PORTLAND, Ore. — When the NWSL schedule came out, it was one of the most anticipated games of the season: Portland-based Abby Wambach visiting JELD-WEN Field with her home town Western New York Flash to face the one team with Major League Soccer backing – Portland Thorns FC. With Portland’s typical standout crowd, the Wambach versus Alex Morgan matchup was sure to be one of the most interesting of the season.
And in front of a 13,201-person audience that was given reason to erupt when Canadian international Karina LeBlanc saved a late Wambach penalty kick, Portland and Western New York played one of the most entertaining matches of the year, the 34-shot affair ending in a 1-1 draw.
Those who showed up to see Wambach’s first NWSL visit to Portland were rewarded in the 37th minute when the U.S. international reached her right leg around rookie defender Kathryn Williamson to put home a ball from winger Samantha Kerr. One minute later, Thorns midfielder Meleana Shim fired home from 19 yards, the last goal of a game that once promised to be a shootout.
But for all the Abby versus Alex anticipation the matchup once garnered, Sunday’s kickoff had become anticipated for an entirely different reason. After spending the first months of the season in France playing for Paris Saint-Germain, U.S. international Tobin Heath made her much-anticipated Portland debut, starting in midfield for Cindy Parlow Cone’s side.
“She helped us so much today,” Cone explained, her team showing some of the attacking spark fans expected at the beginning of the season. “[Heath’s] a world class player … She’s one of the most tactical players and also one of the most technical, creative players playing the game today.”
The impact was obvious, if ultimately inconsequential. Heath’s skill on the ball helped Portland play a possession game they’ve struggled to implement all season, while her ability to play anywhere across the width of the pitch allowed the Thorns to utilize wide areas that have been neglected throughout much of the season. Even in her physical presence, something for which she’s not especially known, Heath made an impact, her pure soccer instincts helping her win balls for the Thorns.
“Tobin has great mobility,” Cone said after the game, asked about Heath’s various positioning within Portland’s midfield. In the team’s 4-4-2 formation, she started on the left, switched to the right, and played the second half in the middle.
“She has such a great fitness base,” Cone said, “wherever she’s moving, we have other players who will fill in other positions.”
That great fitness Cone alluded to also played into the move centrally, according to Heath. As the central, attacking midfielder, Heath’s need to track back decreased, allowing her to see out a match despite some apparently rubbery legs.
“I think that was kind of the plan: to go 45 (minutes), see how I was feeling, switch me to attacking mid so I didn’t have to do as much up-and-down running,” Heath said after her NWSL debut. “I was a little surprised. My fitness base is pretty good, but taking a few weeks off and coming back , I was pretty happy, especially with the heat. Overall, I was happy to be able to go 90 [minutes].”
The game’s style also represented a transition for Heath, who spent the last six months in France’s Division Feminine. Whereas European soccer is characterized by a more tactical style, Saturday’s Portland-Western New York match embodied the characteristics regularly associated with the North American game.
“Obviously it’s very physical, athletic, fast pace, transitional type game,” Heath said, asked how the NWSL’s level of play compares to France’s. “I think you saw that today, especially with the heat. It gets pretty stretched out.”
That type of game helped leverage Heath’s strengths as well as revitalize Portland’s attack. Despite the presence of Morgan and Canadian icon Christine Sinclair, Portland’s only scored 19 goals in 15 games. Only two teams in the eight-team league have been less productive, yet with Heath in the team, Portland was able to generate 20 shots, including 10 on goal.
“[Cone] gives me a lot of freedom,” Heath said, describing her role. “I think she knows I’m a player that needs a little room to be creative and make something happen. But the midfielders that are around me are very good with the ball. I think it’s just a matter of getting that confidence and belief in one another in the midfield to play, because we really can play.”
That was evident on Sunday. Ultimately, Portland dropped points at home, but compared to the stretch that’d seen them shutout in three straight games, the performance against Western New York was progress, portending well for Heath’s contributions throughout the rest of the season.