BERGEN COUNTY, N.J.- Soccer superstar Tobin Heath has traveled the world to collect two Olympic gold medals, a FIFA Women’s World Cup gold medal, and a World Cup silver medal. She has graced the covers of hundreds of magazines, including a commemorative World Cup Sports Illustrated edition. Despite her accolades, the reigning U.S. Soccer Federation’s Female Player of the Year is a humble pioneer in creating equality for all.
Heath has found her niche in educating and cultivating the next generation of female soccer stars both as a hometown, Jersey Girl and through her role Assistant Youth Technical Director for the Portland Thorns’ developmental academy. In these capacities, Heath is leveraging her experience, combining it with her progressive thinking, to level the playing field for female soccer players both at home in Basking Ridge, New Jersey and in her new home of Portland, Oregon.
Heath, a Hometown Hero
Speaking to me from Tobin Heath Field in Basking Ridge Heath talked about the juxtaposition of playing on it as a child and coaching on it as an adult: “Coming back here to my hometown, this is really important to me…. It’s authentic…. This is one of the first places that I played as a kid, so I have a lot of memories here. It’s crazy, because now I see these kids playing here and…I know, as a kid, I would have loved this opportunity. To see all these kids [having] fun [and] to give high fives and encouragement? That means the world to me because I know what that would have meant to me as a kid”.
Heath passionately told me about the responsibility she feels to return home to serve as a positive role model for young, female soccer players. “Part of my responsibility is to give back. For me, I want to give everybody the opportunity to have the passion and the love for the game that I do and something like this is important to me…. I love being here”.
So, why is she here? Her vision, in every youth soccer endeavor she undertakes, as she told me, is “to make soccer accessible for everyone”. Once she left Basking Ridge, a town with a mean annual household income of $182,643 in 2015 (Census.gov), Heath “realized during [her] time that [soccer] wasn’t [accessible to everyone]…. It is a very privileged sport. It costs a lot of money. It costs a lot of commitment to families and I want to make it so a kid can make it all the way to their dreams and they don’t have to worry about stuff like that.”
Her vision also entails kids returning to the pick-up style of play in order to garner more passion for the game. “I do believe that the organization of sports in this country kind of hindered that backyard feel…because everything is so organized and with someone telling you what to do.” In this way, kids can develop a more organic, natural feel of the nuances of the game.
What most impressed me was when Heath told me: “I wanted every kid to leave with a soccer ball- because I want these kids to be able to go home and play. All you need is a soccer ball. It’s the only sport where you don’t really need anything. You don’t even need grass-you can play anywhere. So, that was important to me and the mission was getting the kids a ball and getting them passionate.”
She also said that she wanted the campers to “have fun here and maybe have them see me do something that they’re like: ‘Oh I want to try that. If she can do it, I can do it’…. [When I was younger,] I would see somebody do something, then I would go home with my ball and I would try doing it and that’s the inspiration I want to give these kids”. Perhaps the hundred-or-so campers, whose eyes were fixed on Heath as she juggled a ball, were inspired by this moment:
— Danielle McCartan (@CoachMcCartan) June 4, 2017
Yes. Inspiration noted:
— Danielle McCartan (@CoachMcCartan) June 4, 2017
Heath went on to explain that “This [area] is a hotbed for soccer.” In fact, 4 of the 23 women on the roster of the United States Women’s National Team are from New Jersey! Heath isn’t surprised: “It’s always been that way, traditionally, on the national team. Some of the best players have come out of this area and it’s no surprise because soccer is great here.
Heath and the Portland Thorns’ Developmental Academy
I couldn’t help but realize as Heath began to talk about the new role she earned within the Portland Thorns’ Developmental Academy, Katy Perry’s rally song “Roar” began to blare over the Procamp’s sound system. The lyrics certainly fit Heath’s persona: “‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar”. Not “roar” as in being loud vocally, but “roar” as in the action of being completely hands-on, generating a female youth soccer revolution in the United States.
As the song played, she explained that “the Men’s D.A. was set up a few years ago and now the women are following that same model. It just had the backing of The Federation, …the full support of the NWSL Clubs, and also the best womens’ clubs throughout…. To have those types of clubs in it competing, it’s a very elite group and that’s what we need to continue to propel the success of the national team and to continue the development of the pro leagues, as well.”
Heath is already excitedly looking to the future, saying: “It is going to be really cool to see a pro player that has come from the DA, through the system, and is now playing on Sky Blue or Portland Thorns. So that would be really, really unique. These kids [here today at Citi Procamp] will have the opportunity to play in it and that’s something that was really important about the DA is to give everybody the opportunity to play. So, the cost is so much lower than what other costs are to play at elite clubs because that’s important.”
Of course, Heath was also part of the well-documented #EqualPlayEqualPay movement among female soccer players on the United States women’s national team. They fought, and are still fighting, for equal pay for professional soccer players, regardless of gender.
On April 5, 2017, U.S. Soccer and the USWNT agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement, which, in turn trickled down to the National Women’s Soccer League. Heath reflected on the impact of the new deal: “[It]was huge, but when you unpack the deal, it’s not about the money. It’s about something similar to this: It’s about giving women and girls the opportunity to reach their dreams. I think so much of it was us fighting not for ourselves, but fighting for other people. For instance, with the NWSL, a lot of our fight that a lot of people don’t know about was creating minimum standards for the NWSL. Those are players that are going to benefit that are outside of the national team…. So, I think a lot of people just see the number sign and for us, that wasn’t the success of the CBA. It was other issues that we were able to tackle and most of it ‘care’ to be honest.”
The culture surrounding the USWNT seems to be positive, progressive, and passionate. Heath explained to me: “I learned everything from the older players. This team is formed off of great leaders, great women who have stood up for what they believe is right and that…attitude has trickled down to the younger players. It’s a responsibility that you take when you become an older player on the team. I’ve learned so much in these last few years and to just be able to contribute in a different type of way off-the-field…. When it’s their turn, they’re going to do the same thing, so it’s kind of the passing of the torch that happens. I actually saw Christie Rampone last night and it was just a joy to see her especially since she is still killin’ it out on the field but also because she meant so much to me. She was such a fantastic leader and person and she’s a great example of somebody who just gave back to the younger generation in a positive way and allowed them to continue the work that she had already started”.
Tobin heath citi procamp – campers one on one! https://t.co/UAlgR2Xv2S
— Danielle McCartan (@CoachMcCartan) June 4, 2017
It is easy to see why 284,000 people follow Heath on Twitter. She has taken personal responsibility in leveling the playing field for girls and women in, not only soccer, but all professional sports. She is driven, passionate, and humble. When I asked if she was poised for captainship of the USWNT, she replied: “Nah, I mean, if that was the case, then I’d be very honored, but it’s definitely not something that I’m naturally inclined to, I’d say”. Her fans and teammates would starkly disagree.
Although she currently plays for the Portland Thorns, her heart will always be in New Jersey. “For me, obviously, I grew up here in Basking Ridge, so, I had it all, but…now that I’m older, now I know the actual system, I know that it isn’t a fair system. I want to make it fair and I want to give everyone the opportunity because, not only is that the right thing to do, but also, we’re missing out on some of the best players because of it. For me, that’s part of the development of getting better in this country.”
In terms of role models, Heath said: “I had Heather O’Reilly (from East Brunswick, NJ) and I followed in her footsteps. I think it’s important to have that kind of role model that’s from an area that you’re in and you’re like: ‘I’m from there, I can do it too’ and it’s really important to have it not be so far away. I think, a lot of times, professional athletes, they take themselves out of the world. They become untouchable. For me, I don’t want that to be my life, I want to come into the world and for players like this to be able to see me as a real person. To see me as somebody that they can be”.
“When this field was dedicated last summer, I pledged to come back and to give back to the community that gave so much to me….To actually be in a place where I grew up is even more special and I hope to continue to make this [Citi ProCamp] happen every, single year.”
Don’t worry: she is not moving away from playing the game of soccer, herself, just yet. When I asked if she’d be set to complete in another World Cup and in another Olympic games, Heath replied: “I mean, I hope to God that I am, for sure. It’s definitely my ambition is to do another cycle and to make it the best yet. That’s what I always strive for”.
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