BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — It didn’t take long for Tobin Heath to overcome any doubts about her physical condition.
Less than 10 minutes into the U.S. women’s soccer team’s debut at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Heath used her trademark dribbling skills to clear defenders and set up Carli Lloyd’s opening goal in a 2-0 win over New Zealand.
She continued to thrive throughout the game on Wednesday in Belo Horizonte, showing no signs of the hamstring injury that bothered her ahead of the Olympics.
“Tobin was definitely a game-changer,” United States forward Alex Morgan said. “She stepped up huge.”
After making the well-placed cross for Lloyd’s ninth-minute header, Heath also helped set up the play that led to Morgan’s goal early in the second half. Heath dominated at the left wing and posed a constant threat to the New Zealand defense with her dynamic ball skills and great speed.
“I’m just excited because hopefully I can continue on that,” the 28-year-old Heath said. “I just want to get better along with the team. I think we have another level on us and I’m excited.”
United States coach Jill Ellis was thrilled to be able to count on Heath at her best after the many doubts concerning her fitness.
“She just gives us an attacking weapon,” Ellis said. “She is a box-to-box wide player, so she’s just a threat with her passing game and obviously a threat individually. The other thing we get with Tobin is a player that’s been there and someone who can calm us. Having players like this, that are very comfortable on the ball, helps take the steam out of an opponent.”
Heath arrived for her third Olympics unsure about her condition because of an injury sustained while playing for the Portland Thorns in late June. She had been practicing well but had yet to start for the U.S. since getting hurt.
“I think I was fortunate enough to get in a number of practices,” she said. “The sport staff really helped me out to get me to feel good going into this game.”
Heath scored a goal in last year’s World Cup final, when the Americans defeated Japan 5-2 for its third world title. She was in the team that won the gold medal at the last two Olympics.
“Each Olympics is different,” said Heath, one of the team’s most experienced players after the retirement of Abby Wambach and Lauren Holiday following last year’s world title in Canada. “Especially being here in Brazil, I think it’s very special for us to play as a football player.”
Seeking a fifth Olympic gold, the United States will play France on Saturday. The French beat Colombia 4-0 in the second Group G game at the Mineirao Stadium on Wednesday. The Americans finish group play against Colombia on Tuesday in the jungle city of Manaus.
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/tales-azzoni