It’s always important with young players not to get ahead of yourself in terms of expectations. Youth and inconsistency, battling with hype and big expectations, means players are saddled with being the “Next Big Thing” too early, or they don’t live up to the projections as often as you’d like.
But I’m ready to declare Naomi Girma is the real deal and is already a star in plain sight.
The San Diego Wave FC rookie has been the picture of consistency, a new pro who is anchoring the backline of an expansion team in first place. And she’s not been a passenger, either. With Abby Dahlkemper dealing with injury and illness for much of the season, Girma hasn’t had the luxury of taking some lumps and having the veteran Dahlkemper there for cover. Instead, she’s been tasked with being ready to be the anchor, and she’s passed that test with flying colors.
In 2022 to date, Girma has played 20 games total for San Diego and the United States Women’s National Team, starting and going the full 90 in 19 of those matches. In the 1,736 minutes she’s been on the field, her teams have conceded just 15 goals. That’s a goal about every 116 minutes, so less than a goal a game on average. Now, it’s notable that in four games with the USWNT, they’ve yet to concede with her on the field, which given the national team’s track record in friendlies and Concacaf tournaments, isn’t surprising. But even if you take away the national team games, San Diego concede a goal on average about every 92 minutes when she’s playing, and that includes the bumpy Challenge Cup games for Wave FC.
Now just 22, Girma was a hyped prospect coming out of Stanford, and her selection at No. 1 overall by San Diego in the NWSL Draft was not a surprise, but it’s been remarkable just how well she’s adjusted to the pro game. While Girma does not have size and concedes height to most forwards, her strength in defense is to read plays. Like Becky Sauerbrunn, Girma is not big on bodying up attackers, or on making tackles, but instead anticipating the play and intercepting the ball or cutting off passing or shooting lanes. Obviously it’s still a small sample size but she seems to have mastered that.
Girma started the last two group stage games for the USWNT at the Concacaf W Championship. With Vlatko Andonovski mixing things up in this tournament, his first with a mostly-younger cohort of players, it at first looked like Girma would have to bide her time to get on the field. With the USWNT traditionally very slow to change the guard, with many key players struggling to find playing time for their country as they approach the age of 30, I thought Girma would be brought along slowly and maybe she’d truly get her chance in a tournament or three.
Instead, she got the nod against Jamaica and then again against Mexico. And again, with the U.S. holding a ridiculous shutout record in World Cup qualifying (32 in 36 games), maintaining a shutout is good but maybe not an incredible accomplishment in itself.
But while the game against Mexico, a nervy 1-0 win that featured a winning goal in the 89th minute for the Americans, was a close battle that needed defense to be stout throughout, Girma has impressed in the W Championship in particular with her passing.
She set up the opening goal in the 5-0 win over Jamaica, with a long distance dime to the flank to Sophia Smith. While Smith had work to do to get the goal, Girma’s vision to get the chance going was truly stunning.
That is Girma’s first assist of the year, but there was more where that came from in the two USWNT games in the last week. For large stretches of that game against Jamaica and roughly the first 25 minutes against Mexico, Girma was the passing metronome from the back. With overmatched teams tending to sit in a mid or low block against the USWNT, making incisive switches and plain ‘ole balls over the top at times is necessary to open up the field and generate legitimate chances. Girma showed not only does she have the defensive chops to play center back, but she has a midfielder’s passing range and is already ready to use it.
This development, to someone like me who has watched all of Girma’s San Diego games this year, was stunning. The main reason is that Girma does not make these passes very much with Wave FC. Her go-to move as San Diego play out of the back is to hit a quick pass to the fullback or a short pass up to the deepest midfielder.
I think there’s a few reasons for that. First, I think Dahlkemper, who is known to be an excellent passer herself, was probably projected to be the player to break lines from the back with her balls forward and big switches for San Diego, and I will hazard a guess that Wave FC coach Casey Stoney, trying not to overload the rookie, did not want to put too much on her plate.
On top of that, San Diego haven’t really needed to play that way, by and large. As an expansion team, opponents aren’t parking the bus and holding on for dear life, they expect to dominate San Diego and more often than not been given a harsh lesson in that regard. Stoney has shown a pragmatic approach with the first-year team in terms of adjusting tactics, but they prefer to hold possession and build out of the back more often than not. In that regard, having a center back ping passes 40 yards obviously opens up the possibility of losing possession altogether, and so playing safer, shorter passes and building up a rhythm has been Wave FC’s standard of play.
So it looks like Girma has demonstrated in fact, she has another tool in her toolbox, and I would not be shocked if Stoney opts to have Girma and Dahlkemper alternate some playmaking from the back at times moving forward. And while I don’t know if Andonovski will take Girma out of the lineup at the W Championship now that they’ve reached the knockouts, I think regardless she’s moved up the depth chart at CB for her country and even if she comes out of the lineup, she could be in contention as soon as next year’s World Cup to be a regular. If nothing else, it’s pretty clear in less than six months of her pro career, Girma is legit, and is a budding star for club and country right now.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.