EAST HARTFORD – Back on the big stage.
United States Women’s National Team star Tobin Heath returned with a bang in its 4-0 win over Mexico on Thursday, scoring in her first USWNT match since late 2020.
Heath, who hails from Basking Ridge, NJ, suffered an ankle injury last year, keeping the dynamic scorer off the pitch for about six months. Just 52 seconds after subbing in for Megan Rapinoe during Thursday’s bout, Heath unleashed a long-range missile that bounced off the post and in for the third United States goal during the 73rd minute.
“It was amazing,” Heath said. “Obviously I had a long time to think about it and was very excited that I got into the game at some point.”
The Americans won with ease on a wet Rentschler Field at Pratt & Whitney Stadium, led by two goals from Christen Press and air-tight defense, but Heath’s explosive return proved to be the highlight of the match. The 33-year-old is a weapon up front for the United States’ offense and any doubts about her health status were quickly erased less than three weeks out from the Olympic Games.
“I have to say, it’s very satisfying, very fulfilling,” United States coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “It makes us all happy, especially for a player that hasn’t played in a long time, to score such a great goal on her second touch.”
Following a turnover from Mexico at the middle of the field, Alex Morgan sent a through ball up to a sprinting Heath, who wasted no time ripping the ball into the back of the net from 30 yards out.
“The goal was great,” Heath said. “Like I said, I had a long time to think about what it would be like getting back on the field. You play the game a lot in your head while you're not doing it. It was one of things that kind of slowed down and it was picture-perfect.”
Prior to the game, it was rumored Heath would be making her return with the Olympic tournament closing in and Andonovski said putting No. 7 in was the plan from the get-go.
“We knew before the game that Tobin was going to come into the game between the 70th and 75th minute,” Andonovski said. “There hasn’t been any medical concerns with Tobin for a long time now, the only thing that was missing, why she didn’t play more, was because we wanted to build her in-game minutes gradually.”
Since Heath’s recovery stretched on for months and months, doubt started to creep in as to whether she’d be able to return to form. Thankfully for Heath, her support staff, including her mother Cindy, played a role in getting her back to scoring highlight-reel goals like Thursday’s strike.
“I did have one moment and then you just kind of get up and get on with it,” Heath said. “My mom actually came to Manchester as soon as she heard and that was a pretty big journey considering the circumstances going on in the world. I’ll never forget that and it was a special moment that I got with her.”
Laura Harvey, the under-20 manager for the United States, also pitched in during the recovery process as Heath suffered a separate knee injury while rehabbing her injured ankle.
“Laura was instrumental,” Heath said. “It was the first time personally I had worked with her. Obviously I had heard really great things about her. She was really great on the football side of the return and it’s always great to have the professionals around you really pushing you.”
The USWNT will certainly welcome Heath back with open arms as the 5-foot-6 midfielder currently sits with the fifth-most goals on this summer’s squad. Carli Lloyd is first with 125, Morgan is next at 110, Press has 63 after her two goal performance, and Rapinoe comes in at fourth-most with 59. Heath has posted 33 goals and 40 assists in 169 appearances for the United States.
With another match against Mexico on deck for Monday before the team departs for Japan, Heath reflected back on her journey now that the Olympics are just around the corner.
“I didn’t know if I’d get back to this place,” Heath said. “It obviously took a lot of work and patience. Honestly, I had a lot of help, so I have a lot of people to be thankful for that helped me along the way. I just had to take every single day, I didn’t have much time, but I had to make the most of it all.”
The United States will face Sweden in its first match in Group G play on July 21. At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the United States didn’t medal, finishing in fifth place. Sweden knocked out the USA in the quarterfinal round in penalty kicks.
Ryan Ames can be reached at 860-801-5094 or on Twitter @_RyanAmes.