Versatile Tobin Heath emerges as crucial cog for USWNT

April 11, 2016 9:53am EDT The 27-year-old has transitioned from role player to everyday starter for the U.S. national team, with her versatility and set-piece service proving valuable.
Tobin Heath - Paul Howe FTR

CHESTER, Pa. — Tobin Heath's place within the U.S. national team picture has been a topic for debate in recent years. While the flashes of skill were enticing, the question lingered: Is the tricky playmaker a luxury player or dependable asset?

A year ago, the jury was still out. But now there's no questioning her value to Jill Ellis' squad.

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Having entered the Women's World Cup last summer as a bench player, Heath won a place in the lineup for the Americans' group stage finale and hasn't looked back. After starting the final five matches of that tournament — scoring in the final — the 27-year-old has turned into a default selection for a U.S. team building toward the Summer Olympics.

"Tobin is one of the all-around greatest players that I've ever played with," U.S. defender Meghan Klingenberg said. "She's smart, technical and she works very hard. She's a threat anywhere you put her on the field."

That much was particularly evident during a 3-0 win over Colombia on Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium. Traditionally used as a winger, Heath made the start at right back before shifting to left back and finishing the match at left midfield.

On a day Colombia chose to sit back in numbers, Heath added a useful overlapping threat, picked up two assists off set pieces, and held her own alongside regulars Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston and Klingenberg in defense.

"I prefer to be attacking, but having J.J. and Becky back there, I'm perfectly comfortable because those guys are the boss and I just listen to them defensively," Heath said through a grin. "It's a similar position sometimes to an outside midfielder in general, especially when you're playing against a team that doesn't really have that many attacking threats."

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Having also logged extensive minutes in central midfield, Heath has further raised her stock ahead of an Olympic tournament that only allows 18-player rosters — placing a premium on versatility. Over the course of Heath's 17 appearances since the World Cup, center back and striker are the only field positions she hasn't filled.

"Tobin's got a good mind, good feet, versatility, athleticism and she's playing with so much confidence," coach Jill Ellis said. "I think that's huge, especially when you're going into a tournament where it's six games, small roster. To be able to have that flexibility is great, and it allowed me to have another look at some of the other players."

But it was on dead balls that Heath truly left her mark, whipping in a pair of free kicks for Johnston to score off.

With Lauren Holiday retired and Megan Rapinoe sidelined by a torn ACL, Heath has helped take on the set-piece burden in recent months. Although Colombia largely managed to stifle the U.S. from the run of play, Heath's left-footed services provided an antidote to the away side's bunker defense.

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"At the end of the day, it's all Tobin," Johnston said. "Tobin played the set pieces perfectly, right where they needed to be in, and I was lucky enough to be in the right spots."

When captain Carli Lloyd departed in the 73rd minute Sunday, it was Heath who sported the armband. While the gesture may have been a ceremonial one, it spoke volumes about Heath's recent rise in status within the U.S. team.

"She's definitely come a long way," Lloyd said of Heath, who debuted as a 19-year-old in 2008. "I remember Tobin when she was younger, coming on the team, and her game has elevated so much. I just have a huge amount of respect for her as a player and person."