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Tobin Heath, USA’s GIF machine, is winning fans in soccer-mad Brazil

She hasn’t scored for USA yet, but Tobin Heath is gaining fans with her Olympic play reminiscent of Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldinho.

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — She is the most GIF-able player in U.S. women’s soccer history, and now her beloved second country, Brazil, is catching on. A revealing thing happened on Saturday as midfielder Tobin Heath did “Tobin Heath Things” during the second half of the U.S.’s 1–0 win over France.

According to GoogleTrends, searches in Brazil for “Tobin Heath” spiked to 10 times their previous level after Heath put on a show starting in the 63rd minute.

Not only did Heath break through to fire the shot that bounced off the post and led to Carli Lloyd’s game-winning goal, but the player whose teammates call her “Tobinha” also brought a little samba to the Estádio Mineirão turf in the final minutes of the victory.

Deep in the corner and with two defenders advancing on her, Heath turned on the GIF machine, moving one way before flicking the ball behind her in the opposite direction and then dinking the ball back in the original direction over the defenders to teammate Meghan Klingenberg. It was a classic game of Brazilian keep-away, and it ran some time off the clock, too.

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The Brazilian crowd roared in delight. And as Brazilians at home typed into their search engines, the local journalists here were smitten. In the press conference afterward, a reporter from Globo Esportes said to U.S. coach Jill Ellis: “I want you to talk a little about Tobin Heath. Her way of play, it’s very similar to Brazilian players.”

Ellis smiled. “I think Tobin has a desire to be a Brazilian,” she said. “I think she’s always loved this country, been infatuated with it. I remember as a young player she came down here, and I always remember her wearing Brazilian flip-flops when she was a youth player. She loves the ball, and she’s very talented on it as you saw tonight.”

There was something appropriate about Heath’s exploits taking place at the Mineirão. Her favorite Brazilian player of all time, Ronaldinho, led Atlético Mineiro to its greatest moment in club history on this field on a night like this one almost exactly three years ago. Ronaldinho won the Copa Libertadores that night with his team, and Heath flashed a grin when told about it by a Brazilian journalist.

“I was always inspired by Brazilian football growing up,” Heath said. “Those huge Nike campaigns, the Jogo Bonito campaigns that had Ronaldinho, that’s the beauty of the game that I love.”

Growing up in Basking Ridge, N.J., Heath would always be noodling by herself on moves with the ball, in the same way that a promising guitarist would work on perfecting guitar licks. One of them was Ronaldinho’s famous elástico, which Heath turned into her own GIF on an assist against Mexico last year.

“Ronaldinho is the best,” Heath said when asked by the Brazilian media on Saturday. “I just like the joy and the love he has when he plays, it just shines for everyone else to see. He always does something nobody expects him to do. I think that’s really cool, that creativity you don’t find anywhere else. I think he inspired not just me but your country as well and the style that you guys want to play. That’s why he’s my favorite.”

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There were plenty of reasons the U.S. turned things around in the second half on Saturday and overcame a French team that had dominated the first half. Goalkeeper Hope Solo made the most of her 200th cap and stonewalled Marie-Laure Delie when Delie was in alone on Solo late in the first half. Lloyd knew exactly where to be to score her second goal in as many games in this tournament. And Whitney Engen, who learned a few hours before gametime that she’d be making her first start in a major tournament, filled in admirably for the injured Julie Johnston.

But Heath is the U.S. player who’s breaking out more than any other in these Olympics. She was terrific in the opener too, a 2–0 win over New Zealand, providing the assist on Lloyd’s goal in that game. To hear Heath say it, she feels extremely comfortable with the changes that have been made to the U.S. attack in the past year.

“I’m enjoying playing with the team in the style that we’re playing,” said Heath, 28. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been given more responsibility. I think I’ve grown into that. Also I like the players I’m playing around. We’ve got a good connection and understanding. The philosophy of this team has changed a little bit too in the style of play that we’re trying to do. So now I think it suits me.”

Now what would be really cool is if Heath got to meet up with Ronaldinho at some point during the Olympics. Who knows? He might have been one of all those Brazilians Googling her on Saturday night.