “She’s one of the best players in the world, and you have to know where she is and keep an eye on her every minute.”

One of those instances came early in the match Saturday, when Tobin turned under pressure, then calmly beat Whitehill and defender Nikki Marshall at the corner of the penalty area before unleashing a low, hard left-footed shot that was cleared by defender Sonia Bompastor before it could find the net.

Such skill is typical for Heath, whose smooth style of play and ability to play “connect the dots” with teammates has made her a regular on the U.S. national team.

“She just creates things,” Wambach said. “The way she plays commands so much attention.”

While Wambach likens Heath to Messi, from Argentina, North Carolina Coach Anson Dorrance calls her an American player with Brazilian-like skills. He has lauded Heath’s one-on-one abilities combined with the attacking mentality of the Brazilian soccer temperament, adding that Heath would rather nutmeg a player than dribble around her.

(At the Four Nations Tournament in China in January 2008, Heath nutmegged a Finland player on her first touches in her first national team appearance.)

“I’ve been on a number of teams that win, so I bring that edge,” said Heath, who played for the successful PDA Wildcats in New Jersey as a club player. “I have the experience which helps with the development of our players, and try and carry the rhythm out there. I just try to be productive on the offensive end and give my team a spark when we need it.”

That type of leadership may be what Atlanta needs most out of Tobin, who knows a little bit about winning. Among her accomplishments:

•    Youngest member of the U.S. National Team in 2008, and Olympic gold medalist
•    Silver medalist with the U.S. Pan American Games team in 2007 in Brazil
•    Member of the U-16 (2002-04) and U-17 (2004-05) national teams
•    Played on the U.S. U-20 National Team at the 2006 World Championship in Russia
•    Three-time national champion at North Carolina, including 2009
•    Earned U.S. Soccer’s Young Female Athlete of the Year Award
•    Runner-up for the M.A.C. Hermann Trophy in 2009
•    2009 Soccer America MVP First-team
•    New Jersey High School player of the year (2005)

Yet Heath, a 5-6 midfielder, seems unfazed by the accolades. It’s the team that matters.

“You have a responsibility to your teammates, a commitment to work as hard as you can, not just for yourself but for your team,” Heath said.

That’s the mentality she takes away from Dorrance, who has written about “The Competitive Cauldron,” the training method he uses to create a winning mentality in his players.

“It’s the little things matter, especially just concentrating,” Heath said.

While Heath’s face dominates the Beat’s marketing materials, she has not been with the team long because of an ongoing illness that has baffled her and her doctors for more than two months. She said doctors have not diagnosed what kept her off the field for many weeks, but that she has been working on her fitness and is nearly 100 percent.

The Freedom game was only Atlanta’s second WPS match ever, and Heath said time will help fix the problems the young team is experiencing.

“This is only our second game so we are still trying to figure things out, but we have great strengths on the attacking end,” she said. “We have different personalities, so we are just trying to get those personalities to mesh.”