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.