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The case for the most essential USWNT player: Naomi Girma

(Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images)

Each month in the leadup to the World Cup, Just Women’s Sports will make the case for one player as most essential to the success of the U.S. women’s national team in 2023. Next up: Naomi Girma.

The future of the U.S. women’s national team’s defense also has cemented herself as its present ahead of the 2023 World Cup.

After nearly sweeping the NWSL’s end-of-season awards as a rookie in 2022 – which included winning rookie and defender of the year and finishing as an MVP finalist – Naomi Girma has picked up right where she left off to begin 2023.

As a center back for the San Diego Wave, Girma has established herself as one of the best in the NWSL. And this summer at the World Cup, she’ll prove herself on the world stage.

While captain Becky Sauerbrunn has anchored the USWNT defense for the better part of 214 caps, Girma has stepped up as her successor.

“There’s a reason she’s starting on our team, and that’s because she is growing into a great player,” USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski said of the defender.

And those sentiments are echoed by others who have coached her. Casey Stoney, who is her head coach with the Wave, has had to remind the masses that Girma is only in her second season as a pro.

“I think she’s just gonna continue to grow. Obviously, people need to realize this is only her second year as a professional,” she said recently. “Last year’s an exceptional season, and she’s played well again this season.”

And Stoney sees “masses of potential” and room for growth despite Girma already being “so good on the ball.”

“I think her ability on the ball is good,” she said. “It’s just about decision-making, confidence and bravery sometimes, and also, you know, seeing the pictures.”

Still, Girma plays with the maturity of someone with much more experience under their belt, and the former No. 1 overall pick has mobility that some players could only dream of possessing.

The 22-year-old is dangerous as she drives forward on the dribble. She knows her teammates’ movements and holds a strong passing range – a skill that will only get better as she continues to find her place with USWNT teammates.

“There’s some players that have made their mark in such a short period of time,” Alex Morgan said in the most recent USWNT camp of Girma, Trinity Rodman and Sophia Smith. “Those are just a couple of the players that have already shown that they belong and will be here for many, many years. So, it’s exciting to see what they can do in a World Cup and how they can really be a huge factor in us being successful this summer.”

Girma also knows how to position herself and read the game, and that makes it difficult for opposing attackers to find space. And the defender can help the USWNT attack find space as well.

According to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric, Girma led the NWSL in “interrupting” value in 2022. She also was rated in the 96th percentile for ball recoveries and in the 92nd percentile for fewest times dribbled past per 90 among center backs in the NWSL, per FBref.

“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 said of Girma in February. “She’s just that good. I don’t think you can leave her off the field, calm, extremely smart. I don’t think her physicality gets talked about enough, deceptively quick. If you have any kind of quickness and brain, then that’s a wrap.

“She can play any kind of ball. She’s a great leader. She’s just f—ing good. It’s tough to step into this team at this level and immediately be a no-brainer starter. … The impact was just immediate with Naomi. She’s going to be the future of the team for a long time.”

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