It’s Dec. 8, 2019, on a dark soccer field in San Jose. Late in the second half of a scoreless battle between Stanford and North Carolina in the NCAA College Cup final, Stanford sophomore center-back Naomi Girma tweaks her hamstring.
“I could see her holding it, and I went over to her,” remembers former Stanford assistant coach Margueritte Aozasa, now the head coach of reigning NCAA champion UCLA. “And she was like, ‘Marg, don’t worry about me. I pulled my hamstring, but I’m not coming out. So, don’t even like — you don’t need to be over here.’”
The North Carolina striker pestering Girma in extra time was none other than Alessia Russo, now a marquee signing at Arsenal and a European champion with England. But in 2019, she was just another student-athlete playing to the ticking clock of an NCAA game, with a golden-goal format that inherently favored the attacker.
“It was one of the best matchups of the entire year, just watching the two of them go at each other,” Aozasa says.
Even on one hamstring, Girma shut Russo down, keeping the clean sheet to give Stanford the chance to win in a penalty shootout and claim their second national title in three years.
“We were in the attack, and they would counter-attack, and it would just be Naomi and Alessia in 60 yards of space,” Aozasa says. “And it was just like, ‘OK, who’s the better player in this moment?’ And time and time again, she stepped up to the challenge.”
That was the moment Aozasa remembers knowing Girma could become one of the best defenders in the country, and it didn’t take long for the then-sophomore to make good on her early promise. Known for her calm demeanor on and off the field, Girma combines the intellect of a perfectionist and a casual humility that belie her many accomplishments. Those qualities will be tested once again this summer when the 23-year-old steps up to her newest challenge.
Now a Cardinal legend and projected starter for the U.S. women’s national team as they pursue a record third-straight World Cup title in New Zealand, Girma recently found herself in San Jose at another inflection point in her career. This time, she was playing with the USWNT in their send-off game against Wales on July 9.
The city is not only a setting of college glory, but also her hometown. The daughter of Ethiopian immigrant parents, Girma got her start playing soccer at the local YMCA, quickly rising through the club ranks at CV Crossfire, De Anza Force and CA Thorns Academy to become a coveted recruit among the top universities.
For the local kid, picking Stanford seemed like an easy choice, and not only because of its rigorous academic standard and excellent soccer team — “It’s also 30 minutes from home,” Girma says. “And the campus … it’s beautiful. So there’s just so much to love about it, and yeah, I feel like if I thought about it more, it was the obvious right choice.”
Her reputation preceded her. Aozasa remembers the day she met the bubbly then-teenager on a college visit.
“Right away, she just has this maturity about her that I think is very recognizable. She’s always kind of been wise beyond her years,” says the coach.
“But then she also just has this joy about her, like she’s always smiling, always laughing, like she’s kind of the best in everybody. And even as a young kid at 15, I think that was very clear.”
At the time of her Stanford visit, Girma had only relatively recently converted to center-back, which she now recalls beginning at Olympic Development Camp and progressing from the U-14 level upward. She had previously been a defensive midfielder, and that experience informs her game to this day.
“For a lot of the time, I was still playing midfield for my club,” Girma says, “which I think kind of helped me feel comfortable on the ball or in tight spaces.”
“In the midfield, you’re used to pressure at 360 degrees,” Aozasa explains. “Typically as a defender, it’s only in front of you. So it feels kind of like this, maybe, a misrepresentation of how much time you have simply because you’re used to multiple defenders.
“I always point this out to younger players: You can notice in the way Naomi plays, even when she’s dribbling, she never is looking at the ball. She’s constantly scanning, which allows her to make these penetrating passes. And most importantly, I think it allows her to change her mind.”
Girma brought all of those qualities to Stanford from the first moment she stepped onto the training field. Still, her ascension to a starting role for the team came a bit earlier than expected. In the middle of Girma’s first season in 2018, Tierna Davidson (now a World Champion with the 2019 USWNT) suffered a broken ankle. Without missing a step, the freshman Girma stepped into her place, contributing calmly to a squad that struggled with injuries throughout the season.
“It was really fascinating to see her just step in kind of at a moment’s notice, and just take over the game from a center-back position at a very young age,” says Aozasa.
“When she was coming into college, I asked our college coaches, I said, ‘OK, tell me about the freshman class,” says former Stanford and current U.S. teammate Alana Cook. “And the way they talked about Naomi, it was an inevitability that she would be here.”
The Stanford rosters that brought home national championships in 2017 and 2019 will likely be remembered for years to come.
In 2019 alone, Girma played with future USWNT teammates Sophia Smith and Catarina Macario, as well as future pros like Sam Hiatt, Sierra Enge, Kiki Pickett and Madison Haley. That squad also included penalty shootout hero Katie Meyer, who as a freshman goalkeeper secured the championship win for the Cardinal. Meyer, Girma’s close friend and co-captain, died by suicide in March 2022.
“Sometimes they would do some things in training, and me and the rest of the staff would just look at each other,” Aozasa says of her 2019 team. “I say I had the easiest job in college soccer at that point. We just, for the most part, gave them a little bit of structure, kind of tried to teach them to be on the same page, to make different reads. But we also tried to give them a lot of freedom, because we knew their skill level alone and their individual creativity and ability was off the charts.”
“I didn’t realize how good we were,” Girma says. “I wish I knew and it was a super strategic choice, [but] for me, I was really into getting my education and like challenging myself there, and then also challenging myself on a soccer field, that I felt like Stanford gave me the best opportunity for both.”
The defender dealt with adversity in various forms after Stanford’s national championship run. In 2020, the season was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and an ACL injury in 2021 disrupted her final season. But the time Girma spent away from the field also gave her an opportunity to lean into her studies, something she says has always been a priority.
A Symbolic Systems/Management Science & Engineering major, she joined the prestigious Mayfield Fellow Program as a senior, an opportunity given to only 12 Stanford students.
“Anytime there was a difficult moment, whether it was soccer, whether it was school, she still would go, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve got three midterms this week,’ and then she’d start laughing,” says Aozasa. “Like, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be hard, but I can do it.’”
“I think it can be hard when soccer becomes your identity, and if that’s not going well, then everything’s not going well,” says Girma. “So, just making sure that I have a balance in my life with my friends and my family to keep me grounded too is really helpful for me.”
Her passion for learning is something she’s continued to this day. She is pursuing a Master’s Degree in addition to her full-time work as a professional soccer player, though she took an understandable leave of absence in early 2023 to focus on preparing for the World Cup. She’s characteristically unassuming when discussing her workload.
“I’m really interested in it, so it doesn’t feel like a drag,” she says of her post-graduate studies.
After juggling intense amounts of soccer and school in college, Girma proved herself ready for the NWSL immediately after being drafted No. 1 overall by the San Diego Wave in 2022. The move raised some eyebrows initially due to San Diego’s roster needs, but head coach Casey Stoney — a former defender herself — said she never wavered from her first choice.
The pick paid off as Girma earned instant accolades, winning both Rookie and Defender of the Year and even making the Most Valuable Player shortlist. The Wave also achieved unprecedented success for an expansion side in their inaugural season, going all the way to the NWSL semifinals.
“I think I felt good,” Girma casually concedes about her historic rookie season. “I felt like I had a good year as a rookie and as a defender, and it was cool to get an MVP spot on the list because defenders don’t usually get that.”
“Nay could probably go into any environment and be the ultimate professional, be just a rock defensively, just so solid, get along with anybody,” says San Diego and USWNT teammate Alex Morgan.
“Just being teammates with her is great because she does not seem like she is a rookie at all — I mean, now she’s not technically a rookie. But last year, she was a huge staple and a rock for this team, and her role is only going to continue to expand.”
Girma isn’t considered a flashy player, which is not uncommon for the center-back role, but her consistency stands out. Similar to her personality off the field, her movements are small and unassuming. Girma positions herself between an attacker and the goal behind her with an ease of movement that evokes a young Becky Sauerbrunn.
She also has a quiet flair to the way she contains opponents. At 5-foot-7, instead of using her height to impose angles, she turns gravity into an ally. Picking an approaching angle, she will adjust her weight toward the ground with expert positioning to take downhill momentum away from an attacker, then deftly turn the ball around and distribute to a forward teammate.
“She covers ground so quickly. Her footwork in 1v1 defending and the way she can defend 1v1 is some of the best I’ve ever seen,” says Stoney. “Her ceiling is so high, we’ve not even scratched the surface with Naomi yet. I think she could be one of the best center-backs in the world.”
“She reads the game really well, which is kind of a very ambiguous, abstract term,” says Aozasa. “But she just understands preventative positioning so she is able to deny passing lanes. She’s able to read off the cues of the attacking player to just put herself in a really great position to either prevent a dangerous pass, or to make a play on a dangerous pass.”
Girma gives credit for her success to the people around her, both in training environments and off the field. She considers Sophia Smith one of her best friends and notes the impact Sauerbrunn has had on her as a young U.S. defender.
“Making sure that that training mentality, training environment is the best it could be, I think that kind of helps me when I go up to the next level,” she says. “And just really not having an ego, putting that aside, and just wanting to learn and wanting to get better.”
Simultaneously an expert and a student, Girma will have to rely on her ability to organize and communicate quickly as she once again raises her level to match up against the best at the World Cup. It’s a role Stoney sees her growing into.
“I don’t think Naomi, coming into the league, realized how good she was,” she says. “So her ability to solve pressure on the dribble and play her way out, she wouldn’t do it as much early on in the games.”
Now seasoned at the professional level, Girma approaches defensive pressure and organization like an equation she is able to solve. She’s frequently tasked with setting up play for the USWNT, bringing the ball forward against teams in a low-block defense and setting tempo in higher transitional games. Against Wales in the team’s send-off match, she tried different approaches in ball progression, sometimes dribbling up as far as the opponent’s penalty area with her eyes always scanning, or sending a searching diagonal ball out to the wingers.
“There’s very few players in my whole tenure that have stepped in and it’s just like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a ‘first person on the team sheet’ type of player every single time,” Megan Rapinoe told reporters in February. “She’s just that good. I don’t think you can leave her off the field.”
Girma’s coaches have seen that potential in her for a while now.
“I think she’s really stepping up in leadership qualities now,” says Stoney. “And I think actually being picked for the national team and playing, all of a sudden you can see that confidence and that be more assured in our performance.”
“She doesn’t just organize the player right in front of her — she has an ability to organize five or six players around her, which at the highest level is super, super important,” says Aozasa. “Because it’s not just like she understands the movements that she’s making. It’s part of a synchronous movement of three or four people, and she’s able to kind of direct that in real time.”
Girma will also have increased responsibility at the World Cup, anchoring a new backline that will be without longtime captain Becky Sauerbrunn due to injury. The U.S. is bringing only three center-backs, none of whom have extensive international experience at the position. Girma’s calming presence will be tested at the highest level, but she feels prepared for what’s next.
“There’s just a huge emphasis on details and over-communicating,” Girma says of the USWNT environment under head coach Vlatko Andonovski, who has acknowledged she is a definite starter. “And like doing those in training so that when it’s a big moment in the game, it’s second nature and it’s [not] something out of the ordinary.”
The next time Naomi Girma matches up 1v1 against Alessia Russo, it could be in front of tens of thousands of fans in a winner-take-all moment for the World Cup trophy. But for now, the defender is taking her usual unassuming approach, enjoying with her family the fulfillment of a promise that began in San Jose, and has extended to San Diego and beyond.
“They love it, it’s so fun,” Girma says. “I feel like we’ve all kind of been on this journey together. Now we’re all like, ‘We’re living the dream.’”
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.