Meggie Dougherty Howard

The sign of a good defensive midfielder is when she can go unnoticed in a game. If she is doing her job, you’ll very rarely hear about her. The Washington Spirit have had one of the best defensive midfielders in the league since the team was founded in 2012 in Tori Huster. Now, they have a rising young star who is getting to learn from one of the best. Rookie Meggie Dougherty Howard has quietly had a great freshman campaign alongside Huster.

Dougherty Howard began her soccer career in Largo, Florida at the age of four. Her older sister played soccer so that’s what Meggie did. With her sister being three years older, Dougherty Howard very rarely played at her own age level. When she did, it wasn’t with normal competition.

“I always loved [soccer] because as I got older, I played years up in club so I actually got to play with my sister a lot at the club we were at. That was really cool,” Dougherty Howard said. “When I was playing my own age, I was playing with guys. I was the only girl on an all-guys team until I was 17.”

When it came time to go to college, Dougherty Howard wanted to get out of Florida. Then the University of Florida came calling. Dougherty Howard’s club coach, George Fotopoulos’ wife Danielle is a legend at Florida and was one of the reasons Dougherty Howard gave the Gators a look.

“Going to Florida was definitely one of the best decisions I could have made in terms of my development as a player and then also just the relationships I’ve had with the coaches and my teammates,” Dougherty Howard said. “They made it such a great environment for me to grow in so many aspects on the field and off.”

To continue to get better, Dougherty Howard decided to spend the summer of 2015 in Washington playing for the Spirit Reserves. After two summers with the squad, Dougherty Howard had gained experience that would help her eventually get drafted by the Spirit.

“The first summer I came it was definitely an eye opening experience because college is a competitive environment and definitely a step up from club but at the college level, there are players who are higher and there’s players that are lower, freshman to seniors, a lot of growing in between there,” Dougherty Howard said. “Obviously having KJ [Spisak] as a coach was really awesome and great and I learned a lot from her and she had a direct line in from Mark [Parsons] who was here the first year, and then Jim [Gabarra] obviously last year in terms of the direction that the organization was going with and how the pro team plays and how they wanted that to transfer to the way that the Reserves were playing. That just helped me prepare myself to come into an environment where I had to be playing at that high level.”

Dougherty Howard returned to the University of Florida sharp and ready for preseason. Having the opportunity to practice with professionals helped set her apart in the SEC.

“Being able to jump in training with the pros, it’s the only way that you’re going to be able to get better is by playing with people who are better than you. I think that really helped me grow and that experience has helped me tremendously.”

In January of 2017, Dougherty Howard was in California for U.S. national team camp before heading to the All-American banquet. When it came time for the NWSL Draft, she didn’t have any family in Los Angeles for the event. Fortunately for Dougherty Howard, both her club coach, George Fotopoulos, and college coach, Becky Burleigh, were there for the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention.

“I am so thankful that they were both there with me. It was definitely nice to have a familiar face, someone who is like family there with you. It’s definitely stressful and you don’t know what’s going to happen until it finally does,” Dougherty Howard said. “I kind of just trusted that God had a plan for me and whatever was going to happen was going to happen. Thankfully I wound up here and I’m super happy to be part of this team.”

Dougherty Howard has played in 12 games this season and has drawn great praise from her head coach. Unlike most rookies in the league, it seems as if Dougherty Howard has fit right in as a starter on the Spirit.

“She’s got great feet and we saw that last year when she trained with us all season,” Gabarra said of Dougherty Howard after a match vs. Kansas City on May 20, 2017. “She understands how we want to play and that’s how she wants to play. She wants to play one or two touch and she’s got a very good tactical awareness of where to play the ball and where to play the ball to make the player she’s playing it to have a good chance to succeed. I think you could see last year she fit right in and it was just something that is part of who she is as a player. She fits to how we want to play and that’s one of the reasons we were so happy to be able to draft her.”

While Tori Huster was out earlier in the season, Dougherty Howard was forced to carry much of the load on the defensive side of the midfield. With Huster back, the duo is one of the best defensive midfield units in the league. Huster’s leadership has helped make the transition to the professional level a smooth one for the rookie.

“Tori obviously is one of the most veteran players on our team and brings a lot in terms of what she can do on the field but then also just her knowledge,” Dougherty Howard said. “I think she does a great job of communicating with us and just helping whenever we might have questions or anything. Then also just being a good person to work with and open to having communication. That’s definitely helpful.”

After the game against Orlando on July 8th, Dougherty Howard began to garner national attention with her passing abilities. To anyone that has seen a few Spirit games this season, the praise from around the league is much overdue. With defensive midfielders being hard to come by at the national team level, don’t be surprised if Dougherty Howard is on the radar of USWNT head coach Jill Ellis in the near future.

Arielle ShipGame Day CoverageJim GabarraKristie MewisLine Sigvardsen JensenMallory PughMeggie Dougherty HowardStephanie Labbe

On Saturday evening, the Maryland SoccerPlex was buzzing, not because of the game between FC Kansas City and the Washington Spirit that was set to take place, but because of who was set to make her debut. Mallory Pugh earned her first professional minutes in a 1-0 loss for the Spirit.

Kelley Piper | Follow Your Spirit
Starting XI: Labbé; Johnson, Church, Zadorsky, Kleiner; Dougherty Howard, Sigvardsen, Mewis; Williams, Ordega, Ship

In the 54th minute, Pugh entered the match for Arielle Ship. When Pugh stepped on the field, she became the youngest American-born player to appear in the NWSL at just 19-years-old. With US Women’s National Team head coach Jill Ellis in attendance for the match, Pugh played primarily as a left forward, a position she has become familiar with on the national team.

“I think that’s where she’s most comfortable and that’s where she best fits our style of play and our system,” Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra said when talking to the media after the game. “It’s probably the easiest transition for her, rather than playing in the midfield where there’s tactically some different things that she’s got to get used to.”

Both teams had numerous chances to score throughout the game, but it was not until the 39th minute that either side broke through. Kansas City forward Sydney Leroux flicked on a ball to midfielder Alexa Newfield who buried the ball past goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé. The Spirit had chances of their own but failed to deposit any of their opportunities.

“The times we attacked the flanks, which was the game plan, we created scoring chances,” Gabarra said. “I think if we get a goal out of what we created in the first 20-30 minutes, I think we walk out of here with an easy three points, but that didn’t happen. That’s kind of been the theme for three of our four home games.”

Kelley Piper | Follow Your Spirit
Shelina Zadorsky covers FCKC forward Sydney Leroux in the second half.

Despite the ongoing offensive struggles for the Spirit, the defense bounced back from a 6-2 defeat the week before in Seattle. This marks the third time this season that Washington has lost 1-0 at the Plex.

“Defensively we did much better limiting their chances and not really giving them any big scoring chances other than the goal obviously,” Labbé said post game. “I think with that, it’s just continuing to build on the offense. That’s where were going to win games. We need to start scoring goals. I think keep pushing towards that and building our confidence with that is where we need to go.”

The midfield saw the biggest change this week. Tori Huster was out with a quad strain and Kassey Kallman did not see action for the first time in over three years. The play of Line Sigvardsen, Meggie Dougherty Howard and Kristie Mewis did a better job of connecting between the backline and the forwards than in previous weeks.

“It was organized and I think they worked really hard, but you can’t replace Tori. I’ve said all along, when you don’t see her out there, you really have a good appreciation of how much she does,” Gabarra said. “Her mobility and winning of balls and change the point of attack was something we really missed, even though the three of them, Line and Meggie and Kristie did a very good job.”

Kelley Piper | Follow Your Spirit
Meggie Dougherty Howard fights for the ball against FCKC’s Becca Moros.

The Spirit will travel to Kansas City next week for the second half of a home and away series with the Blues. Kickoff for next week’s matchup will be at 8 p.m. ET.

Meggie Dougherty HowardPlayer Previews

As the 2017 NWSL season approaches, we will be rolling out profiles on the 2017 Washington Spirit roster.

Name: Meggie Dougherty Howard

Hometown: Largo, Florida

Position: Midfield

College: University of Florida

Dougherty Howard prior to the Spirit’s matchup vs. Duke on April 1.
Photo Credit: Kelley Piper (@kpiperphotos)

Last season: Meggie Dougherty Howard was drafted by the Spirit with the number 29 overall pick in the 2017 draft. Dougherty Howard played for the Spirit Reserves in both 2015 and 2016. In 2016, she led the Gators in assists and was second in points and goals. Dougherty Howard was named to the All-Southeastern Conference first team and was named the SEC Tournament MVP.

2017 season: Dougherty Howard has seen limited action in the preseason, but did start in the midfield against Duke on April 1. With depth in the Washington midfield, Dougherty Howard could find herself near the bottom of the totem poll. It will be interesting to see when and where Dougherty Howard fits into the Spirit midfield.