The San Diego Wave are without some key players, and they don’t expect to get them back anytime soon. 

Alex Morgan, Sofia Jakobsson, Melanie Barcenas, Abby Dahlkemper, and Naomi Girma are all currently on the team’s injury list. On Monday, head coach Casey Stoney was asked if she expected any of them to return to the pitch in the near future. 

"No, unfortunately not," was her response. The Wave is set to play Utah on Wednesday.

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While Stoney hasn't yet provided anything else definitive, absences from Morgan and Girma leave behind a pretty big hole in the team roster, particularly with the Olympics — not to mention the preceding USWNT send-off friendlies — just around the corner. Morgan has been sidelined with ankle trouble since the team's late April match against Orlando, while Girma’s first game on the injury list was against Seattle. 

Stoney, however, has said that the Wave doesn’t play any differently with or without the missing players.

"It doesn’t really affect the way we play," she said following the team’s recent loss to Seattle. "We just needed to have more patience. We still had some senior players out there tonight that could have impacted that and needed to impact that and did in the second half."

San Diego currently sits in 10th place with seven points, having won two games in their last five matches.

Naomi Girma is U.S. Soccer’s Female Player of the Year, becoming the first defender to win the award in its history.

The 23-year-old started in all four World Cup games for the USWNT in 2023, and anchored the team to just 0.17 goals per game on the year, the best in team history.

Goalkeeper Hope Solo won the award in 2009 and defensive midfielder Julie Ertz won it in 2017 and 2019, but Girma is the first true defender to win the award.

“I’m honored and grateful to be the first defender and second Black player to win this award, but it’s really a testament to all the hard work put in by our goalkeepers, the back line and our whole team to achieve an historic year for our defense,” Girma said in a U.S. Soccer release.

“We are all very connected, work hard on the field, watch a lot of film to get better and really take pride in stopping teams from scoring. I always want to thank my friends and family, because they’ve been with me on every step of this journey.”

Girma started in all 16 games with the USWNT last year, and was also named NWSL Defender of the Year for the second year in a row.

She’s the sixth player to win both Female Player of the Year and Young Female Player of the Year, having won U.S. Soccer’s youth award in 2020.

U.S. Soccer announced the nominees for its 2023 Female Player of the Year award on Monday, including last year’s winner Sophia Smith.

Joining Smith are Crystal Dunn, Emily Fox, Naomi Girma and Lindsey Horan. Both Horan and Smith are among the team’s leading scorers, while Girma and Dunn featured heavily for the defense. Fox, meanwhile, had a breakout year for the USWNT.

Just Women’s Sports breaks down the three front-runners. The winners of U.S. Soccer’s annual awards will be announced in January 2024.

The national federation also announced nominees for Young Female Player of the Year, including senior national team members Alyssa Thompson and Olivia Moultrie as well as U-20 players Savannah King, Onyeka Gamero and Ally Sentnor.

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(Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Naomi Girma

If there is one player who has stood out among the rest for the USWNT, it’s Girma.

Questions arose about the team’s defensive line at the World Cup, particularly after longtime captain Becky Sauerbrunn went down with an injury. But Girma – alongside veteran Julie Ertz – answered those questions and then some. Penalty shootout against Sweden aside, the team allowed just one goal at the tournament due in part to Girma’s work along the back line.

In total, the team allowed just three goals through 16 games in 2023, going undefeated in friendlies. The USWNT allowed just 0.17 goals per game on the year, which is the best in any year in team history, according to OptaJack. Without Girma, that backline would have looked much different – and, arguably, the group stage at the World Cup would have gone much differently as well.

To end the year, the USWNT held its opponent without a shot attempt in the first half of its Dec. 2 friendly against China. That marked the eighth time in 2023 that the USWNT did not face a single shot in a half. Girma anchored that choke-you-to-death, lock-down defense, making the 23-year-old a top contender for the player of the year award.

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(Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images)

Lindsey Horan

A former winner of this award, Horan once again had a banner year for the USWNT. She was one of few players to score at the Women’s World Cup – doing so twice, including a critical tally in the 1-1 draw against the Netherlands.

In total, Horan scored four goals on the year, which ties her for second-most on the team. (Mallory Swanson, despite going down with an injury in April, is the team’s leading scorer, with six goals in 2023.) Horan also added an assist to bring her total goal contributions to five. She started and played in 15 games for the squad, wearing the captain’s armband during the World Cup after Sauerbrunn went down with an injury.

Not only did the 29-year-old midfielder contribute offensively, but Horan also has been a steady presence for a USWNT team that has undergone some major changes this year — and will continue to do so under new head coach Emma Hayes. Horan also is the only player from the USWNT this year to have been nominated for the FIFA Best Player award, which is a testament to the year she had.

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(Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Sophia Smith

Smith followed up a banner 2022 with another great one for the USWNT in 2023. She joined Horan as the only two players to score for the U.S. at the World Cup, doing so twice. She also had an assist to finish as the team’s leader in points for the tournament.

Smith missed significant time with an injury after the World Cup, but the 23-year-old forward returned to the starting lineup for the team’s December friendlies and scored almost immediately – showcasing just how good she is and just how much the team needs her on its attack. The reigning player of the year, Smith backed that up, continuing to excel and putting herself back in the conversation once again.

Serena Williams met with U.S. women’s national team stars after watching their 3-0 win Saturday against China.

The retired tennis great cheered on the USWNT at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, alongside husband Alexis Ohanian and daughter Olympia. The family are investors in NWSL club Angel City FC.

After the match, the 23-time Grand Slam champion took the time to meet with USWNT players, including Trinity Rodman, who contributed a goal and two assists, as well as Midge Purce, Sophia Smith, Naomi Girma, Lynn Williams and Alyssa Thompson.

“She was very sweet, very humble, which is refreshing and amazing,” Rodman said. “And obviously we all look up to her, one of the greatest female athletes in the world. So to meet her in person and see how she was incredible.”

When Rodman met with reporters after the game, she explained her delay by noting that Williams wanted to meet with her. And Williams asked for her jersey from the match — but the 21-year-old forward already had gifted it to a fan. Rodman, though, found another jersey to give to the tennis legend.

“I gave one of my jerseys away to a fan, and then I walked across the field, and somebody said, ‘Serena wants to meet you,’” Rodman said. “I was like, ‘Serena who?’ They were like, ‘Serena Williams.’ I walked over there, and she’s like, ‘Can I have your jersey?’ I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I dug in the dirty bag from the beginning of the half to find mine and gave it to her.”

The USWNT will close out the year with another friendly against China at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday in Frisco, Texas.

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Serena Williams speaks with Naomi Girma and Sophia Smith after the USWNT's 3-0 win against China. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images for USSF)
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Serena Williams shakes hands with Midge Purce, who helped set up the final goal of the match. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images for USSF)
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Serena William and daughter Olympia take a photo with USWNT forwards Lynn Williams and Alyssa Thompson. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images for USSF)
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Serena Williams poses for a photo with USWNT interim head coach Twila Kilgore after the 3-0 win. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images for USSF)

The U.S. women’s national team will play their final matches of the calendar year in the next week, with the opportunity to place a definitive stamp on a tumultuous 2023. The two friendlies against China PR will be the team’s first games after the hiring of Emma Hayes as head coach, but they also serve as an extension of Twila Kilgore’s interim management, which will continue until May 2024.

The USWNT’s December roster follows something of a tradition in major tournament years, giving many veterans the international break off to rest and recuperate, while refreshing the larger player pool with non-World Cup players. But the possibility of any major changes in tactical approach seem slim, with Hayes yet to assert her full influence on the team’s style of play.

In lieu of a wholesale change in philosophy, here are three bold(ish) ideas for the U.S. during this international period beyond basic player evaluation.

Shake things up in the attack

While their actual goal-scoring output has improved in the months since the World Cup, it’s difficult to watch the USWNT without feeling like something is broken in the attack. The team went scoreless in two of their four World Cup matches, and they closed out their most recent friendly series having failed to score in three out of four halves.

Many of the issues with the USWNT’s once-vaunted attack go beyond any single player, but the young roster in December has a chance to break free of some of the systemic problems plaguing the front line. The games will provide an opportunity to get more tape on center forward Mia Fishel, who should have a fitness advantage over some of her teammates due to her club team, Chelsea, being in-season.

But shaking the USWNT attack out of its slump isn’t just about slotting in new faces at the No. 9 — the way the rest of the team relates to the center forward position also needs a rethink. Over the summer, the option of moving Sophia Smith to a more central position was presented as a zero-sum substitution of Alex Morgan, who started all of the U.S.’s World Cup matches. But with Morgan sitting the December friendlies out, the reason for moving Smith centrally would be less as a like-for-like replacement and more as a way of replacing her on the wings with a traditional winger.

Midge Purce and Lynn Williams are coming off of an excellent NWSL Championship performance. Both Gotham FC players ran the wings with confidence, getting the ball to the endline for low crosses and providing help defense when necessary. Purce found teammates for goals twice in that game, looking dangerous both on the ball and in dead-ball situations.

Having wingers who can cut inside to pull the defense out of shape is a great asset, but the U.S. at times has created a very narrow shape due to individual player tendencies. It could be worthwhile to run the old playbook with new talent in game one, but a total rethink in game two could shake the team out of its old patterns.

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Rose Lavelle is one of the most experienced players on the USWNT's December roster. (Robin Alam/USSF/Getty Images)

Share the armband

With a number of key veterans taking this international break off, the U.S. has an opportunity to share some of the burden of leadership in productive ways. Midfielder Lindsey Horan has been an able captain in 2023, but at times it appeared the team was over-relying on her to galvanize the group, while other experienced players didn’t seem empowered to communicate with clear authority.

Horan will likely feature heavily in both December matches since she plays her club football on the European schedule and is currently match-fit. But a bolder idea would be to give the 29-year-old a break, if simply to upend patterns in the USWNT midfield. Kilgore would do well to eventually leave her younger players operating without a safety net, whether that means entrusting Jaedyn Shaw with the No. 10 role or pairing Olivia Moultrie with the newly healthy Rose Lavelle.

Outside of giving the midfield an overdue refresh, Kilgore also has the opportunity to prioritize leaders who didn’t get a chance to blossom in Andonovski’s final year.

Casey Murphy is the most experienced goalkeeper on the roster and will surely be charged with organizing her backline. Lavelle is coming off a blistering performance in the 2023 NWSL Championship game, showcasing her experience as a player. And Lynn Williams will be the most tenured forward of the group. With communication lagging at times in the past year, a clean slate with new voices in the mix will be key for the team’s mentality going into 2024.

Give the Wave duo the keys to the defense

Abby Dahlkemper’s return to the USWNT is exciting for fans for reasons beyond her play on the pitch. Dahlkemper has recovered from a chronic back injury that greatly hampered the center-back in 2022, resulting in surgery. Making her NWSL return in August 2023, she’s looked as steady as ever, providing confidence in possession and showcasing her abilities off the ball to stunt an opponent’s attack.

She’s also settled in with current USWNT mainstay Naomi Girma in their club environment at the San Diego Wave, providing the foundation for the team’s run to the NWSL Shield in 2023. Girma was arguably the USWNT’s MVP in 2023. She both served as the wedge between opponents and her own goal and was relied upon heavily to spring possession forward when the U.S.’s midfield had trouble moving the ball.

The upcoming games give Dahlkemper and Girma a chance to test out their on-field chemistry at the international level, providing equal levels of experience and complementary skill sets. Dahlkemper used to be known for the same diagonal balls forward that have become Girma’s calling card for the U.S. With the role of Girma’s center-back partner firmly up for grabs after the retirement of Julie Ertz, Dahlkemper has a chance to make a big impression in her return. For a team looking for consistent starters following Andonovski’s frequent experimentation in defense, her comeback might be happening at exactly the right time.

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

Emma Hayes traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to meet with U.S. women’s national team players and staff in person, marking the first time that she’s done so since being announced as the next head coach.

While Hayes will not move fully into her role until the conclusion of Chelsea’s season in May, she will be working closely with interim head coach Twila Kilgore until then.

The USWNT is set to face China on Saturday in Fort Lauderdale and on Dec. 5 in Frisco, Texas, for its matches of 2023. Hayes will not be staying in the U.S. to watch the games, but players feel “really excited” after meeting with the new coach, defender Naomi Girma told The Athletic.

“We feel like we have our direction,” Girma said Tuesday. “We know what we’re building towards now, and it’s all very clear. I think overall we’re just excited to hit the ground running with her.”

Lindsey Horan agreed with that sentiment, even if the team has to wait six months before Hayes becomes the full-time head coach.

“There’s so much talent in this team, and I don’t think the world has seen enough of it yet just because we need to go out and show it,” Horan said. “We need to be able to mesh together and show everything that we have, and what we’re all about, and how we can really collaborate and play together — be more of a team and be a powerhouse again.

“It’s going to be exciting for us to have her and see what she can do with this team and how she can help us moving forward.”

Naomi Girma has been named the NWSL Defender of the Year in each of her first two seasons in the league.

The No. 1 pick by the San Diego Wave in the 2022 NWSL draft, the 23-year-old won the award for the second time in a row in 2023, the league announced Wednesday. She beat out Ali Krieger of Gotham FC, Sarah Gorden of Angel City, Kaleigh Kurtz of the North Carolina Courage and Sam Staab of the Washington Spirit.

Girma becomes the first Wave player to earn a postseason accolade in two consecutive years, having helped the Wave to a league-high 11 wins and the 2023 NWSL Shield. She won Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year in her rookie season.

As the centerpiece of San Diego’s backline, Girma finished among the top five players in the league in passes completed (948) and passing accuracy (88.68%). Led by Girma, the Wave defense allowed just 22 goals and 91 shots on goal, good for second- and third-fewest in the league, respectively. Through 19 regular-season matches, Girma conceded just four fouls.

She also was named to the 2023 NWSL Best XI, joining San Diego forward Jaedyn Shaw on the first team. Veteran forward Alex Morgan and goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan made the second team.

In June, she signed a new contract with San Diego, which will keep her with the Wave through the 2026 season.

“Naomi is one of the best young defenders in the world, and we’re elated that she’ll continue her career with the Wave,” Wave head coach Casey Stoney said in a news release at the time. “She has been a key contributor to this club and the success the Wave has had, and I look forward to continuing to watch her grow here in San Diego.”

Girma also was at the heart of the USWNT defense at the 2023 World Cup, starting started all four games at her first major tournament. Gotham FC and USWNT forward Lynn Williams called the young defender a “bright spot” amid a disappointing run, while USWNT co-captain Lindsey Horan called her “one of the best players on the team.”

U.S. women’s national team stars Naomi Girma, Sophia Smith and Sofia Huerta have joined a new initiative aimed at tackling the rising mental health issues in soccer.

Girma, Smith and Huerta are among the international players to back the “Create the Space” project. Arsenal’s Beth Mead and Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell also are involved.

Through “Create the Space,” these players will join forces with Common Goal to develop a program that will help break down the stigma surrounding mental health. Both clubs and individuals can make use of the program.

Girma has been involved with Common Goal since before the 2023 World Cup. Girma and Smith also dedicated their World Cup journeys and their participation in the initiative to their Stanford teammate Katie Meyer, who died by suicide last spring.

On Thursday, Girma said that the new initiativ  “will help people be the best versions of themselves and may even save lives.”

“What I have learned through losing my best friend, is that everyone struggles in their own way, even when it doesn’t seem they are,” Girma said. “Suffering doesn’t always look like the way it’s portrayed in the movies. No matter if I am a professional athlete, a student or whatever, making sure that I’m checking in on others and checking in on myself is so important.”

In England, Common Goal will develop a program alongside charity Football Beyond Borders.

“In January I lost my Mum and because of the injury I couldn’t play football, which was always my escape, my happy place,” Mead said. “Moments when people thought I was fine because of my outgoing personality, were very dark.

“It’s been a tough process to understand. Teammates, people at the club, family and friends that supported me were so important, without them I could have been in a far darker place. I want to help create an environment in which it’s totally normal to address mental health.

“There’s not a perfect way of dealing with it, but if you feel you’re not alone it helps so much. We need to normalize mental health and in doing so that would go a long way.”

Note: If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, call or text the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.

The youth contingent of the U.S. women’s national team is having its moment.

Both Jaedyn Shaw, 18, and Mia Fishel, 22, scored their first international goals in Sunday’s 3-0 win against Colombia. Meanwhile, players such as Alyssa Thompson, 18, and Naomi Girma, 23, have established themselves as mainstays for the national team.

And while interim head coach Twila Kilgore has preached patience while integrating younger players into the U.S. system, that doesn’t mean the coaches are not impressed with what they’ve seen.

“We’re really, really pleased with both of them,” Kilgore said of Fishel and Shaw. “We’ve introduced them to the environment with little pressure. They’ve been dressed, had an opportunity to learn specific things and then got their first caps and then got extended point in time and made the most of it. We’re really, really pleased with how they’ve seized those opportunities.”

Both players entered the game at halftime as substitutes for Sophia Smith and Alex Morgan, and they established an easy connection in just their second career appearances for the USWNT.

“We never played together before. Since our first camp, we came in kind of together,” Fishel said. “She was my buddy from day one. Off the field just an amazing person. I think it showed on the field our connection off the field.”

Fishel scored the first goal of the match for the USWNT, and Shaw iced the win with her goal off an assist from Thompson. Shaw’s goal coming at at San Diego’s Snapdragon Stadium made it even more special for the Wave forward.

“It’s hard to believe that it even happened,” she said. “I saw Alyssa get the ball, I took off and she played the best ball ever. I did what I could to tap it in. I’m so so happy to have it here in San Diego and I’m so honored to be here.”

The patience shown by Shaw and Fishel as they acclimate to the national team environment has also been impressive, Kilgore said. She also noted that they are both “really solid” and “very talented” players.

“Whether you’re a young player of you’re a veteran player, the key is that you never know if you’re gonna get invited back,” Kilgore continued. “You have to compete daily for the minutes that you get. … You’ve got to be able to show that you can play at the international level and that your quality translates to this.

“Today was a really, really good day for them in terms of proving that they can execute. … Nothing’s promised to anybody. And I think that the path that we took with them proved that it’s good to take things slow and their futures are very bright.”

Girma, who already has become a staple on the USWNT backline, also was impressed by Shaw, she said after Sunday’s victory.

“I’m so happy for her. Only her second cap and getting a goal,” Girma said. “Just being so confident on the ball and really impacting the game in a positive way when she came in. It’s so impressive and she’s so young so I think the future’s so bright for her.”

Sophia Smith, Becky Sauerbrunn and Alex Morgan are among the 13 players at the U.S. women’s national team’s October training camp still competing in the NWSL playoffs.

All those players are seeking to strike a balance between focusing on their national team duties and staying sharp for the NWSL semifinals on Nov. 5. Smith, Sauerbrunn and the Portland Thorns will take on Lynn Williams and Gotham FC, while Morgan and the San Diego Wave will face Emily Sonnett and OL Reign.

Other players competing in the postseason include: Sam Coffey, Crystal Dunn and Olivia Moultrie with Portland; Naomi Girma and Jaedyn Shaw with San Diego; Midge Purce with Gotham FC; and Alana Cook and Sofia Huerta with OL Reign.

“You come into camp and it’s so busy because you have so many different meetings — a set piece meeting, a defenders meeting,” Sauerbrunn said after Thursday’s scoreless draw with Colombia. “And so you’re just trying to remember, OK, these are the national team tactics. And then you get back to Portland and it’s like you’ve got to relearn everything that Portland was doing. And so it is really tough.

“You have to be wherever you are and give it everything that you’ve got with the team that you’re with. But it can be really tough because, I’m so excited to be back with Portland as well, but also I really want to beat Colombia in a few days.”

The USWNT will face Colombia again at 5:30 p.m. ET Sunday to finish out the two-match friendly series.

The U.S. coaching staff is aware of its players’ dual priorities, and they are “managing minutes with players in different parts of the NWSL season,” interim head coach Twila Kilgore said Thursday.

“The key is just that when they do go in, that they make a difference that they’re asked to make,” Kilgore said.