How obscure was Mikaela Howell at the start of the season? Well, on opening night for the DC United Women, staffers couldn’t agree on how to spell her first name and had to go look at her college team’s website to figure it out. Since then, of course, just about everyone keeping track of the W-League has learned her name. Through mid-June she’d made Team of the Week every week that United played, culminating in being named Player of the Week on June 20 after scoring a hat trick the previous Saturday.
It shouldn’t have been all that unexpected. While playing last fall for Monroe College in New Rochelle, NY, Howell tore up the NJCAA Division III circuit, scoring 23 goals and 8 assists in 13 matches while taking them to the national championship game and being named an NJCAA All-American. And according to her coach there, Brett Polow, it’s not just her scoring. “This is a very special player. It’s not only her goals; it’s her maturity and the way she approaches every practice and every game. She’s been a leader since the day she stepped on the field.”Despite her success, she’s not that impressive at first sight. She doesn’t streak through defenses like Alex Morgan, dodge around them like Marta, or rise above them to hammer home a header like Abby Wambach. But somehow she’s managed to be second in the 30-team W-League in goals as well as first in assists.
DC United assistant coach Cindi Harkes sums it up well: “She’s a goal-scorer. She’s an opportunist. I like that about her. She’s not your true traditional striker/forward. She’s not big, she’s not super-fast, but she is an opportunist, and she has made the most of her opportunities. She just knows where the ball is going to drop, and she finds it. And she’s a great finisher.”
Head coach Mike Jorden adds, “She’s the kind of player who’s got to be a real role model for young players because she’s not particularly big, she’s not exceptionally fast, but her work rate, her desire, and the fact that she just loves the game makes her be the kind of player she really is.”
The backstory: I guess I’m better with my feet
Howell is originally from Basingstoke, a city of 83,000 that sits southwest of London. She started getting into sports early on and at the age of eight settled on soccer.
“I can’t say why I enjoy it,” Howell says. “I guess it’s because I’m better with my feet than with my hands.”
She went into the English youth development program, first at Southampton and then at Arsenal, where she played alongside former English national teamer and current DC United Women teammate Lianne Sanderson on and off for a number of years.
“Yeah, Lianne was at Arsenal when I was there, so we spent a year together and then a year off and then a year together, if that makes sense. And then when I was in the reserves, she was in the first team. We traveled with the first team a couple of times, so that was nice. We were always close because we were both [Manchester] United fans, so that’s how we hit it off.”
Howell went on to play for a variety of club teams in the Women’s Premier League: Fulham, Chelsea, Birmingham, Reading, and Watford. What she’s most proud of, though, is playing for one of the national youth teams.
“I have five caps for England at the U-17 level. That was a big thing for my career and something I’ll always be proud of. I remember scoring for England in Ireland in a tournament there. That’s something I’ll always cherish.”
In 2008, Howell crossed the Atlantic for the summer and played for the New York Magic of the W-League, following in the footsteps of one of her coaches. That brought her first visit to the Maryland Soccerplex, as her team came down to take on the Washington Freedom (then an amateur team). She greatly enjoyed the experience and returned to England hoping to repeat it. However, commitments in England kept her from doing so until last summer, when she played for them again.
“I enjoyed the summer. I enjoyed it so much I wanted to stay. I love New York. That’s when a friend recommended that I come to Monroe.”
I sleep more on a bus than in my bed
At 23 years of age she’d exhausted her NCAA eligibility, so a junior college was the only option. And Monroe gave her the chance to play in a well-run program with the potential to win the NJCAA Division III National Championship. According to the team’s website, “maybe no one contributed more to Monroe’s 14-1-1 National Finalist season more than this British All-American.”
Following the school year she found a place with the DC United Women, which gives her a very full schedule as she lives in Brooklyn. With her student visa, Howell can only work at Monroe, a one-hour shuttle bus ride to the north.
When asked about her demanding schedule Howell feels “like I probably sleep more on a bus at the moment than I do in a bed.”Howell described a typical week as follows, “Usually I work Monday to Wednesday in the office from 8:30-2:30, then on a Wednesday afternoon I leave the office at 2:30; I get the train to the city; I have to run between the train to get to the bus for 3:30, get on the bus, arrive here usually on Wednesday at 7:45, go straight to practice at 9. Then I stay Thursday, Friday, usually game Saturday and then head back to New York on a Sunday night to go back into the office and start in again on Monday.
“I’m really fortunate that Monroe and the people at work have been flexible with me because obviously sometimes the games fall a bit funny.”
Asked why she chose to play for DC United when it meant spending hours on the bus, she first said, “I’m starting to think because I’m crazy!” (This was after playing a match on Tuesday in northern Virginia that ended at 9 p.m., then getting back to Washington and taking the next available bus back to New York City.)
“No, honestly, I wanted to spend the summer in DC with friends. I inquired about DC earlier in the year and knew that it would be a challenge for me to break into a team with WPS and past and present Division I players, but I was confident if given a chance I could keep up. And playing alongside these players would be great preparation for my fall season with Monroe.”
Howell also says that the team’s style meshes with hers well.
“We don’t have the young college players that are quick like some of the other teams in the league. But we have a lot of players that are older, more experienced that use their brains to play the game, and I feel that I fit into that group a little bit.”
Depending on where you read on the DC website, she’s either a midfielder or a forward. “I like to play forward. Sometimes my speed pushes me a little bit further back in the midfield. I like to score goals, but with my assists that I sometimes get I can play a sort of attacking midfielder’s role. I would say that defending is not actually my strength, so the further you push me back the more uncomfortable I feel.”
She denies having any pre-game rituals or superstitions. “But I do like to have a good warm-up. I don’t like things when things go wrong. I like to feel comfortable. I suffer quite badly with nerves, so if my pre-wrap breaks, or I have a dodgy touch, or bad shots in the warm-up, that always sort of unsettles me a little bit. But I don’t have any crazy superstitions.”
One more year at Monroe
Her upcoming season with Monroe will be her last year of college eligibility, and she wants to make the most of it, even though it’s going to be challenging. “At Monroe we step up from Division III this season to Division I, so it’s going to be a tough fall.”
The team is also going to be under a new coach, John Garbar, who’s transitioning over from being the men’s assistant coach for some years. She’s more than comfortable with the change.
“He wants us to be the fiercest, fittest, loudest team on the field in every game we play,” she said with a smile, “and that’s fine with me because I don’t like to lose.”
Once she’s done with that, she wants to stay over here another two years and complete her bachelor’s degree. In the meantime, she’d love to be called back to play for England, of course, or else hope that the American soccer scene will offer further opportunities.
“I hope that if another semi-professional or professional league was to up and run then maybe I can get myself in there and work as hard to do well as I am here.”
Her long-term ambition is to work as an athletic director, and she’s majoring in business and minoring in sports management toward that end. “I like to work on that side of the game. I hope to maybe work at a college where I can help other people with opportunities to do what I’m doing.”
Her family has been very supportive, and she has kept in touch, talking with them every day by phone or Skype. “My dad was a huge [soccer] fan.” She has a younger brother who’s still helpful even though he’s not into soccer at all. “I think he’s sick of the game because he was dragged around with me so much and my dad, but he’s very proud of me, and he’s very supportive. Him, my mum, and my dad are the first people to post all the links on their Facebook pages and their Twitter pages. They definitely keep up to date with everything from the UK.” Her family is crossing the pond this month to visit, which she’s looking forward to, as she hasn’t seen them since Christmas.
Very British, but not so keen to go home (yet)
While she’ll be happy to see her parents, she’s in no rush to return home, even though she does find a few aspects of American life exasperating, especially when the folks here don’t understand British soccer fandom. “I find it really difficult here in America. I have friends and they’re like ‘I sort of like this team, and I sort of like that team.’ One friend of mine is a Man United fan and she’s like ‘I sort of like Man City, too.’ And I’m like, ‘No, that’s not how the English game works, we pick one team and we don’t like the other teams.’ I’m very British. I like my team. And those are our rivals – we definitely don’t like Man City.”
Her British-ness extends to her tastes. Asked about her favorite food, she said, “I like my mum’s home cooked roast dinners which won’t make much too sense to anybody, but it’s definitely an English dish, that’s my favorite.” Her favorite movie is Notting Hill – “my sappy film” – and her favorite actor is Hugh Grant. “He’s very British and well-spoken and quite handsome for an older man, too.” And, to get back to soccer, her favorite player is Wayne Rooney. “I feel like he sometimes gets criticized for his athletic attributes and for being a little bit bigger built, but I think he just has a natural technique, and I like to watch him.”
Given her crazy schedule, Howell hasn’t had much opportunity to check out the D.C. area sights. “I did go one weekend. And I did the museums and the monuments and the White House and things. I really liked the Natural History Museum and obviously the White House. It’s a really nice city, and I’d like to see more of it.”
Perhaps Howell will get more opportunity to see the city in future, as she admitted that’s she’s “not so keen to go home [to England] at the moment especially with the weather difference.”
That should be just fine for DC United Women fans – and American fans of women’s soccer in general – who would love to see Mikaela playing over here for many years to come.
For now, American soccer fans can catch Howell in action with D.C. as they make a run for the W-League championship in Ottawa later this month. After D.C.’s season ends, she will return to the Monroe College, with their season opening August 14th against Raritan Valley Community College.
Through July 3, 2012, Mikaela Howell led the W-League with seven assists. She also led the league in shots, scoring eight times on attempts. You can follow her on Twitter at @MikaelaHowell9.