San Jose’s Naomi Girma providing steady presence for shaky USWNT at Women’s World Cup

So far, the United States women’s national team’s performance at the 2023 Women’s World Cup has been frustrating and underwhelming.

However, as the offense struggles to score and the midfield struggles to keep possession of the ball, one player has proven to be crucial, anchoring the American’s solid defensive performance: San Jose native Naomi Girma.

Girma has been instrumental in the United States allowing only one goal in three games in New Zealand, using her intelligence and quickness to anticipate opponents’ movements and cut off opportunities before they became dangerous.

Those who follow the women’s game closely will notice that Girma, 23, is on a clear path.

“Naomi Girma is going to be the best center back in the world,” Fox’s lead analyst at the Women’s World Cup, Aly Wagner, predicted before the tournament. “I believe her potential is limitless.”

For a long time, that potential has been building. Girma, the son of Ethiopian immigrants, was born in San Jose and attended Pioneer High School before receiving a scholarship to Stanford.

Girma was named captain as a sophomore, Pac-12 Defender of the Year in 2019, and helped lead her team to the national championship that year, which the Cardinal won at PayPal Park in her hometown.

The following year, challenges arose: competitive sports were halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Girma tore her ACL during a training session in October 2020. Girma recently wrote in The Players’ Tribune about the difficulties she faced while rehabilitating during the pandemic and how teammate Katie Meyer encouraged her to persevere through physical therapy.

The push was successful. She was named Pac-12 Defender of the Year in 2021, scoring four goals, and was selected first overall by the expansion club San Diego Wave in the 2022 National Women’s Soccer League Draft.

Girma won NWSL Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year in her first full professional season, finishing in the top five of NWSL MVP voting and helping the Wave reach the playoffs in their inaugural season.

She quickly rose through the ranks of the national team, making her debut against Uzbekistan on April 12, 2022. Since then, she has been in head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s starting lineup for nearly every major match.

“She reads the game so well and understands the game so well that it seems like she’s always one step ahead of the game,” Andonovski said before the tournament. “That allows her to be successful in her actions.”

Her significance increased when the Americans’ long-time center back mainstay, Becky Sauerbrunn, was ruled out of the World Cup due to injury. Girma has been paired with Santa Clara alum Julie Ertz throughout the group stage, despite the fact that Ertz is a midfielder.

Sophia Smith has known Girma for many years, first on youth national teams and then at Stanford. Girma’s rise is less surprising to Smith, who considers Girma to be her best friend, as they begin the World Cup together.

“I’m glad to see people finally recognizing what I believe many of us have known her entire career,” Smith said. “I think Naomi is amazing, and I think she’s only going to continue to grow, get better, and be a leader, and I can’t wait to watch her do that.”

Girma’s club coach in San Diego, according to Fox’s lead play-by-play commentator and longtime women’s soccer broadcaster J.P. Dellacamera, has aided her development.

“At that position, Casey Stoney played at the highest level for England.” “There is no doubt in my mind that she has been extremely helpful to Girma,” Dellacamera stated. “I think that’s helped, as has the fact that she’s been a regular for club and country for two years now, so her confidence is high.”

Aside from her confidence, Girma’s presence on the back line is something that Wagner admires. When things go wrong in San Diego or the United States, Girma is there to make things right.

“She has the physical tools, but at such a young age, she’s already one of the most mature and calm players on the field,” Wagner explained. “I just think her maturity, her ability to read the game and make the right decision at the right time, is really impressive for someone her age.”

It’s undoubtedly something that will make her a superstar for years to come — and has already earned her a three-year maximum salary extension with the Wave, ruling her out of Wagner’s Bay FC’s potential options once they can begin acquiring players.

Girma’s future is secure because of the work she has already done, but she is primarily concerned with the present.

“The past year has been fantastic, but it’s all been building up to this summer,” Girma said. “I think now all eyes are on New Zealand and Australia and how they perform at the World Cup.”

She has accomplished this during the group stage.

And she’ll need to keep performing if the USWNT is to win its third World Cup in a row.

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