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Midfielder's fancy footwork points team to success/



TRIBUNE PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Tobin Heath dazzled at Providence Park on Sunday, as the Portland Thorns opened their season with a 2-1 victory over Orlando.After a frantic, end-to-end 2-1 win over the Orlando Pride to open the Portland Thorns’ season on Sunday, it is midfielder Tobin Heath’s turn to talk to reporters at Providence Park.

She walks into the media conference room and plops down in a chair with the full weight of her body and sighs, “Ah, that feels good,” as if she used every last bit of energy and is relieved to finally sit down.

Having assisted both of Portland’s goals and arguably been the most active, impactful player on the pitch that night, it’s easy to picture what a successful Thorns 2016 season may look like: It will be Heath leading the charge.

In her season debut for the Thorns, the midfielder dazzled the crowd and frustrated Orlando with crafty moves such as a mid-air “elastico” where she changed the direction of the ball on her foot and tricked defenders into stepping the wrong way.

At other times, while pushed into the tightest crannies along the edge of boundary lines, she delicately weaved and nutmegged her way through defenders to create space that didn’t seem to exist.

Heath has been known throughout her career to favor creative tricks over no-nonsense by-the-book soccer, but successfully pulling off such feats to maintain possession and set up her teammates for goals marks a coming-of-age to a more seasoned, thoughtful player.

“I guess everybody experiences it as they get older. They have to grow up, and I feel like I’m going through that maturity process with my game as well. I’ve always been the younger one and now I’m old,” says 27-year-old Heath with a laugh. “So, I feel like it’s about time I step up and take that responsibility, and it’s something I’m really enjoying.”

On Lindsey Horan’s goal in the 82nd minute, a ball popped into the air and Heath settled the ball and precisely laid it off to Horan’s feet in a single perfectly-weighted touch. That swift touch meant Horan had the defenders beat and plenty of time to place her shot out of the reach of goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris.

“At halftime, the third or fourth thing I said was, ‘We’ve got freaking Tobin Heath,’” Portland coach Mark Parsons says. “’We’ve got Tobin Heath on our team but you wouldn’t know it because we’re not giving her the ball.’ In the second half, we got the ball to her two, three, four times, and special things happened.”

Parsons adds: “She was everywhere, and I think she played with the freedom that we want to allow her.”

Seeing Heath try unthinkably flashy moves is hardly an unusual sight. Longtime fans of the U.S. national team are familiar with her penchant for dancing through the opposition and trying to beat them head-on rather than pass the ball back to a teammate.

But since she joined Portland in 2013, she has quietly turned into a leader, finding the balance between those moments of daring risk and pragmatic possession.

With usual captain Christine Sinclair recovering from a left Achilles tendon injury, Parsons asked Heath to wear the captain’s armband on Sunday.

Asked about it in the press conference room, Heath says she never really considered it might be something Parsons would ask her to do. Then a smile slowly spreads across her face.

“It was kind of a shocker,” Heath says with a chuckle. “I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ I think there’s a bunch of other people who should get it, but I took it and I’ll do what I can with it.”

It may only be the first game of a 20-game National Women’s Soccer League season that will see Heath pulling double-duty, leading the Thorns but spending some time away with the national team for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. But, given her impact in everything positive that Portland produced to open the season, it seems a safe bet that the team will, to some extent, do as well as Heath does.

“Tobin is an example of incredible work ethic and doing what it takes to be a special player,” Parsons says. “She’s a special, special player.”