PORTLAND, Ore. – Six months and six days. That’s how long it has been since Portland Thorns FC claimed the NWSL’s title, but over the last few weeks, the timespan has been more readily associated with something else: Tobin Heath’s return to the field.
The 2017 league championship game was the last time Portland had their U.S. international on the field. In the interim, Heath underwent winter ankle surgery and had been working her way back into game shape.
On Friday at Providence Park, Heath finally made her long-awaited return to the field, playing the final 30 minutes of Portland’s 1-1 draw with the Washington Spirit.
“Obviously, the result, we would have wanted it to be better,” Heath said, speaking after her third regular-season appearance in two seasons. “But for me, personally, it was great to get back out on the pitch and get that over with.”
The sentiment reflects the will-she, won’t-she drama that’s surrounded Heath’s availability since the beginning of last season. Twelve months ago, a back injury that kept the 132-time U.S. international from featuring at the start of the 2017 season appeared close to healed. Then came a setback, a regroup, and a recovery that kept Heath sidelined until late September. Come the postseason, Heath was back in Mark Parsons’ starting lineup, but the Thorns had to survive most of the regular season without her.
After Friday’s runout, 2018 is on a different course. Although Heath couldn’t sway the outcome during her 30 minutes against Washington, there were no signs of lingering ankle problems. Fitness may be a concern, for now, but only in terms of getting her in game shape. The rest of Heath’s recovery appears done.
“It’s just great to have Tobin Heath back,” Parsons said. “It’s been a wild, wild period. She’s worked incredibly hard to get back, and I think we’re all just so happy that she’s back where she belongs: On the soccer pitch; having fun.”
That fun replaces months of uncertainty for Heath, a period where she was deprived of one of the things she loves most. Between her back and ankle injuries, the 29-year-old has only logged 293 minutes for club and country in the last 13 months. Friday’s performance gave every indication she’s ready to move on from that number.
“I am very happy to be playing, and I just want to continue helping the team, and continue to grow along with this group,” she said. “We’re getting a number of players back in, as well. There’s going to be a number of changes, so I think the football is going to start looking a little bit different.”
Those changes include the arrivals Ellie Carpenter and Andressinha, who are expected to join the team over the next week-plus. Ana Crnogočeviç, having joined the team last week, upped her workload 45 minutes against Washington, while Parsons confirmed left-wing back Meghan Klingenberg, a late scratch from Friday’s match, should have a short timeline to return.
“Obviously, getting more and more personnel into the mix is only going to help us,” Heath said. “It’s going to help us compete, internally, and therefore help us compete externally as well.”
So far, competing hasn’t been a problem. Although Portland has been hamstrung by both injury and absence over the season’s first four matches, their seven-point haul matches last year’s four-game mark. In North Carolina, Chicago, and Orlando, the Thorns have already faced every other team that qualified for last year’s playoffs, and with six goals through four games, the team’s offensive production is up slightly over the same point last season.
“If we had won tonight, first four games, I thought that would have been an outstanding start,” Parsons said. “Now it just feels like a good start, but it probably lights a fire that we are going to make up for these points that we left out there tonight.”
That fire will target the NWSL’s newest team, Utah Royals FC, who host the Thorns next Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium. If the progression of Crnogorčeviç’s playing time is any indication, Heath should see even more minutes eight days from now.
“[Heath’s] linkup with [her teammates] was really, really good,” Parsons said. “I’m excited to get her fitter and get her more minutes away at Utah.”