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San Diego Wave FC 2022 Player Postmortem: Naomi Girma

This is a generational talent here, folks.

NWSL: OL Reign at San Diego Wave FC Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Naomi Girma was not projected to be San Diego Wave FC’s first-ever NWSL College Draft selection, but very quickly it became obvious she was the right choice.

The Stanford center back was coming off a torn ACL, which probably lowered her draft stock a bit, but Wave FC evidently knew she was healthy and ready for action, and in hindsight, they look like geniuses for taking a player who may be a genuine generational talent at her position.

To say Girma’s rookie season was excellent would be an understatement. It was unprecedented. While just a year before, Trinity Rodman raised the bar for NWSL rookies and had an outstanding debut season from an attacking position, Girma didn’t have the highlight plays Rodman put together, but she looked like a 10-year veteran nearly every game, and ended up winning two individual awards in her debut season, which was literally unprecedented.

Here are Girma’s stats with San Diego in 2022:

Naomi Girma San Diego Wave FC 2022 Statistics

2022 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
2022 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
Challenge Cup 6 5 476 0 0 0 0 0 0
Regular Season 19 19 1,710 0 0 0 0 1 0
Playoffs 2 2 210 0 0 0 0 0 0
Total 27 26 2,396 0 0 0 0 1 0

The box score looks extremely boring for Girma, which makes some sense considering she wasn’t a scoring threat. She doesn’t rack up fouls so she tallied just one card all year. But as a center back, Girma looks like the generational successor to Becky Sauerbrunn, and there are clear parallels to their games: Cerebral, positionally aware so as to limit the need to use physicality, able to hold their gravity in the back as the backline anchor. While height isn’t as important in the women’s game, Girma is actually small, but it didn’t really stop her whatsoever.

And while she isn’t a playmaker, I think Girma has a bright future as a passer. When she started the season with Wave FC, her passing range was limited — she would normally get the ball quickly to the left back, and drop back into position. But starting with her performances at the Concacaf W Championship with the U.S. Women’s National Team in the summer, Girma began spraying the ball, becoming a metronome for her team from the back. Given her range and ability to hit a variety of passes on a consistent basis, she returned to San Diego and unleashed that passing ability.

One notable example of this came in the playoff win over the Chicago Red Stars. In the final half hour of regulation, Girma, who had been a non-factor in the game to that point, pushed forward into midfield to get on the ball. She began claiming the ball, getting some touches, and sending passes around the field. She didn’t just launch it to Alex Morgan up top for the Hail Mary assist, but the effect was to give San Diego a rhythm in the match that they had been lacking. The effect was obvious: Wave FC settled down and ended up flipping the result in their favor. Without having to hold on for dear life as Chicago pushed the tempo, Girma’s stability translated to the rest of the team, and while it didn’t show up on the stat sheet, it was vital on both sides of the ball.

Again, the stats don’t jump out for Girma, even the advanced stats. Here Goals-added mark from ASA on the year was +0.85, and her scouting report graph doesn’t leap out at you, although she was elite at tackles and strong in clearances and passing in general.

I think ultimately, Girma’s game is rather subtle. She can put up an eye-catching performance — her regular season finale was a masterclass in holding off an opponent for 90 minutes, for example — but most of the time she’s so steady that you don’t really notice all the work she’s doing on the field. She’s more of the connecting tissue of Wave FC, an automatic starter who doesn’t mess up, anchors the defense, and can be the metronome to give her side a rhythm in possession. Sounds good!

As a result, after showing this in her rookie season, Girma was voted both NWSL Rookie of the Year and NWSL Defender of the Year, an NWSL MVP finalist and an NWSL Best XI selection. On a team in which Abby Dahlkemper was expected to be the centerpiece of the defense and Girma would learn from the USWNT veteran, Dahlkemper being out with injuries and illness for much of the season meant Girma had to step up. She got the call to make her USWNT debut and impressed Vlatko Andonovski, appearing to force her way into his reckoning moving forward.

Frankly, I think this is just the beginning for Girma. Her maturity is off the charts, she adjusted to the professional game like few players we’ve ever seen, and she seems to be on the cusp of truly taking a stranglehold on a starting spot for the U.S. I think if she’s healthy, she’ll be on the roster for the World Cup next year, and could very well start there. And with San Diego, I can’t imagine she’s going anywhere unless she wants to. She has to be the primary building block on a talented team given her age and position and given Wave FC picked her to begin with, I can’t imagine they have any plans to part ways with her willingly.

She may be a center back with a subtle game, but Naomi Girma is already a star, and her many plaudits in 2022 were richly deserved. Long may her stellar form continue, and I can’t wait to see how her game grows from here.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.