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Naomi Girma steps into the soccer spotlight with ‘quiet leadership’

(Jenny Chuang/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: To close out the year, we are recognizing our best stories of 2022. This is the second in that series, originally published on April 9. The first featured the NWSL’s journey to a historic CBA.

When NWSL No. 1 draft pick Naomi Girma isn’t on the soccer pitch or finishing her Masters in Management Science and Engineering, she’s watching sunsets, trying coffee shops or eating the best Mexican food she’s ever had at La Perla.

A bubbly, giggly San Jose, Calif. native who likes to be friends with everyone, she often recruits her San Diego Wave FC teammates to join in on the adventures.

“Naomi’s kind of the social chair for our team, so she plans all the team bonding,” said Girma’s roommate and teammate, Kelsey Turnbow.

Girma, 21, has always been a natural leader. Off the field, she’s the social glue. On the field, she quietly sets the example that others strive to match. The former Cardinal is known to always do the right thing and carry such wisdom that people stop and listen every time she speaks.

It’s why those who know her are confident that someday she’ll be one of the top players in the NWSL and a key contributor to the United States women’s national team.

“When she steps on the field, everyone wants to play a little harder and be a little sharper because they care so much about her and they know how much she cares and how much she values the relationships she’s creating with everyone, so it’s really contagious,” said Stanford head coach Paul Ratcliffe.

Leadership was the first trait San Diego head coach Casey Stoney cited when asked why the club selected Girma at No. 1.

The center back helped the Wave to their first-ever victory last Saturday in front of 456,000 viewers on CBS, one of the largest audiences in NWSL history. Girma has been an important part of San Diego’s starting lineup, recording an 83.3 percent success rate in duels, 70 percent in aerial duels and 81.3 percent in passing accuracy. More than half of her passes have made it into the opponents’ half of the field, which has been critical to San Diego’s long-ball strategy.

“I think her ceiling is very high, and I’ve been so impressed with her as a character and her as a player,” Stoney said.

A former defender for the English national team, Stoney was a big attraction for Girma at San Diego. Stoney’s film analysis and backline tactics have helped prepare Girma for opportunities with the senior U.S. national team.

For the first time since October 2020, Girma was called back into USWNT camp in January before being named to the April roster for two friendlies against Uzbekistan this Saturday and Tuesday. USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski has been watching her closely in the NWSL, impressed with the progress she’s made since 2020.

“Very happy for her,” he said. “She has a very bright future and we’re excited to see her now in the NWSL environment.”

(Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Since she started training with the Wave in preseason, Girma has learned the most from fellow center back Abby Dahlkemper and goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan. They’ve spent a lot of time together over the past couple of months getting used to each other’s individual tendencies and how they can weave them together to perform as a unit. Stoney sees the three of them as an important foundation for the Wave in their first year.

Back in the fall, when Stoney was consulting college coaches on the top prospects in the 2022 draft, most highlighted Girma. Even at the pro level, Girma is exceedingly calm and composed for a rookie. Through her first three games with the Wave, she showcased her masterful one-v-one defending, quality on the ball and distribution skills, while making few mistakes.

“I think that is just so important as a defender,” Dahlkemper said. “She has this quiet leadership role already.”

Playing for CV Crossfire, De Anza Force and CA Thorns Academy in the early years, Girma developed her drive and consistency from a young age. Her former coach, Mark Carr, now the head women’s soccer coach at the University of Oklahoma, recognized those qualities in her at youth national identification camps when Girma was just 15 years old.

“I think [leadership] starts with talent,” said Carr. “What I always knew was that she had a special talent in terms of her athleticism, her technical ability, her ability to read the game. That was kind of the starting point.”

Turnbow took part in those youth identification camps with Girma. One of the first things she noticed about the defender was the high standard she held herself to at the center back position. At that age, national players only get the occasional opportunity to showcase their talents. To succeed, they need to make their mark right away.

“I think in terms of first impression, leadership is huge, especially whenever you’re playing in the youth national team system,” said Turnbow. “Also she has an infectious smile and humor and laughs at everything and people just feel comfortable being around her.”

Girma’s teammates and coaches respected her leadership qualities so much that she was named a captain entering her sophomore year. That 2019 season was the height of Girma’s college career. She was fearless in the Final Four of the College Cup, dominating bigger and older players to lead the Cardinal to the national title. She also learned to be more decisive, communicative and demanding of her teammates as a leader.

The NCAA championship in 2019 was the last match Girma played before tearing her ACL in training the following season. The COVID-19 pandemic made her recovery period even more challenging, as the Pac-12’s strict protocols prevented players from passing a ball with more than one teammate.

“Finding ways that I could still inspire the group and keep a positive mindset was like the biggest challenge,” said Girma.

Every day, she focused on the small wins, like being able to lift her leg. And while she was watching her teammates from the sideline, she stayed positive.

“She showed her real character coming back from that injury,” Ratcliffe said.

At Stanford, Girma learned that even when positions and roles change, the way you treat others doesn’t.

She’s carried that over into her rookie season with San Diego, where many relationships had to be built from scratch because few players knew each other on the first day of preseason.

While tactics and systems on the field have also required time to develop, Stoney has been intentional about getting everyone on the same page and building the club from the ground up in all aspects, including players’ self-care. That support was important when, just a month into Girma’s professional career, she lost her best friend and former Stanford teammate, Katie Meyer, to suicide.

As co-captains, Girma and Meyer complemented each other’s personalities and grew together in their leadership. While Girma led quietly by example, Meyer rallied her teammates with energized pep talks and helped Girma think more decisively.

Meyer’s impact lives on in Girma and Turnbow’s new apartment in San Diego, where she helped them decide on their color scheme of white and mauve with a touch of silver. Every week, Girma and Turnbow go to Trader Joe’s for a bouquet of flowers to brighten their place just a little bit more.

“Everything looks so cohesive and nice in here. It’s gorgeous. We get compliments all the time on it,” Turnbow said.

Girma says living in SoCal is quite a contrast to NorCal, where she’s spent her whole life. The weather and beaches are different, and the cross-state rivalry is more intense.

“It feels weird because people down here hate on NorCal and I’m like, ‘Oh,” she says with a laugh. “But still, deep down, that’s my roots.”

Girma admitted, though, that San Diego is the place to visit in California. The soccer energy is unmatched. Her goal for her first year in the NWSL is to give SoCal more reason to rally around the 2022 expansion team.

“I’m excited to, hopefully, go out and try to win the first trophy ever for San Diego Wave,” she said.

As the Wave set out to build a women’s soccer community in San Diego, Girma, the ultimate connector, is just the person to lead the way.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

First-Time Olympian Kahleah Copper Is Seizing the Moment

Phoenix Mercury star Kahleah Copper playing in a WNBA game against the LA Sparks
Kahleah Copper's first season with the Mercury has been a banner one so far. (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

Phoenix Mercury guard Kahleah Copper has been working toward this year's WNBA All-Star Weekend for a long time.

2024 won't be Copper's first trip to the All-Star Game — in fact, she's been an All-Star for four consecutive seasons. This weekend also won't be Copper's greatest individual achievement to date. Afterall, it's tough to beat winning Finals MVP as part of the 2021 WNBA Champion Chicago Sky. And this year isn't even Copper's first time playing the All-Star Game in her home arena; that was in Chicago in 2022.

But this will be Copper's first All-Star Weekend as an Olympian, a title she's been striving for since the moment the Tokyo Games ended in August 2021. Back then, the 29-year-old had been one of Team USA's final roster cuts prior to the Olympics. And from that day forward, she made it her mission to channel  her disappointment into becoming an indispensable part of the 2024 Paris Olympic squad

"I wouldn't change my process for anything," she told Just Women's Sports earlier this week as she prepared to join the national team at training camp in Phoenix. "I'm super grateful for it, it has definitely prepared me. It's a testament to my work ethic, and me just really being persistent about what it is that I want."

A proud product of North Philadelphia, Copper has always been big on manifesting, speaking her intentions confidently into the universe and never shying away from  ambitions no matter how far-fetched they sounded.

"It's important to set goals, manifest those things, talk about it," she said. "Because the more you speak it, you speak it into existence." 

She also displays those goals on her refrigerator at home, forcing herself to keep them front of mind every day. The day she was named to the Olympic roster, ESPN’s Holly Rowe posted one of these visual reminders to social media: A 2021 photo showing Copper wearing a Team USA t-shirt over her Chicago Sky warmups, smiling at the camera while holding up the homemade gold medal slung around her neck.

"Kahleah Copper put out [the] photo on the left in Aug. 2021 and manifested that she WOULD be an Olympian," Rowe’s caption read. "Today she made team USA. Dreams to reality." 

Kahleah Copper of the USA Basketball Women's National Team poses for a portrait during Training Camp in Phoenix
The 2024 Paris Games will mark Copper's Olympic debut. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

Copper turns her focus to Team USA

With one dream realized, Copper is aware that the job isn't finished, as USA women's basketball is aiming to win a historic eighth-straight Olympic gold medal in Paris this summer. That path doesn't technically begin with All-Star Weekend — where Team USA will take on Team WNBA in a crucial tune-up game — but the trial run could make a difference when the team touches down in Europe next week.

"It's serious, because other countries, they spend a lot of time together, so their chemistry is great," Copper said of her Olympic competition. "We don't get that, we don't have that much time together. Just putting all the great players together is not enough. It's gonna take a lot more than that."

With a laugh, Copper acknowledged that Team USA’s task at hand could lightly dampen the occasionally raucous All-Star festivities ("Balance!" was an oft-repeated word). But it's a cost she and her national team colleagues are more than willing to pay if it helps them come out on top in Paris. 

Of course, Copper — along with club teammates Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner — will be enjoying home-court advantage when the All-Star Game tips off inside Phoenix’s Footprint Center on Saturday, a factor that might put them slightly more at ease. 

WNBA players kahleah copper and candace parker celebrating winning the 2021 championship with the chicago sky
Copper won a WNBA Championship in 2021 alongside one of her idols, Candace Parker. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

A "damn near perfect" new WNBA team

Copper made the move to the Mercury just this season after establishing herself as a respected star in Chicago. What she joined was a work in progress, one of a number of key 2024 signings under first-time head coach Nate Tibbetts. Having played for the Sky since 2017, Copper wasn’t exactly sure what to expect of the transition. But any positive manifestations she put out about her new team seemed to have done the trick.

"I said I would never go to the West Coast, I could never go that far from home," she said. "But I didn't know that this organization was what it was: Super professional, really taking care of everything. It's damn near perfect."

Copper herself has been damn near perfect, shooting 45% from the field while leading sixth-place Phoenix to a 13-12 record on the season. She’s also averaging a career-high 23.2 points per game, second highest in the league behind soon-to-be six-time WNBA All-Star A’ja Wilson’s 27.2 points per game. It’s not lost on Copper that she’s playing in front of packed houses, with the Mercury accounting for some of the W’s biggest crowds throughout its 28-year run. 

"Here in Phoenix, our fans are amazing," Copper said. "They show up every single night."

Phoenix Mercury player Kahleah Copper poses on the court before the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game
Copper will play in her fourth consecutive All-Star Game on Saturday. (Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Copper's All-Star home-court advantage

All-Star Weekend presents Copper even more opportunities to connect with her new city, including by making an appearance at American Express's interactive fan experience at WNBA Live 2024. As part of the activation, Copper recorded a few short stories about growing up a basketball fan, describing the posters of Candace Parker, Seimone Augustus, and Ivory Latta she had as a child, and how she dreamed of joining her idols as a professional basketball player. 

The Rutgers grad said she was excited about connecting with Phoenix fans on their level, rooting herself in a shared love of the sport even as she moves from watching the WNBA on TV to becoming one of its brightest stars. The message is clear: If you want something bad enough, and you work for it hard enough, just about anything is possible.

But for all of Copper's personal manifestations, she's never lost sight of the most important thing: winning. And she won't stop grinding until she's posing for the cameras in Paris, holding up a real Olympic gold medal.

"When winning comes, the other stuff will come," she said. "The individual sh*t will come."

‘UNINTERRUPTED’s Top Class Tennis’ Debuts on Prime 

Still from tennis docuseries UNINTERRUPTED'S Top Class Tennis
'UNINTERRUPTED'S Top Class Tennis' follows four junior players as they prep for the Orange Bowl. (Amazon MGM Studios)

Prime Video is hitting the tennis court with Thursday's streaming premiere of UNINTERRUPTED's Top Class Tennis.

After four seasons of the men's high school basketball-focused Top Class: The Life and Times of The Sierra Canyon Trailblazers, athlete empowerment brand UNINTERRUPTED is expanding its purview to tennis with a new four-episode mixed-gender docuseries.

Junior tennis stars take centerstage

Behind the concept is 2017 US Open champion and world No. 45 pro Sloane Stephens, who co-executive produced the series alongside LeBron James and Maverick Carter, co-founders of UNINTERRUPTED and its production and entertainment development arm, The SpringHill Company.

Top Class Tennis follows four players on their journeys to the Orange Bowl, arguably the junior circuit’s Grand Slam equivalent. The Florida-based international tournament was established in 1947 and has crowned a long list of future pros as champions, from retired great Steffi Graf to current star Coco Gauff.

Stealing the spotlight this season is rising Harvard sophomore and 2022-23 USA Today Girls Tennis Player of the Year Stephanie Yakoff, as well as five-time junior title winner and incoming Texas freshman Ariana Anazagasty-Pursoo. Both already have WTA creds, with Yakoff featuring at the 2023 BNP Paribas Open while Anazagasty-Pursoo competed on three Grand Slam courts.

Kamilla Cardoso, Kiki Rice, Caitlin Clark, Holly Rowe and Kristen Lappas at the ESPN+ 'Full Court Press' premiere
ESPN+'s Full Court Press is one of several women's sports docs hitting the screen this year. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Women's sports storms the big screen

Top Class Tennis is just the latest in what's shaping up to be a women’s sports documentary boom.

From Max's LFG about the USWNT's fight for equal pay and Netflix's Under Pressure chronicling the 2023 World Cup to ESPN+’s 2023-24 NCAA basketball series Full Court Press, athletes in women’s sports have taken streamers by storm.

UNINTERRUPTED's Top Class Tennis is available for streaming now on Prime Video

JWS Launches ‘The Gold Standard’ Hosted by Olympians Kelley O’Hara & Lisa Leslie

the gold standard logo
'The Gold Standard' is just one of three new JWS shows tackling the Summer Olympics.

Just Women's Sports announced three new digital series on Thursday, headlined by The Gold Standard, a new studio show hosted by Olympic gold medalists and women's sports icons Kelley O'Hara and Lisa Leslie.

USWNT and NWSL great O'Hara, a two-time World Cup winner and Olympic gold and bronze medalist, is teaming up with three-time WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie, herself a four-time Olympic gold medalist with Team USA, to bring viewers inside the world of Olympic women's sports. The pair will record each episode in-studio, with a series of special guests joining them throughout the show's run.

An insider's view of the Summer Games

The Gold Standard will debut on July 27th and cover the biggest women's sports stories from the Paris Olympics, giving fans a unique perspective by tapping into the insights and opinions of two legendary Olympians. 

"I know first-hand just how exciting and intense the Olympic Games can be," Leslie told JWS. "This show gives us a chance as athletes to bring fans closer to the experience, by sharing our unique insights into the Games. And with all the momentum we're seeing in women's sports, now is the perfect time to have a show dedicated to the biggest women's sports moments at the Olympic Games." 

"I can still remember watching the '96 Olympics and knowing that I wanted to be on that stage one day," says O'Hara. "Having the chance to compete in the Olympics and win gold was one of the highlights of my career. I'm looking forward to being a fan this time around and getting the chance to share my own perspective on the Games' biggest stories. Having teamed with Just Women's Sports before, I know this will be content that resonates with fans." 

The Gold Standard will live on Just Women's Sports' YouTube page, with select social cuts distributed across JWS digital platforms. The six-episode show will run through August 13th.

uswnt stars kelley o'hara and jaedyn shaw on jws digital series 1v1
1v1 with Kelley O'Hara will focus on USWNT players as they prep for the 2024 Olympics. (Just Women's Sports)

Additional series focus on USWNT's Olympic run

The Gold Standard is just one of three upcoming JWS series designed to invite fans to experience the Summer Games from an Olympian's point of view, with additional series zeroing in on the USWNT's 2024 Olympic run.

Ahead of the opening ceremony, JWS will launch the latest edition of 1v1, with host Kelley O'Hara interviewing three of her USWNT teammates: Emily Sonnett, Jaedyn Shaw, and Rose Lavelle. These peer-to-peer interviews provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the USWNT's preparation for their first major tournament under new manager Emma Hayes.

To round things out, JWS is also bringing back its award-winning series, The 91st. This tournament's edition will be hosted by retired USWNT star and World Cup champion Jessica McDonald alongside noted soccer personalities Jordan Angeli and Duda Pavão. The 91st will follow the USWNT as it looks to go for gold against a stacked international field at the Paris Olympics — including reigning World Cup winners Spain.

Each new digital series leans on the expertise of its accomplished hosts and special guest stars, providing fans with candid, personality-driven commentary surrounding this summer's biggest event.

Costa Rica Holds USWNT to 0-0 Draw in Frustrating Olympic Send-Off

USWNT midfielder Lindsey Horan dribbles the ball by Costa Rica forward Melissa Herrera and midfielder Gloriana Villalobos
The USWNT had 12 shots on goal on Tuesday despite failing to find the back of the net. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

The USWNT didn't quite get the going away party they were hoping for, settling for a 0-0 draw with Costa Rica on Tuesday in their final tune-up match before the 2024 Olympics kick off next week.

The US produced 26 shots — 12 on target — alongside 67 touches in the box, the most in any match where they failed to convert a single goal since at least 2015, per Opta. Yet they also faced a heroic performance from Costa Rica goalkeeper Noelia Bermúdez, who tallied 12 saves on the night.

USWNT starters remained mostly intact

After Saturday's win over Mexico, USWNT manager Emma Hayes opted for a very similar starting XI, only swapping Crystal Dunn in for Jenna Nighswonger due to load management.

Named starter Rose Lavelle was a late scratch from the lineup after team warmups, with US Soccer attributing her last-minute absence to "leg tightness." Lavelle was replaced by midfielder Korbin Albert, giving the US a slightly less aggressive attacking edge throughout the match.

Casey Krueger, Lynn Williams, Jaedyn Shaw, Emily Sonnett, and rookie Croix Bethune all got minutes in the second half, coming off the bench to contend with Washington, DC's brutally hot conditions.

USWNT forward Sophia Smith and Costa Rica midfielder Gloriana Villalobos battle for the ball
Costa Rica managed to fend off the USWNT with a strong defensive low-block. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY)

Costa Rica's low-block spelled trouble

"Listen, if you play a game of percentages or law of averages, we're creating more and more high-quality chances, and we're getting numbers into key areas — we're getting touches in the key areas," Hayes told reporters after the match, calling attention to Costa Rica's strong defensive low-block.

"The last part's the hardest part. And I'm really patient, because I've coached teams that have to break blocks down, and it's the hardest thing to do in coaching," she continued.

Hayes also noted the team's lack of training time under her management: The decorated coach officially joined the US in early June after finishing the WSL season with her previous club, league champs Chelsea FC.

USWNT pose for a picture after their send-off friendly against costa rica at Audi Field
The USWNT's Olympic group stage run kicks off on July 25th. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Where to watch the USWNT's Olympic games

Tuesday's draw is just the second time the USWNT has entered a major tournament off a non-win. Back in 2015, the US embarked on their legendary World Cup campaign after a 0-0 send-off draw with South Korea.

The next time the USWNT takes the pitch will be at the Paris Olympics, where they'll play Zambia on Thursday, July 25th at 3 PM ET. The match will be broadcast live on USA, with streaming options available on Peacock.

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