“Just to let you know, I may need to step away to get my bagel.”
This is one of the first things Naomi Girma says to me as she meets with me for our virtual interview, at one of her favorite coffee shops Barefoot Café, in San Diego. There’s a still youthful tinge to her voice when she says this, iced coffee already in hand, the only real reminders that she’s all of twenty-two years old. I am her elder by a decent amount of years, and yet, I find myself trying to sit a bit straighter in the presence, as she calmly prepares to give me what turn out to be thoughtful answers to my questions.
Plenty of players have had plenty of praise for Naomi Girma, but Megan Rapinoe really laid out why she thinks Girma is a generational player for the #USWNT today here in Frisco. pic.twitter.com/EnFfLDF6SB— Meg Linehan (@itsmeglinehan) February 21, 2023
“There are very few players in my whole tenure that have that have stepped in and it’s just like ‘Oh yeah, that’s the first person on the team sheet’ type of player every single time…She’s just that good. I don’t think you can leave her off the field, calm, extremely smart.”
These are recent words of praise from USWNT veteran Megan Rapinoe when asked about Girma.
Those words, “calm” and “smart” are a consistent refrain from those who speak of Girma on the pitch. No rookie in the history of the NWSL, which celebrated its tenth season in 2022, is more decorated than San Diego Wave FC defender. She won both the Rookie of the Year Award and the Defender of the Year Award, was in the NWSL MVP race (which was won by one of her dearest friends, Sophia Smith), made the NWSL Best XI while also helping lead her team to the playoffs, the first expansion side to achieve that feat.
To say it was a breakout year for Girma would be an understatement. Very few players, particularly defenders, make an entire fan base sit up and take notice. Girma made the NWSL fan base and the USWNT fan base sit up and take notice in 2022.
I wanted to speak to the player who has garnered nearly universal praise and share about her journey through football so far, her village of support, what it means to be the first, and what’s next for a player that has been tagged by many as the next great center back.
Maleda and the Love of the Game
Naomi Girma’s path through soccer in the U.S. is a bit atypical, but gives us some insight into why she is so calm on the pitch at such a young age.
“I’m from San Jose and both my parents were born in Ethiopia. I started playing soccer with Maleda Soccer. And pretty much, it was just like a community getting together on the weekends,” Girma begins. Maleda Soccer became a space for the parents, all of whom were emigrants from Ethiopia, and their children, mostly first-generation Ethiopian-Americans, to build a support system while learning a familiar game. “It was like, the least amount of pressure you could have. They split us up into groups, the small kids, the medium-sized kids and the big kids. The dads were in charge. Most of the kids didn’t even like soccer.” she chuckles as she remembers her first moments of playing the beautiful game as a four-year old.
The lack of pressure as a child and playing the game within her tight-knit community, helps explain some of why Girma possess the calm she is so famous for. While most players her age were already on club teams, Girma started her career in a stress free environment, one she went back and visited, even through her time at Stanford University.
This communal strength, so intertwined with her Ethiopian heritage, would help fortify her as she began her club career with Central Valley Crossfire. While it was a “way to get out of going to the Y” Girma says, she was nervous for her tryouts, which occurred halfway through her season with Maleda. “I had never played outside of Maleda, where I was one of the better players. That didn’t really bother me, the nerves were more about new people.”
It should be noted, that this transition for Girma also meant going from one of many children playing soccer that came from the same community, to playing for a team where she was often the only Black child. “I think that was different, as far as it not only being new people, but not having others I could relate to, around. It didn’t really bother me when I was young, but I definitely started to notice in middle and high school.”
Despite her nerves, Girma made the squad with ease. She was asked to move up, but decided to stay at the lowest level for a season to play with her peers. Eventually, as has been the case throughout her young career, Girma moved up and didn’t look back. It was also during her time with Central Valley, that she began her time in the Olympic Development Program, at the encouragement of her coach Bob Joyce. “He made everyone try out. I was nervous because there was a lot of Cal North and I didn’t do ECNL. Confidence is big for me, but once I went out there, I was like ‘this is just soccer.”
Girma would be the only player from her team to make it, thus beginning her youth national team journey. The opportunity to try out was the way in for Girma, who knows she would not have been scouted otherwise. She quickly rose through the ranks in the system, keeping her trademark calmness that was fortified during her days with Maleda. When I ask Girma if there is a particular playing style attributed to Ethiopian soccer, she says not in the way that people attribute a style to a country like Brazil. “I try to bring that love and no pressure mindset. I think that’s why I still love it. Soccer is like something I stumbled upon and found that I really liked playing.” To Girma, that is what is most Ethiopian in her game, the thoughts of her parents and their sacrifices and the support of her community. “I just feel like that’s why I have that mentality, and that’s what helps me in the big moments, especially now.”
Girma’s next big moment came when deciding on where to attend college. “In our family, school was over soccer, any extracurricular activity for me and my brother.” She knew she wanted to stay in California, “I like the warm weather,” she says, and so, in ninth grade, she set her sights on Stanford. “That’s a really tough decision to make at 14, but I value my education really highly.” As Girma neared her junior and senior years. Stanford emerged as the best choice for both her academic and soccer goals. As history has told us, Girma ended up at Stanford, playing on one of the most competitive teams in the country while taking on the academic rigors of Stanford.
As was the case throughout her youth career, Girma thrived in the environment, meeting any new challenge she faced. She also played in an environment that taught defensive fundamentals to all players. “I feel like at a lot of schools, defending is optional for attackers. But it was very much an understanding [at Stanford] that if our attackers are not defending, we’re not going to be successful.” That defensive prowess and tenacity is also something passed down from class to class. Girma speaks of learning from players like former Stanford teammates Tierna Davidson and Alana Cook. Each class of defenders set the expectations for the next, guiding them in an ultra-competitive environment. This led to Stanford winning the Championship in 2019, and recognition of Girma’s talent only grew while at in college. Even with an ACL injury that delayed her senior national team start, Girma was pegged by many as the best defender in the college game.
In the midst of a pandemic, there was excitement in the NWSL. Despite the many issues off the pitch that came to light beginning with the NWSL Challenge Cup in 2020, there were two expansion teams, both from California, joining the league in 2022. After several Expansion Draft moves, San Diego Wave FC ended up with the number one pick in the 2022 Entry Draft. They would use that pick to build their defense first, and over Zoom selected Naomi Girma number one overall.
It was a pick that most who cover the game felt was a ‘can’t miss’. She would quickly prove everyone right.
On speaking of her transition to the professional level, Girma continued to exude her already legendary calmness. “I was actually at January camp [the de facto scouting camp for the USWNT] right before the start of my rookie season. So with that and Stanford, I was able to talk to a lot of pros like Sophia Smith, who was one of my best friends, and Ashley Sanchez who I grew up playing with. I wasn’t going in blind, but I didn’t know much about San Diego.”
While Girma speaks of the staff being supportive, it’s Casey Stoney who went a long way in making her first year a bit of a dream season. “Casey Stoney as a head coach played a huge role in my rookie year and will continue to play a role in my career. Having a coach that specializes in your position, especially as a center back, you don’t see that often.” Girma admits the transition may have been a bit less smooth without Stoney in place to help her navigate the position at the professional level, but it has never taken her long to adjust in any environment.
Naomi Girma hopes to pass that stability along to the next group of rookies coming onto the squad. In the midst of a universal love fest for Girma and her talents, a love fest which is well earned, I asked her if there was any part of her game she would like to improve in her second year as a professional. “Oh yeah, there’s so many things I could do better.” I pause momentarily at this, knowing that this is a player who rarely steps a foot wrong in defense and possess a underrated strength, to paraphrase Megan Rapinoe. After a thoughtful pause, Girma gives an answer worthy of a future captain. “As a team, I thought there were moments we could have played out of pressure better. Of course, there is a lot of pressure in the NWSL, but showcasing that ability will help us control the game more and keep possession. We were dangerous in attack, but we’d like to be better at that this year.”
Girma also wants to improve as a leader. “The coaches and staff had a lot of trust in me last season. I would like to work on being more vocal on the pitch this year, now that I have a season under my belt.”
It is obvious for both club and country that Naomi Girma has the trust of those around her, based on her composure, her skill and her soccer IQ. Her intelligence and ability to play unflustered, are not traits often attributed to Black players. It’s a testament to her talent that her physicality is underplayed, where most of her peers are overly burdened with labels like “pace” and “power.” While these perceptions are changing, they must still be challenged, and Naomi Girma is helping to do that with her play.
The game of soccer is often a microcosm of what is happening in larger society. I would be remiss, at the end of Black History Month, to not acknowledge the history Girma carries with her. She is the first player of Ethiopian descent to play in the NWSL and for the USWNT. I asked Girma what it meant to her to be the first. “To be the first Ethiopian-American, it made me feel really proud. My parents have put in so many sacrifices for me to be here. And like, the amount of community support I have is crazy! I go to this Ethiopian Restaurant, Red Sea, here in San Diego, and they’re just like ‘I’m so proud of you’,” she says with pride and the most youthful voice she’s had since the beginning of the interview. Girma continues on in that youthful amazement, “And like, I just met them. We don’t know each other. I’ve met most of the other Ethiopians I know through my parents, and they don’t know my parents either. They literally just know where I am [where I play] now. It makes me super proud that I can be that person, and I hope there are many more to come.”
It’s Naomi Girma’s commitment to her community and causes off the field that make her so well liked. Girma’s a member of the Black Women’s Players Collective, which she says was a comfort, knowing that there was a place she belonged before she ever kicked her first ball in the professional game. I also asked Girma what it is like to play for the USWNT at a time when more Black players are representing the US than ever before. “It’s a big moment. A huge moment. It’s one of those things where I remember watching soccer when I was younger and seeing very few people who looked like me. I think it’s so much harder to envision yourself there [the USWNT] when you don’t see it. So, being that representation for Ethiopian-American kids and Black kids is an honor and big responsibility and we talk about that.” Girma ends this particular train of thought by saying it’s a good feeling, not to be the only one and to have that additional support in place with teammates and the BWPC.
While Naomi Girma is committed to being a steadfast role model for her various communities, I took a moment to ask her about the player she looked up to. She gives a slight chuckle and says definitively “Becky Sauerbrunn! We looked at our old player bios before January camp in New Zealand. It was my U-17 bio and in it it said ‘Favorite Women’s player. Becky Sauerbrunn.’ I showed it to her in January and she said ‘you have to keep it.’” Parts of Sauerbrunn’s game have translated to Girma’s as she plays alongside her rode model for country. “She’s super composed, and that’s something I had always looked at.” Girma continues, “and she’s come up big in big moments. She’s always in the right place. I feel like positioning, knowing how to read players and the game, is a big piece of her game that I watched.”
It is no surprise then, that Girma is often compared to Sauerbrunn, showcasing the same attributes Sauerbrunn has for over a decade. In a center back partnership on the USWNT that feels like of master and apprentice, the end of Sauerbrunn’s career, whenever that may be, will be a coronation of Girma’s as the next great center back and leader. And while there are moments when she reminds us she’s still young, she is wise beyond her years in the areas that matter most. She won’t name the player she most wishes to play 1-v-1, not even off-the-record. “I don’t want to say a name and then have them gun for me.” Girma still takes time to enjoy the things that those who just left college a year ago would enjoy.
When we switch over to what she does off the field, Naomi Girma admits she’s not a water person but she does enjoy watching the sunset from the perches above the sand in San Diego. Girma also enjoys taking her friends and teammates to Red Sea, especially because she cannot go alone. “I have to bring at least four people. It’s too much food for just me.” Girma is also a self-described veracious reader and never goes anywhere without her Kindle, but on and off the pitch, she takes her teammates and her community with her, which means she’s never alone.
As Naomi Girma finishes the bagel that she ordered at the beginning of our interview, I wonder what I will write about her after this moment. There is already so much praise for her that I don’t know if I can add anything new to the narrative that’s building around her. Girma is everything that those who know her says she is, and she has a deep desire to get better on and off the pitch. She understands the weight of being this good, this young, and more than most at this level, she understands what being first means beyond herself. Even at twenty-two, Girma seems destined to become the next soccer royal, and she will have the support of Ethiopian-America and the Ethiopian Diaspora, as she ascends.
True to her name ‘Girma’ [Majesty in Amharic] she is fulfilling her destiny right in front of our eyes. All hail her majesty, Naomi Girma!