Heath: Our squad is something special
Thursday evening's clash between the USA and China PR in the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship Russia 2006 semi-finals will be the 34th meeting between women's teams from the two countries.
The USA are well out in front with 15 victories to eight for the Asians, but US starlet Tobin Heath will be facing up to the Chinese for the very first time and the 18-year-old from Basking Ridge in New Jersey is raring to go.
"It'll definitely be a fantastic game, and I'm sure there'll be a great atmosphere," she told FIFA.com. "I hope we can improve again, like we did for the match against Germany."
The Americans took maximum points from their three group fixtures before eliminating reigning world champions Germany and booking a place in the semi-finals with a 4-1 quarter-final triumph . "We've improved with every game we've played, and we're overjoyed every step we take towards our target, which is winning the world championship," declared Heath, who has played every game at Russia 2006 save for her side's meeting with Argentina.
She was not troubled about sitting out that 4-1 win . "We have a special squad that's wonderfully well-balanced and strong, so we're all capable of standing in for anyone. The idea was for everyone to play at least once, so we all experience the same thing."
The likeable player is regarded as the most football-crazy member of the US dressing room. "If I had it my way, I'd play 24/7," she said. "I love every minute when I'm playing." She uses the occasions when she cannot be out on the training ground or playing a match to work on the theory side of her game.
"I switch on the TV and watch football, preferably the UEFA Champions League or the European leagues," she explains. Heath certainly makes no secret of her allegiance. "I'm a Barcelona fan," she declares, her eyes sparkling as she describes her greatest dream. "Oh man, it would be fantastic if I got to play there just once with Ronaldinho and the guys."
She took up the game at the age of four in kick-abouts with neighbourhood kids. "I played wherever I could, because I just loved kicking the ball," she recalls. Her natural talent was soon recognised, and she joined an organised team at the age of seven.
After working her way up to the U-20 national team, the player quickly established herself as an integral part of Tim Schulz's side, as witnessed by her prominent role at Russia 2006.
Change of position
The one drawback has been an enforced change of position, from her favoured attacking midfield role to a berth among the back four. "We needed a full-back, and the coach thought I had the right attributes to play there," she explains.
Heath will attempt to torment the Chinese defence with her trademark darting bursts over the halfway line. No American team has ever lost to the Asians at a major tournament, but Schulz and his squad are taking nothing for granted in the light of the Steel Rosebuds' powerful performances at the current tournament.
"But we won't change our game to fit them, we'll continue doing our own thing," Heath observes, reckoning she and her team-mates are in with a strong chance of winning the trophy. "We could definitely be world champions."
The Americans are focusing intently on Thursday evening's game, but there is still time for rest and recreation in the days leading up to the crunch clash. There is certainly no danger of going stir crazy with a programme of day trips, sightseeing, city tours or simply going out for a coffee. "We're like sisters," she said. "The camaraderia here is unbelievable, which makes living together much easier for everyone. This really is a very special team."
Occasionally, that intense bonding has led to rather unusual scenes, including the time when team-mate Amanda Poach tried her hand as Heath's hair stylist. "Yes, she took three inches or so off my hair," the player laughs, inclining her head to show off the new haircut. "Looks pretty good, doesn't it? It gets boring sometimes, so we do something crazy."
Heath is clearly making the most of her stay in Russia. "It's the best thing I've ever done in my life," she enthused. "Travelling in Russia is fantastic. I've never been here before, and I'd probably never have come here if it wasn't for football."
The versatile player has yet to decide on an appropriate celebration should she end up as part of a world championship-winning team. "Some of the girls are going to dye their hair if we win the tournament, but I've got nothing planned. I think I'll just be overjoyed."
She openly nurtures another dream too, of opening the newspapers back home early next week and reading a simple but glorious headline: "Just 'World Champions'. That would be fantastic."