PORTLAND, Ore. – Thorns FC midfielder Tobin Heath was all smiles after an electrifying performance against the Orlando Pride in last Saturday's 4-1 NWSL Playoff semifinal victory
And who could blame her?
After over six months of intensive rehabilitation for a back injury she suffered in preseason, Heath had started her first match since last October's home defeat by the Western New York Flash.
“I felt great,” Heath said of the performance. “The team's been fantastic with the re-entry and helping me out…Feeding off the crowd and the energy in Providence Park is easy to do. It was that perfect game where nothing was really going to go wrong for us.”
Nor did it. Heath herself played 80 minutes and assisted on the team's second, decisive goal. Even after her long layoff, it looked as if Tobin Heath was back.
That elation was a far cry from the moment last October when Heath walked off that same Providence Park field in tears after the Thorns fell 4-3 in their NWSL Playoff semifinal match against the Flash. That agony was only compounded by a preseason back injury that had kept her out for nearly all of the regular-season.
A fierce competitor, Heath had to sit and watch from the sidelines as her teammates worked week-in and week-out to battle for a spot in the NWSL playoffs, finishing the season only a few points short of a second consecutive NWSL Shield.
“If this team team didn't have the season that they had and had set up for the end of the season it would have been very difficult for me,” Heath said matter-of-factly.
Instead, Heath is prepared to make up for lost time. The crafty midfielder has set her sights squarely on the North Carolina Courage, the same team–though relocated from Western New York–that defeated her and her Thorns teammates in last year's playoffs en route to their own NWSL championship victory.
“They knocked us out of the semifinal last year and just being able to play them again in a match that actually matters is what you want,” she said. “You want to play the best team and they've been the best team all season.”
The rematch, Heath says, is a chance to “set the story straight,” to prove once and for all that last year's home defeat is behind her.
“I think we were a little bit shocked after that semifinal. This semifinal [against the Pride], we came in with a different mentality–having experienced defeat last season–where we weren't even thinking about [playing in the NWSL] final.”
“I think there's a lot of stress in the semifinal game,” she added, “because everyone wants to make the championship.”
With that semifinal now out of the way, the gloves are off.
“Now is kind of the fun part,” she said, “where you get to play in a championship game and you literally put everything out there.”
Heath's positive attitude comes in part from her comfort and familiarity with Portland, the place she's called home since 2013. Her deep, abiding love for the Rose City is evidence not only from what she says, but also from the manner in which she says it.
“You want to make your family proud,” Heath said of the Thorns fan community. “And I feel like that's how I feel about this city. We want to make them proud of us. We want to come home...and celebrate something they've helped us with all year.
Heath and her Thorns teammates will get the chance to do just that this Saturday (1:30pm PT, Lifetime) at Orlando City Stadium in Orlando, Fla.
After a year of loss and recovery, nothing could be sweeter than the chance to make history on the pitch.
“It doesn't matter how good of a team you are and how many fans you have, you still have to go out on the field and perform. I love having that on my shoulders, that pressure to perform.
“I love that.”