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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.