After 214 days away from the United States Women’s National Team, and nearly that long removed from any sort of competitive soccer, forward Tobin Heath entered Thursday’s friendly against Mexico and immediately showed why it was important to include her on the roster for the Tokyo Olympics.
And on this same night, which ended with a 4-0 U.S. victory, Christen Press reminded everyone why she should remain the starter at Heath’s old position when their Olympics begin July 21 against nemesis Sweden.
At the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Heath started six of the USWNT’s seven games on the right side of its three-player forward line, recording one assist but consistently unsettling defenses with her ability to take players on in open space. She has earned 170 caps since 2008 and scored 34 goals. She has been a starter in every major tournament going back to the 2012 Olympics.
While Heath has been absent from club and international soccer since January recovering from ankle and knee injuries, however, Press has played primarily in the spot Heath left open and been the national team’s best player.
Press scored the second and fourth U.S. goals in the victory over Mexico, which means she now has had direct involvement in 36 goals in her past 36 appearances for the USWNT.
She started two of the three games in the SheBelieves Cup and six friendly matches, and her performance has included five goals, four assists, the ability to function at a high level at any of the three forward spots and a work ethic that saw her dashing up and down the right sideline against Mexico despite the meager threat the opposition posed. Press did it because it was the proper way to play the game.
It would be inaccurate to say Heath is not a worthy starter given the team’s history with her as a crucial part of the attack. What Press has demonstrated since taking over, though, is more speed, more flexibility, better passing skill. She does the latter well enough to be trusted to take some corner kicks.
Press has been a part of the national team since 2013 and made 148 appearances, but she never has had a position to call her own. She started only five of 15 matches she played in three major tournaments.
Against Mexico, Press showed how many ways she can impact the game by initiating a move that nearly led to the game’s second goal, in the 31st minute, deftly reading an attempted pass and stepping in to intercept, then tapping it back to Sam Mewis for a dazzling forward ball to Megan Rapinoe on the left side, whose short pass was redirected off the left post by center forward Alex Morgan.
Press’ ability to play effectively all across the front line was evident when she and Morgan momentarily switched positions in the 38th minute, after Morgan had pressed the ball out to the sideline and forced a long pass that was intercepted. When Mewis drove the ball into the box and found Rapinoe cutting in from the left, Press prepared herself for a quick pass in front of goal and toe-poked it into the net.
By the 85th minute, when Press struck again, she had shifted to the left side because of Heath’s entry into the game. This time, she tucked into the middle as left back Tierna Davidson advanced up the left side. Press kept her eyes on the ball the entire time and, as Davidson’s cross arrived, sneaked in front of the defender and executed a simple re-direction into the net.
The reaction to Heath’s goal less than a minute after entering the Mexico game showed how beloved she is among her teammates (above). She was embraced by nearly every player on the field at the time, including Press.
Heath will serve as a valuable presence and potential weapon for the U.S. in Tokyo. Coach Vlatko Andonovski said of the sizzling shot Heath launched from 30 yards, “That’s a Tobin Heath type of goal. … The things that she can come up with, not many players in the world can come up with.”
And maybe the U.S. will need something so magical at some point in the Olympics. With Press on the field from the start, though, it’ll be less likely.