USWNT 2022 player grades: Naomi Girma headlines center-backs

Naomi Girma solidified her starting spot on the USWNT's backline in the second half of 2022. (Roy K. Miller/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

It’s the end of the calendar year for the U.S. women’s national team, with 2022 performances all wrapped up in a bow. Naturally, that also means it’s time for end-of-year report cards to evaluate how each player did in the run-up to the 2023 World Cup.

Again, a quick set of criteria: Despite the team’s first three-game losing streak in decades, the U.S. lost only three games total in 2022. A failing grade would indicate a player is wildly unprepared for the game at this level, which is not something we saw from the group playing the lion’s share of minutes this year. Likewise, an A+ indicates a player with all-star, team-on-their-back, best-in-the-world status.

Throughout this series, which will grade players by position, I’m going to avoid those who didn’t get minutes in 2022 and those who have missed significant time due to injury.

So far, we’ve graded the goalkeepers and the outside backs. Now, let’s take a look at center-back.

Naomi Girma – A

If the U.S. had a Rookie of the Year award, Girma would take it with flying colors. The San Diego Wave defender started getting consistent time at the international level in the middle of the year and never looked back. She’s confident both in possession and out of it. Paired with Alana Cook and Becky Sauerbrunn in the latter half of 2022, she became an essential part of the USWNT’s ability to defend and distribute from the center-back position.

Girma’s ability to recover in 1v1 battles when the backline has fallen out of shape is remarkable for a player of her experience level. Girma is one of the U.S. breakout stars of the year and should be considered undroppable going into 2023.

(Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports)

Becky Sauerbrunn – B+

Sauerbrunn had a quietly solid 2022, bridging the generational gap with new faces while remaining excellent in her positioning in the back. She partnered primarily with Alana Cook, though she did work with Girma in the pivotal final match of the year against Germany.

Sauerbrunn isn’t the fastest center-back in the world, but she makes up for her lack of pace with savvy positioning and decision-making. When the defensive shape holds, she’s the player the U.S. wants helping direct the flow of play. It appears Sauerbrunn is no longer the player who can be effective no matter who she is paired with, but her performance alongside Girma in the final game of the year showed promise.

(Bill Barrett/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Alana Cook – B

The 25-year-old got thrown into a role that she likely wasn’t anticipating in 2022, holding down the USWNT backline as center-back partners rotated around her. More than anyone, Cook probably deserves to be graded on a curve, simply because of the way the U.S. relied on her to shore up personnel inconsistencies over the course of the year.

Cook, though, was not immune to mistakes in the back, especially against top competition. She naturally pushes forward in possession as a key distributor in the USWNT’s attack. But perhaps a few times too many this year, her recovery runs didn’t match the tempo shifts transition or she made a decision slightly too late. Cook is a quality center-back who had the weight of the team laid on her shoulders in 2022. If she’s given slightly less responsibility in a functioning back-four, she can shine in 2023.

Abby Dahlkemper last played for the USWNT in April. (Robin Alam/Getty Images)

Tierna Davidson/Emily Sonnett/Abby Dahlkemper – Incomplete

The USWNT center-back pool got very thin very fast due to injuries in 2022. The three who held down the position went through their fair share of ups and downs, making room for competition as players return in 2023.

Davidson, Sonnett and Dahlkemper are all World Cup champions and Olympic medalists, but there isn’t room for everybody in 2023. Girma is undroppable in my opinion, and if Sauerbrunn can make the trip, she’s also likely heading to New Zealand. So who earns the next spot, whether as a starter or a reliable backup? Cook, Davidson, Sonnett and Dahlkemper will all look to make their case before the final roster announcement next summer.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.