Portland Thorns FC midfielder Tobin Heath has seen her share of changes in women's soccer.
First drafted in 2010 by the Atlanta Beat of the now-defunct Women's Professional Soccer league (WPS), Heath has witnessed firsthand the ever-changing landscape of American professional soccer.
In 2012, the former North Carolina Tar Heel even played in the semi-professional league (the WPSL Elite) that popped up after the WPS folded and before the NWSL officially had kicked off.
But since joining the Thorns for their inaugural season in 2013, Heath—one of four Portland players who have been a part of all five seasons in club history—has seen this sport blossom in ways that she never could have imagined.
“I tell people that I never really thought I'd be a part of a club environment like this,” Heath says. “I could have seen it maybe 20 years from now, but it's really on the forefront of a lot of things in women's sports. And to be a part of that now in my career is a great thing.”
Heath, however, is quick to point out that the club environment she's describing has been a part of her experience in Portland since the moment that she arrived; both the team and the fans have evolved together.
“The support has always been there since the beginning and it's just grown,” she says. “The numbers have grown. I feel like the passion's grown. The way that the city has embraced us has grown. It's really special here...[The fans] are a huge part of this team and this organization.”
In conversation, Heath returns again and again to the topic of the fans. The fanbase here, she explains, is unlike any other in women's professional sports in the world.
Where else would a match without national team stars sell out? Where else would the fans applaud a home team that just lost a heartbreaking semifinal?
“If we were going to lose,” Heath says of that 4-3 extra time semifinal loss to the Western New York Flash last October, “I would rather lose on our field with our fans behind us and just giving everything than [be] somewhere else.”
And that notable presence in the community that she says she and her fellow teammates feel acutely.
“[The fans] always want to tell us what the Thorns mean to them and it's always a cool, unique story and it's pretty empowering,” says Heath.
“It makes you feel like you're doing a lot more than just playing soccer here in Portland. So anytime I get to interact with the fans and in the community is always a special time and it gives me more insight into this place and the bigger reasons for why we're playing.”
However big a role they might play, the fans are still only a part of the evolution of women's soccer in this country. Heath believes that she and her teammates have their own role to play in the growth of the sport.
They are role models, of course, but like Michelle Akers and Mia Hamm and many other women who came before them, Heath and her teammates are also pioneers. They are forging the future of the game both here and abroad.
“I think it's empowering for me to make it less of a dream and more of a reality of what women's soccer can be and what women's sports can be,” Heath says.
“We're inspiring that next generation. I think we're empowering little girls to really dream big with the product that we put out...I think it's special for young girls and for young boys to come and see women's soccer at its finest and to be a part of the stadium and to hear the fans and just to feel that atmosphere.
“That kind of stuff creates dreams.”