As a young child in San Jose, California, Naomi Girma would come to the park every Saturday morning to play a variant of soccer that was “as informal as you can imagine,” she says today.
The children were divided into three groups by the adults: small, medium and large. From there, the kids hit the road, their voices cutting through the fresh California air, uninterrupted by formal coaching.
Girma never made it into the big kid group – which still upsets her, she jokes – but for good reason. By the time she reached the third grade, Girma’s talent had become apparent. She entered the formal, competitive US youth soccer landscape and rose from the complicated system she and her parents learned on the fly to her current position as a rising star on the United States women’s national team.
“I just walked in [soccer], and I’m very grateful that I did that,” Girma tells the Guardian. “It has always existed.”
Girma will most likely play an important role as USA centre-back as USA win an unprecedented third straight World Cup this summer. She just turned 23 last month but has already positioned herself as one of the United States’ next great central defenders, combining her exceptional one-on-one defense with a calmness on the ball to unleash attacks.
Who Girma is today – as a player and as a person – was shaped by her formative years growing up in the Bay Area. Her father, a refugee from Ethiopia who arrived in San Francisco in the early 1980s, started these Saturday morning meetings in the park as the founding of the Maleda Soccer Club, “maleda” meaning “dawn” in one of the Ethiopian languages.
The purpose was, and still is, to bring Ethiopian families together — it is estimated that tens of thousands of Ethiopians live in the Bay Area today — and strengthen community ties. Those Saturday mornings were also the start of Girma’s football career.
“I think it made me really value the community and family,” says Girma. “I feel like that’s a big part of Ethiopian culture and it’s not always that big in American culture. So my parents wanted to make sure that we instilled that in us from a young age.”
Saturdays in the park soon became weekly jaunts around California for Girma. Their mother, who also came to the United States from Ethiopia, drove them around in her dark blue 2000 Toyota Camry. Together, they figured out America’s complicated pay-to-play youth soccer system at the country’s largest talent factory. For Girma’s mother, who did not share a football background with her husband, some lessons were a little easier. Explaining the offside rule to her mother was a special process, Girma recalls.
Those years paved Girma’s path to Stanford University, the prestigious school where she achieved near-perfect grades in symbolic systems — a combination of “mind and machine” in a world steeped in technology and artificial intelligence — before earning her master’s degree in management and engineering .
In 2019, she led the Stanford women’s soccer team to an NCAA national championship in her hometown. Then came the professional and international opportunities.
Even as the stakes on the field rose, Girma – “No,” as most know her – stayed grounded. Her joy is undiminished, summed up in a beaming smile that she carries with her on and off the pitch.
“I don’t think I’ve met anyone as good as her and didn’t realize that he was as good as her,” said Casey Stoney, Girma’s head coach at San Diego Wave FC of the National Women’s Soccer League. “She’s so humble. Humility is a big thing for her, but I try to show her how good she is at the same time, so she plays with that confidence every week.”
Stoney insisted to her team’s management that the Wave put the top pick in the 2022 draft on Girma. Most players are either good defenders or can spread the ball. Girma does both, Stoney said recently. Stoney would know, having played for England at three World Cups as a defender.
“I wasn’t half as good as what [Girma] is and can be,” Stoney said recently. Stoney spoke about Girma in response to the club’s announcement that it would extend the defender’s contract long-term, keeping her at San Diego until 2026.
It doesn’t take long to recognize Girma’s unique abilities in this position. Less than five minutes into last year’s World Cup qualifier against Jamaica, Girma hit a diagonal ball to Sophia Smith, who brilliantly punched her defender and scored for the United States.
Girma attributes her ball skills to having spent most of her youth career as a central midfielder. As a teenager, she was trained as a central defender for the USA youth national teams.
“Hit any type of ball: hit it, knock it over,” Girma says of her strengths, before pausing to say she still needs to improve on that skill, along with about 10 others on her list. “I think having that from a centre-back is so dangerous because you never know what to expect as the team builds up and that makes the midfielders and forwards even more dangerous and gives them more time.”
Last season, Girma was named NWSL Rookie of the Year and Defenseman of the Year while also finishing in the finals for MVP. She was instrumental in the success of a San Diego team that conceded the second fewest goals in the league and spent half the season at the top of the table. Girma did so in an even bigger role than expected after 2019 world champions’ centre-back Abby Dahlkemper was out through most of the year through injury. Girma admits she was stretched out of her comfort zone.
“I think it was up to me to find my voice and then put myself in a position to find my voice and take a leadership role in that role as the season progressed,” she says. “It just pushed me even more.”
A similar situation is currently playing out at international level. United States captain Becky Sauerbrunn, the center-back who anchored the team’s 2015 and 2019 triumphs, will miss this World Cup with a foot injury. The news was only confirmed in mid-June, adding to a long list of serious injuries for the US.
Previously, Girma competed alongside Sauerbrunn for a starting XI role. Due to Dahlkemper’s continued absence, there was a particular need in the United States for a player capable of precise and long-range play, a hallmark of Dahlkemper at his best.
Given Sauerbrunn’s injury, Girma is almost certainly a regular who needs to take a leadership role again. Girma and Alana Cook, the other regular centre-back in the regular rotation, have won 41 caps between them; Sauerbrunn has 216.
US head coach Vlatko Andonovski now has to come up with a new plan. The combination of Girma and Cook makes sense, although Julie Ertz could return from the defensive midfield role to centre-back, where she played at the 2015 World Cup.
Andonovski was also a defender as a player and knows his young centre-backs are just beginning their careers. Mistakes are to be expected, he says. Girma is “one of those special players” who makes fewer mistakes than most – but she’ll make them anyway.
“Unfortunately, to become a good defender, you make a few mistakes and sometimes it costs you a lot, sometimes it doesn’t,” says Andonovski. “With Naomi we see potential and we understand that at the stage she is in she will make mistakes and we are okay with that and we will still support her because we know she will be one of the most important players. “this team.”
It’s possible that three of the four US defenders are playing in their first major international tournament. How they fare in their biggest stress test to date will have a huge impact on the team’s success. Girma plays the field with a palpable calm that reflects her inner state.
“I try to keep a cool head during the game,” she says. “I think that helps me to perform better. I think my head is also calm.”
It is important for Girma to keep an overview, her past serves as a motivation for her present. There are her parents and her older brother, whom she still sees often thanks to the proximity to San Diego. There’s the best friend she lost in early 2022, former Stanford teammate and goaltender Katie Meyer, who was found dead in her dorm room, which was ruled a suicide.
“My parents came here from Ethiopia and sacrificed a lot to get me into this position,” Girma said. “All the work they have done, their support and their love is a huge drive for me.
“And my best friend, Katie, passed away last year. Play for her, honor her: She was one of the most competitive people, loved football. I think it’s a big thing for me to carry on her legacy.”
Next up is the first Senior World Championships in Girma. A game in Auckland, New Zealand – or Sydney, Australia if the United States makes it to the final) – is so far from a quiet park in San Jose, California for Girma that it draws millions of viewers.
Still, the game is fun. She’s still no. And she still carries the joy of Saturday morning kick-arounds – this time finally with the big kids.