Seven years after she last played a game for an NWSL team, Kate Howarth subbed on at right forward for the Orlando Pride in their September 19 game against the North Carolina Courage. She was a Boston Breaker in 2013 before finding her way to WPSL Elite, and then eventually UWS - and then right back to NWSL. It was a moment long delayed, not just for the seven years between professional teams, but also for the Pride’s own return to the soccer stage after they missed out on the Challenge Cup when some members of the team broke coronavirus protocols.
Howarth originally made Orlando’s preseason roster, but then quarantine descended. Another possible opportunity to play in Utah: canceled when the team withdrew. But then came the fall series, and with it a short-term contract, signed early in September. Howarth ended up playing roughly 15 minutes in a Pride jersey, trying to help the team dig out the ball and find something last minute. As it were, they tied the Courage 0-0, with most of Howarth’s touches coming in the defensive third as she was obliged to regroup defensively with the team and push out several times. She had a nice lofted cross into the box soon after she came on, a glimpse of the possibility that she could pull the Courage wide to open up a gap for a teammate. With more time, maybe they might have capitalized. Howarth didn’t sound too bothered about it on a phone call after the game.
“I understand that even though you don’t play 90 minutes, if you can come in for 10 minutes and affect the game you’re doing your part,” she said. “If you can come to training every single day and make the starting eleven better you’re doing your part and you’re still as important as a 90-minute player.”
That wasn’t always the case for Howarth; she said she had a level of frustration back when the Breakers released her, when she had just gone from starting every game in college at Miami to fighting for minutes as a pro. Then she spent seven years in the second tier of women’s soccer, culminating in a monster season in UWS with the New England Mutiny, when she scored 18 goals in the regular season and was named the league’s offensive player of the year. At the same time, she was coaching Canton High School’s girls’ soccer team, and she was working during the day as an EMS director for the Norfolk fire department, going out on medical calls, ordering equipment and supplies, and keeping her team up to date on their education in compliance with state and federal regulations. You might say she kept fairly busy. Howarth said it was a period that allowed her to grow.
“I just think it was a different mindset back then [in 2013] and I was young and don’t think I had a good understanding of things,” she said. “I think that’s one thing that I have tried to impress upon even the younger girls [at Orlando]. I’ve been in their shoes. I’ve been where I was playing 90 minutes in college then came to the NWSL and didn’t and it’s hard to understand when you’re young.”
It puts that defensive work from Howarth against the Courage into more context; of course forwards aren’t absolved of defending, and it’s common that they’ll help the team condense as a unit before looking to transition. But for someone who saw her opportunity to return to the pro level stop and start more than once, that hustle to get back, that desire to play together, certainly gains some added texture. Pride head coach Marc Skinner certainly values that hustle. “The thing I saw with Kate is a hunger,” he said after the game, describing what made him want to give her a shot. “You can have technical ability, you can have tactical understanding, you can have physical ability. But if you don’t have the hunger to be part of all of that and bring it together and push yourself every day and take your chance.... With Kate she’s a little bit more mature, so she understands the situation, she understands when to ask questions, what questions. You know they’re going to be quite intelligent questions.”
For Howarth, it was just what she was supposed to do, the work she owed her teammates and her coach as part of their overall game plan. Sure, she was suddenly running alongside Marta, but seven years’ worth of perspective - and regularly handling the stress of going out on emergency calls, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic - kept Howarth sanguine. “I think there’s a level of comfort or a level of understanding that everybody’s going to make mistakes,” she said. “And maybe that’s just because I’m 29 years old and I’ve been doing this for a while now, is that I’m not worried about that. I know [Marta] understands that we’re not all perfect and we’re not going to make the perfect pass all the time, but she understands too that if she looks over and sees me I’m going to do whatever I have to do to make sure that we get done what we need to get done. As long as she knows that I have her back and she has mine, I think that’s the understanding that we need as teammates whether it’s her or anybody else.”
Firefighting and soccer are super comparable, she said, because they both rely on the team, and how the team goes through training together. “We train every day so that no matter what comes up during the game we’re ready for whatever it is and at that point don’t think about it. You just let your training take over, and I think that’s very much what we do at work. We train whether it’s a fire or whether it’s a medical. We have to know what we’re doing and we have to be confident in what we’re doing. We don’t think about it, whatever it is, whether it’s cardiac arrest or whether it’s fire. We grab what we need and we go. And I think that very much translates to the field.”
It’s a strange and unfortunate time for anyone who made a change on the assumption that 2020 would be a normal year. Howarth couldn’t have predicted that this is how things would play out, but here she is, in an Orlando Pride jersey all the same. She felt like she had unfinished business from her first time around in NWSL, and her record-breaking UWS season pushed her to search for opportunities, and to grab on to the one she found with both hands. Even Skinner, who made the decision to roster her, put the agency on her. “She’s given herself a great opportunity,” he said. “She’s taking a chance in her life.”
Howarth had something to say about chances as well, after seven years still loyally passionate about soccer. “I think if I were to give anybody a piece of advice,” she said, “Is if you get a second chance, take it, and if you’re in a position where you can give somebody a second chance, give it to them.”