Jul 14, 2013, 10:59 PM EDT
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.
Oct 24, 2014, 9:22 PM EDT
You can watch the match live on NBCSN or online via Live Extra.
Oct 24, 2014, 8:51 PM EDT
Neil Warnock could be answering to a new boss if American billionaire Josh Harris purchases Palace.
Oct 24, 2014, 8:00 PM EDT
Jose Carlos Rivero was charged with two felonies earlier this month but continued to work games for the MLS.
Oct 24, 2014, 7:27 PM EDT
The New York Red Bulls made a young girl’s dream come true as she signed a one-day contract with her favorite team.
Oct 24, 2014, 6:20 PM EDT
Watch the Black Cats host the Gunners at 9:45 a.m. ET online via Live Extra.
Oct 24, 2014, 5:31 PM EDT
UEFA handed Serbia a 3-0 win but deducted points after their match against Albania was called off due to violence.
Oct 24, 2014, 4:43 PM EDT
The former England captain and Manchester United legend plans to retire after his season at QPR.
Oct 24, 2014, 3:54 PM EDT
Watch as Leicester City travels to Liberty Stadium tomorrow live on NBC at 12:30 p.m. ET.
Oct 24, 2014, 3:04 PM EDT
Pogba broke through with 9 goals and 10 assists across all competitions for Juventus last season and a goal and assist at the World Cup.
A coach tells a fan tells a ticket rep… How soccer fans and the Red Bulls created this adorable goal video
Oct 24, 2014, 2:26 PM EDT
It’s a little dusty in here. Godspeed, Irelyn. May a cure be found in short order!
Oct 24, 2014, 2:01 PM EDT
It’s going to be ugly and we’re going to shake our heads. Some will feign shock. And the whole cycle will repeat itself again at Barcelona.
Oct 24, 2014, 1:20 PM EDT
Here’s how PST’s editor and lead writer sees things panning out this weekend.
Oct 24, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT
Perhaps a respite for Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, as their clubs face lesser competition this week in Burnley and QPR, respectively.
Oct 24, 2014, 12:25 PM EDT
Where and how to watch every game during Week 9 of the PL.
Oct 24, 2014, 12:05 PM EDT
It’s a top-four battle — no, seriously — as Manchester City rolls into Upton Park to take on Sam Allardyce’s West Ham United.
Oct 24, 2014, 11:15 AM EDT
Who makes the cut as MLS players deserving of a look at USMNT camp?
Oct 24, 2014, 10:25 AM EDT
An all-MLS final appearance is impossible thanks to seeding, and Montreal and DC can only face-off if they win in the quarterfinals this winter.
Oct 24, 2014, 9:38 AM EDT
The purpose of the show is for the Robbies to hear from the fans on this call-in show, so dial 855-323-4622 and have your say.
Oct 24, 2014, 9:22 AM EDT
El Clasico is upon us, and my goodness will it be a doozy between Real Madrid and Barcelona on Saturday at the Bernabeu.
Oct 24, 2014, 8:31 AM EDT
French police had arrested a man for selling drugs, according to the BBC, and that earned the ire of already on-edge Everton supporters.
- Premier League Preview: Sunderland vs. Arsenal 0
- Still defending racial incident, seething at bite talk, Suarez returns for Barcelona 0
- Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool 0
- WATCH: Premier League TV schedule – Week 9 1
- Introducing: “The 2 Robbies ‘Football’ Show” on NBCSportsRadio.com 0
- El Clasico: Luis Suarez, Barcelona and Real Madrid together at last 0