- Associated Press - Monday, April 30, 2018

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - When a local comic book company transformed a few of Portland’s soccer stars into superheroes, Tobin Heath’s character got the ability to conjure energized skateboards and surfboards.

“I love superhero movies. So it’s kind of funny when you are made into one,” said the easygoing midfielder who has been known to skateboard to practice with the Portland Thorns.

Heath, a U.S. national team veteran who is considered among the best players in the world, has returned to her NWSL club after spending the better part of the past year dealing with all-too-human injuries.

As if to announce that she’s back, Heath scored the equalizing goal less than 10 minutes after entering Saturday’s 1-1 draw against the Utah Royals.

Reflecting on the year, Heath was clearly frustrated during with her lengthy stay on the sideline.

“It’s the worst thing in the whole entire world,” she said. “For any athlete, everyone will tell you they’d rather be somewhere else, you know, than have to watch something that you love to do so much. It’s almost torturous. It’s like dangling something out in front of you that you can’t have. But that’s the kind of mental fortitude that you have to have and you have to get through. And all athletes do it. You sign up for it when you do this job.”

A long-lingering back injury kept Heath off the field for the Thorns for nearly all of 2017 except the final two regular-season games and the playoffs. Then in the NWSL championship game against the North Carolina Courage - which the Thorns won - she hurt her right ankle.

She had surgery to remove bone growth on the same ankle in early January.

While it meant Heath would have to sit out again after such a brief return, the timing of her surgery was important. The national team is preparing for World Cup qualifying this fall, and Heath is key to the team’s plans. The Americans are the defending champions.

“The back injury took way too long. So that wasn’t cool. It could have been a lot shorter of a return to play,” she said. “With my ankle, that was a choice to get the surgery, because I needed it because I want to play for a lot longer. Unfortunately, it was the perfect timing, even though it didn’t seem like it. In the long run I know I’m going to benefit from it tremendously.”

Now 29, Heath made her debut with the senior national team in 2008. She’s a three-time Olympian, earning gold medals with the team in 2008 and 2012. If the United States makes the field for the 2019 World Cup in France, it will be her third.

Known for her footwork and dribbling skills, one of Heath’s nicknames is “Nutmeg Queen” because of her ability to maneuver the ball through an opponent’s legs. Her talent earned her the national team’s Player of the Year honors in 2016. Overall, she has collected 18 goals in 132 international appearances.

Heath has been with the Thorns since the National Women’s Soccer League’s first season in 2013, also playing for Paris Saint-Germain her first two years. Portland won the league championship in the league’s inaugural year, then again last season.

Heath hasn’t played with the national team since appearing as a substitute in a friendly against New Zealand last September. Her return to the Thorns means she could be back on the U.S. roster for a pair of exhibition matches against China in Utah and Ohio in early June.

“You kind of have to look at the positives,” she said about the layoff. “The way I’ve looked at it, I saved a lot of miles on my body during that time, which is a plus for me. And also mentally, just getting stronger. Even without playing you can still be working on things in your game and that’s what I tried to focus on because I couldn’t control the situation.”

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