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National teamer Mitts excited to kick-start WPS play with Boston

Heather Mitts (right, battling Iceland's Holmfridur Magnusdottir) is an outstanding defender. Heather Mitts (right, battling Iceland's Holmfridur Magnusdottir) is an outstanding defender. (Jose Manuel Ribeiro/Reuters)
By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / April 2, 2009
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Heather Mitts has never backed down from a challenge, on and off the soccer pitch.

She ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, in 1999. She worked as an ESPN college football sideline reporter during the 2005 season. And in 2007, she suffered a torn left anterior cruciate ligament that eliminated her from contention for a spot on the United States women's national team for the World Cup.

It was a bitter pill to swallow, especially after a broken leg kept her from playing in the 2003 World Cup. But with the support of US coach Pia Sundhage and her teammates, Mitts gained a spot on the team for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, winning gold for the second time after doing so in 2004 in Athens.

"I haven't played in a World Cup yet, because I had injuries both times," said Mitts, who garnered her 100th international cap March 11 in the final of the Algarve Cup in Portugal, where the US tied the score late in regulation, 1-1, only to lose to Sweden, 4-3, on penalty kicks.

"I'd love to play in a World Cup before I retire, but that's another 2 1/2 years," she added. "That's the aim right now. But two gold medals isn't bad; it's a good consolation."

Those golden baubles, however, seemed to lose their gleam in comparison to the diamond engagement ring Mitts received in December from Philadelphia Eagles quarterback A.J. Feeley.

"I was completely surprised," gushed Mitts, who indicated the couple have set a date (Feb. 13, 2010) and location (Cabo San Lucas, Mexico) for their wedding. "I was heading home to Cincinnati that day for the holidays and it was a great early Christmas present."

These are heady times indeed for the 30-year-old Mitts. She was one of three US national team players, along with Kristine Lilly and Angela Hucles, allocated to the Boston Breakers, part of Women's Professional Soccer's seven-team league.

With her striking looks, Mitts, who has modeled for FHM and Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue and was voted ESPN.com's "Sexiest Female Athlete" in 2004, will no doubt project as one of the fresh faces of the franchise when the Breakers open their season Sunday against the FC Gold Pride in Santa Clara, Calif.

"The fact that we're starting a brand new league is so exciting," said Mitts, a 5-foot-5-inch defender who was a first-team All-American at the University of Florida, where as a senior she helped the Gators win the 1999 NCAA championship. She is the school's all-time leader in games (95), starts (94), and minutes (7,547).

"It's something I look forward to and I think it's something that we need in order not only for women's soccer to grow, but also for the fact the national team needs to have a wider player pool," she said. "The girls in college have something to look forward to. For me, I kind of lucked out when I came straight out of college. I heard that there was a league that was starting [the defunct Women's United Soccer Association], so it kept me motivated and made me want to continue to keep playing."

Mitts played for the Philadelphia Charge for the WUSA's three seasons (2001-03) and was an All-Star in 2003. With the Breakers, though, Mitts will be expected to do more than just strike a pose as the glam girl of the squad. She'll be expected to be a shutdown defender.

"Heather's best qualities are her individual defending and her speed," said Breakers coach Tony DiCicco. "What we're hopefully going to see a lot from her this year is her ability to go forward and become part of the attack. She's very fit and she prides herself on her fitness.

"She's a very confident defender and we want to see her attacking part of the game, because when defenders come forward it creates challenges for the opposition. They have to shift players to cover everybody, and she has the ability to beat other players one vs. one and create goal-scoring opportunities for others or even, as we've seen in practice, for herself. She's scored some good goals recently."

It's all been a part of Mitts's goal-oriented approach.

Take for example, the occasion of her 100th international cap. It proved bittersweet when Mitts was the last of seven shooters to be called upon by the Americans in the shootout. Mitts's attempt hit the left post, enabling the Swedes to clinch victory.

"It was, for me, my first personal goal that I ever wanted to make; reaching the 100-cap mark," said Mitts, who became the 25th American woman to do so. "Despite the outcome, I really do just need to look past that and look at the overall [picture], and the fact that I was able to get to that point despite all that I'd been through, all the adversity and everything. I think it says a lot about my perseverance and just my career overall."

Running with the bulls, covering college football for ESPN, overcoming her ACL injury, and achieving that coveted 100th cap, "All that stuff was a challenge for me and I love challenges," Mitts said. "Obviously, not having played in a World Cup is still a challenge for me. I love to set huge goals for myself and TV's right up there, so that's the next challenge once soccer is over with, hopefully."

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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