Interview with Heather Mitts, USWNT, Olympic Gold Medalist, Boston Breakers Defender and ESPN’s “Sexiest Female Athlete”

Heather Mitts is a left back starting for the Boston Breakers in the new WPS league. Mitts has earned 100 caps with the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT), a gold medal in the Beijing Olympics, and featured colorfully in several magazines.

From running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, to her views on collegiate soccer, a possible future in broadcast journalism, and being ESPN’s “Sexiest Female Athlete,” Mitts runs the gamut in an interview prior to her May 17th home match with the Washington Freedom at Harvard Stadium.

Read the Soccerlens interview with Heather Mitts, after the jump.

LE: You ran with bulls in Pamplona, Spain, in 1999. Can you walk me through that experience?

Mitts: Running with the bulls was one of my crazier judgments in life and one of those things I decided to do spur of the moment. It was pretty hilarious.

I was with my best friend from college and typically women don’t run with the bulls, the majority are men, local men, and so we decided we were going to do it. We hopped in the ring and it rained that morning so the cobblestones were pretty wet and we were saying, “We haven’t told our parents that we’re doing this because we knew they’d disapprove, and the cobblestones are kind of wet, so what happens if we slip and fall with these bulls running after us!”

So we were debating whether or not to do it, but before we could change our mind the bell rang and the next thing you know we were running through the streets of Pamplona. We made it into the coliseum way before the bulls did – you’re not supposed to, it’s against their culture, but we didn’t know that until we got in there and people started throwing food at us and booing.

So we ran out and the bulls caught up to us and we couldn’t believe how big these bulls were! Never would have imagined these animals being half the size. The minute we saw those things we took off back to the coliseum, we didn’t even care if we were going to get food thrown at us again because they were so big and coming full steam at us and it’s true, your life kind of flashes before your eyes. They were pretty close and it was pretty terrifying and we were looking at each other like, “What are we doing right now?” But we made it back into the coliseum and didn’t get hurt and we’re living to this day and it was one of the best experiences of my life. We can look back on it and laugh and say we’re glad we did it.

Nobody was seriously hurt that day. We heard later that a couple people had actually died so it was a little terrifying we even considered it but you can be kind of naïve and make stupid choices, but it all worked out.

LE: Are you going to do this again?

Mitts: No, I like to do things like that once in my life, I don’t think I’d do it again. I want to do things before I have children, because when I have children it’s not going to happen. I’ve done bungee jumping, I’ve done the running with the bulls, I guess sky diving is the last thing on my list.

LE: You earned your 100th cap in Algarve in March, the 25th American to do so. How important is your involvement with the national team?

Mitts: For me, it’s a dream come true. It’s the pinnacle of women’s soccer and to be able to play with the best in the world and compete for the World Cup and in the Olympics and play for your country is just a huge honor.

LE: Your May national team games in Texas and Utah were just cancelled by Japan after four Japanese students returned from Canada with the swine flu.

Mitts: Yeah, we just got the news, it’s unfortunate. Anytime you have any opportunity to be with the national team it’s an honor and a challenge, and it was something I was looking forward to.

LE: How do Pia Sundage [USWNT] and Tony Dicicco [Boston Breakers] differ as coaches?

Mitts: They have very different philosophies. Pia is Swedish and European and her philosophies are different than American philosophies. It’s fun being coached by both because they teach me different things which help elevate my game. I played for Pia in Philadelphia [Charge] and won a gold medal with her and she’s very inspirational. I’m loving being coached by Tony because he’s expecting a lot more from me because I’m a national team player and he’s trying to push me and elevate my game. When you’re 30 years old it’s hard to do that.untitled11

LE: And you are playing a strong game, you gave Kelly Smith her assist last week in Boston.

Mitts: But I’m playing on the left side now, so that’s a huge challenge for me. I’m a right-sided player and I’ve been playing on the right so long it’s a real challenge, but every game keeps getting better and better. Tony wants me to really get into the attack, get forward – on other teams you try to create opportunities off crosses, but I need to get in there and score some goals.

I played a little bit on the left when I was in college, kind of the same situation where we didn’t have a natural left-footed back. I find it frustrating, I’m not going to lie, but at the same time, I feel like every little thing is becoming more comfortable and I think it’s a test of my versatility, which in turn can help me with the national team.

When you’re putting together a roster, especially for the Olympics, you need players who can play as many positions as possible. Any place Pia wants to put me, or anyone wants to put me, well, put me there and hopefully I’ll go out and perform my best.

LE: Your Breakers teammates Amy LePeilbet, Amy Rodriguez, and Angela Hucles were also selected to play against Japan, and only the Red Stars had so many players called up. What does that say about the level of the Breakers?

Mitts: Our team is great and we have the right coach to help us reach our potential. All of our players are amazing and that’s the reason they’re getting called in.

LE: You won a gold medal and beat Brazil in the Beijing Olympics last summer. What do you personally take away from that?

Mitts: It was the best experience of my life. I had just come back from my ACL and I thought I’d be lucky to just make the squad and then to go out there and start and play? I look back and think about how the whole year went – we lost Abby [Wambach] the game before going over there and a lot of people doubted us. But it was a team effort – we all believed in one another and every person on that team contributed whether they played five or 90 minutes and we were so happy to get the results.

LE: You played in the original women’s league WUSA in 2001-2003 with the Philadelphia Charge and now you’re in WPS. What’s the biggest difference between these two leagues?

Mitts: My role was different. I was fresh out of college and I was the hungry college player looking to be on the national team and this time around we’re the experienced ones, the ones that are trying to help make other players better. I think the level of this league is really, really high, and I think the way things are going – the marketing, the branding, and drawing smaller, I think it’s a good and smart way to do it. If they continue to go the way they’re going, this league will be around for years and years to come which is really going to help the game of soccer in the United States.

The salaries, I believe, are $20,000-45,000 and I don’t know the salary cap, but that’s decided by the GM and the coach so every player is paid. We have four internationals per team.

LE: So what’s going to make the difference between these two leagues?

Mitts: Well, obviously we’re paid a lot less. That’s one of the things in order to make the league succeed we all had to agree upon – that we’d get paid less money in order to make something work in the future. The marketing plan is different and we don’t have a home base in NYC, it’s a better place, not quite as expensive. It’s a lot of the things we did the first year in the Philadelphia Charge – we actually spent our first preseason out in San Diego and we stayed in Doubletree for an entire month. Now we’re going to be staying in our market whether or not it’s cold outside. It’s something we have to deal with – sacrifice some of those costs we weren’t as smart with in the past league. All those things are going to make a huge difference to make sure this league succeeds, and we’re all on the same page and we’re willing to do it.

LE: The seven team rankings change rather dramatically on a weekly basis. How important are these rankings?

Mitts: The great thing about this league is the parity. When you have national team players split evenly throughout the league, the draft, the international players and whatnot – all the teams are very comparable as far as talent. In any given week, one team could beat another team and so every game is important and it’s going to come down to the very end to see who’s going to make it to the playoffs. It’s so competitive and so fun and exciting and stressful and all those things, but at the same time this is why we play soccer and it’s why we have a league.

LE: How important is winning the league this year and what is the prize?

Mitts: A trophy like every other league, but also the fact you’re making history in the first WPS season. We want to be a part of that. The playoff system is pretty interesting. If you end up the season in first place then you don’t have to play another game till the finals. It’s up to that second, third, and fourth place team to duke it out in the next couple games until they get to that final game.untitled21

LE: Harvard Stadium is the oldest stadium in the nation, it’s beautiful, and has seen so much history. When you play there, do you feel that you’re part of that history?

Mitts: Being a part of the new WPS league is history right there. Playing at Harvard and all that history, and on top of that if you win the first season, you’re making history as the first Championship team. There’s a lot at stake and we’re all aware of that, but excited enough that there’s a league after all these years and we all understand the importance of this league.

LE: The difference in the Breakers’ play between the April 11, Athletica match and the May 2, LA Sol match was remarkable. The technical, strategic side, the attacking mode, it was fantastic, steps up from the 2-0 home opener win with Athletica. How do you account for the difference in the level of the Sol game?

Mitts: It’s two-fold. It’s the fact that we’re more used to playing together and we’ve made some changes in the line-up. And another thing is, we were playing against one of the best teams in the league. When you look at LA and their attacking players – Marta and Han Duan and Miyama and Shannon Boxx and Aly Wagner all on the same team, it’s a pretty dynamic team, some of the best in the game, so obviously we elevated our game. We knew they were an attack-oriented team and we needed good defense and we have all those things. We have Kelly Smith and she’s one of the best players in the world. And also, we’re starting to play our game as well. We’re starting to play to our level and I think we’re one of the best teams in WPS and it’s starting to show.

LE: Referee Keri Seitz did a great job in that LA Sol match. It was physical, lots of slide tackles, but they were clean and winning the ball, and not one card required. Such a difference from the Washington Freedom/Athletica game that got so out of control and ended up with Daniela getting her leg broken by Abby Wambach. How do you deal with the inconsistency of referees?

Mitts: You have to realize you can only control so much of the game. You can’t really rely on the referee because you never know what they’re going to call. You never know if you’re going to have someone who’s an amazing referee or someone mediocre. So really you have to control what you can control, not the entire game, and try to play the best soccer possible and play clean and be smart and professional. If a game gets a little out of control, they have game reports at the end of each game and the referee gets graded on their performance, so hopefully that will play out through the season as well.

LE: How is Fabiana, the new Brazilian striker working into the team, do you expect her to take the field this Sunday?

Mitts: No, no, no, she’s just coming back from an ACL injury, it’s going to take her a little while to get back out there on the field. But that gives her a little time to get used to us, learn a little of the language and we’ll learn a couple key words to help her out as well. We’re just trying to make the transition for her as comfortable as it can be, it has to be a little nerve wracking coming to a new country when you barely speak the language and on top of that she’s extremely young and coming back from injury. She came with a translator and they’re going to be together at all times. We’ve already given her a nickname – Fabs –and she seems to get a little chuckle out of that.

LE: Some of your games are neither broadcasted nor online. What steps is WPS taking to make more of the games viewable nationally?

Mitts: The Fox Soccer deal was a huge accomplishment because the true soccer fans are going to have it, so that’s a positive step in the right direction Obviously we’d like to be viewed a little more but maybe the first year we have to see how things go and maybe the next year they decide to invest more.

LE: Would you want to play in a doubleheader with the New England Revolution?

Mitts: I think it’s a great idea. When you have two professional teams in the same town, why not have something where you can come and see both teams play. When I played in the WUSA we did exhibition doubleheaders with MLS teams and the turnout was great. Soccer fans go there to support one team and then they see another team they’ve never seen before and they might end up being fans of both teams. It’s fun for the players too.

LE: What are the pros and cons of playing a doubleheader in both of those venues, Harvard Stadium and Gillette?

Mitts: The pro is that soccer fans get to watch two successful area teams play. They’re both great locations. I love playing at Harvard because it’s our home field and we have an advantage there, but at the same time it’s fun for us to go and play in new stadiums, it’s exciting. Really, I can’t think of any cons to tell the truth, maybe the traffic at Gillette.

LE: Do you think the college soccer program needs to be improved?

Mitts: From my experience in college, we had a very intense fall season and in the spring it was still taken seriously but much less games. Spring was a time for more individual training and sometimes that’s what makes you a better player. The games get you game ready but if you work on your individual skills hours upon hours each week, that’s going to help improve your game as well. Personally, I couldn’t ask for anything more, it was a really good balance, I loved playing and never got burned out.

A lot of the time I think the big issue with academies is players get burned out, they’re asking too much of you. You look at all the players on the national team and we’ve all been through the college experience and seem to be doing just fine. Everybody needs time to give their body a rest, not just physically but mentally as well, and the way it’s set up now allows for that.

LE: You were voted ESPN’s “Sexiest Female Athlete”appeared in a five-page spread of FHM, and posed for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Why did you pose?

Mitts: My pictures are more sporty, not your typical FHM photos. Women’s soccer is not heavily publicized, so when you have an opportunity to be in such a big magazine that publicity can be good. It definitely helped as far as awareness about the new league and women’s soccer.

LE: There’s a Philadelphia WPS franchise starting in 2010, where your fiancée lives. Are you considering a move?

Mitts: My fiancée A.J. Feeley plays for the Philadelphia Eagles and Philadephia will have a team. I love playing in Boston, I love my team, I love my coach, and I’m very happy here, so we’ll cross that bridge when it happens.

LE: You’ve done some sideline journalism and live commentary for American football. Do you see yourself in broadcast journalism when your playing career is over?

Mitts: I’d love for that to happen. I’m taking my soccer career day by day and hopefully I’ll be able to transition to a broadcasting role. I was going back to college to get my Master’s in sports broadcasting, but the league came about at the same time, so why not play as long as I can, I love it so much.

Also See: Boston Breakers bio / Official Website

Photo Credit: Tony Biscaia / BreakersNet.

If you liked this interview, you might also want to check out our interview with Hope Solo.

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