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

(Jenny Chuang/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

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.

New Washington Spirit Head Coach Jonatan Giráldez Arrives in DC

head coach Jonatan Giráldez
Jonatan Giráldez joins the NWSL from FC Barcelona Femení. (Ramsey Cardy/UEFA via Getty Images)

Five months after announcing that the Washington Spirit had hired Barcelona Femení coach Jonatan Giráldez as the team's new head coach, Giráldez has joined the club in Washington, DC.

Giráldez is coming off of a successful season with the Spanish side, having won UEFA Women's Champions League, Copa de la Reina, Supercopa, and Liga F in his final season to complete a lauded Quadruple.

While Giráldez was finishing out his tenure in Europe, Adrián González filled in as Spirit interim head coach. González has also seen success, leading the team to its third-place standing with a 9-3-1 record through 13 games.

“I’m thrilled to join the Spirit and begin this next chapter with the club,” Giráldez said in an official team statement. “To be part of the vision Michele Kang has for the Spirit and women’s soccer globally is an exciting opportunity.”

Giráldez has worked at Barcelona since 2019, initially coming on as an assistant coach before moving up to head coach in 2021. The team went 30-0-0 on the season under Giráldez during his first year as manager.

He brings along with him Andrés González and Toni Gordo, who will serve as the Spirit's Fitness Coach and Club Analyst, respectively.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

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