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The Support System That Sparked a USWNT Opportunity

For Naomi Girma, the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, her path to a soccer career, let alone the national team and its pivotal upcoming qualifying tournament, has been anything but standard.

If you drive through a canyon, past a candle shop cloaked in wandering vines, and turn down a dirt road, you enter the Del Mar Polo Fields, training home of the NWSL’s San Diego Wave. It’s also home to the Surf Cup and many other youth cups—and for quite a few of these Wave players, this place holds sentimental power: They grew up dreaming on these fields.

Now, as professionals, they have their own designated field, with a clubhouse in the works. Hills and eucalyptus trees rise up in the distance. Manager Casey Stoney, a former English national team player, can ride her bicycle to practice. There’s a breeze, sunshine and that distinct SoCal aura of laidback ease, of calm assuredness.

USWNT and San Diego Wave star Naomi Girma

Naomi Girma, the 22-year-old center back orchestrating the Wave’s backline, embodies that calm. She is 5'7" and Ethiopian American, with a wide, radiant smile and a svelte, silky way of moving. Like all great players, she seems a touch clairvoyant, solving the play ahead of time. One prescient shift left or right and the forward has nothing, no opening, no space, no ball. The Stanford grad with a 3.92 GPA majored in symbolic systems—which has something to do with the science of the mind and the development of artificial intelligence—and watching her read space, you sense she’s gleaned a superior understanding of both angles and human impulse. 

Girma has played every minute of every game for the first-place Wave this season. She was May’s NWSL Rookie of the Month, and USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski named her to his roster for the upcoming Concacaf W Championship, which doubles as 2023 Women’s World Cup qualifying and ’24 Olympic qualifying and begins Monday in Mexico. She started and played the entirety of Tuesday night’s weather-altered 2-0 friendly win over Colombia, the second cap of her burgeoning international career.

“None of my success would be possible without the community around me,” Girma says.

The following illustrates precisely what she means.

Ethiopian Highlands, late 1970s

Over 20 years before Girma was born in San Jose, Calif., her father, Girma Aweke, fled the corrupt dictatorship that destroyed his country and wiped out so many of his generation. He and four friends were on foot, somewhere in the Ethiopian Highlands, when he got sick with malaria, too sick to continue. He slipped in and out of consciousness. His friends helped him make it to a straw-thatched farmhouse, where strangers took him in. The family sat by his side, put a cool washcloth on his forehead, brought him coffee, lentils, injera; they nursed him back to health. He remembers those 10 days with clarity, how during the day the kids would bring in the cattle and the goats, how he and the family would sit around the campfire at night.

“I will never forget them,” says Aweke, who was in his late teenage years at the time. “This taught me that you have to believe in people—people are powerful. You can never let go; you can never forget them.”

Because of this family, he survived and his journey continued. He made it to Sudan, where he stayed with 15 others in a traditional hut and made daily trips to a U.N. office, until he became one of 5,000 refugees sent to San Francisco.

“I was given an opportunity,” he says. “Given an opportunity, a human being can be anything.”

He worked as a dishwasher and a busboy and paid his way through college. He got an electrical engineering degree and met his wife, Seble Demissie, through the Bay Area’s Ethiopian community. She, too, had a journey. The second-youngest of eight, she came over to the U.S. on her own when she was 21, pursuing her education. In 1997, their son, Nathaniel, was born, and three years later, came a daughter, Naomi. 

Naomi Girma has been a steady rookie for San Diego Wave

Girma has played every minute so far in San Diego’s NWSL expansion season.

Maleda Soccer Club, San Jose, 2005

Even now, on Saturday mornings at a local park, a group of Ethiopian families meet in the park to barbecue and watch the kids play football. The parents divide the kids by size—big, medium and small—and they play until they are tired. This little football club was Aweke’s idea. He grew up playing barefoot in the dirt lot next to the train station in Nazareth (now Adama) with his friends, and he would keep playing until he was 60, his teammates calling him “Mr. Midfielder.”

He has fond memories of making balls out of pressed leaves, of holidays spent walking the neighborhood with the other kids, talking the grown-ups into giving them change so they could gather up enough to buy a plastic ball from the store. It usually popped within a couple of days, but they could sometimes make it last if they wrapped it in socks.

“It was all fun,” Aweke says. So he wanted this football joy for his kids. They called their football club “Maleda,” which means “dawn” in Amharic, one of the main languages in Ethiopia. It’s a new beginning.

More than just soccer, it was also a way to help one another as they navigate between worlds.

“My parents didn’t know anything about the [American] systems—because they hadn’t lived it themselves, hadn’t gone to high school here. It was a lot of getting help from other people, who’d tell you things like, you need to get a good SAT score, that kind of thing,” Girma says. “When you’re a first-generation kid, you’re figuring out a lot of it through friends, through my parents asking around.” 

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YMCA, Hacienda Elementary School, 2009

At the YMCA after-school portable when Girma was 9, her best friend Jenna told her, “You like soccer. Just come to my practice; my grandpa will pick us up.” The practice was for her club team, the bottom division of Central Valley Crossfire.

They climbed into the small back seat of his 1990 Dodge Dakota truck, and they sat facing each other, knees touching, rock music playing on the radio. Girma remembers being nervous. They arrived at the Ida Price Community Park, and while Jenna slipped her shinguards under her socks, Girma strapped hers to the outside of her socks. The two met eyes, each looking at the other, like, “What are you doing?”

“I remember feeling a flicker of doubt,” Jenna confesses with a laugh. If my friend didn’t even know how to wear shinguards, how in the world was she going to perform on the field?

And then Girma dribbled from one side of the field to the other, weaving between players at full speed. “She blew us all away,” says Jenna.

The coach of Jenna’s team, Albert Batista, sought out Girma’s mother.

“Not finding a way for Naomi to play soccer would be a crime,” he said to her. “Even considering it would be a crime.”

Almost immediately, the club wanted to move Girma up to the top team, but she resisted.

“She told me, ‘I’m finishing this whole season with the blue team.’ And I really respected that even then, she had this sense of loyalty,” Seble says.

Plus, she knew switching teams meant switching practice times, which would mean she’d no longer have a ride. She stayed with her lower-division team. For the rest of the season, three times a week, Jenna’s grandpa or grandma fetched the girls for training. The grandparents asked them about their day and told jokes, and these pickup truck conversations illustrated the community and care that would shape her playing experience.

Sophia Smith and Naomi Girma are among NWSL’s rising stars

Girma defends against Portland’s Sophia Smith, another U.S. rising star, in an NWSL matchup.

Crossfire Red Team, 2010–17

The following season, when Girma did move to the top team, her mother stood up at the pizzeria during the first parents’ meeting.

“I am a working mom,” she said. “I don’t know how I will get her to practice.”

What Seble remembers most is that the whole room was ready to help. “They told me, ‘We’ve got her. Rides, finances, we’ll find a way.’ Almost every parent on that team would end up giving Naomi a ride,” Seble says. “That support is very, very important.”

Three days a week, Lani Thielmann picked Girma up from school.

“Her daughter, Kacie, didn’t even go to the same school as me. Her mom would come to my public school and get me … and then go to Kacie’s private school and pick her up and then drive us to practice,” Girma says, shaking her head. “I think it often goes unnoticed, but it’s so hard to get a kid to practice. Especially now with clubs, we’re practicing like four times a week. As a working mom, it was hard for my mom even to get there by the end of practice.”

But Seble would make it by the end, racing there from her job as a bank manager, packing the girls into her 1999 Camry and driving them back home.

In California, club-hopping is common; talented players usually leave smaller teams and drive down the freeway to a high-power ECNL team, the top level of competition, where they have a better chance to be seen, but Girma stayed with that local club for the next eight years, up until her team dissolved.

Playing locally meant it stayed about community, playing for fun with her closest friends. “I felt like I was protected from the pressure when it mattered,” Girma says, “where I could realize, ‘Oh, I really love this.’”

There’s a Wonder Years vibe to it all. The team put on garage sale fundraisers, and the girls biked through the neighborhood, calling out, “Garage sale for Crossfire!” They did footraces down cul-de-sacs, played soccer with their brothers at the park across the street and ate pretzels at Wienerschnitzel. On car rides home from practice and from tournaments, they talked. Girma remembers how her mother would sometimes drive really slowly when they were getting close to their destination.

“I’d say, ‘Mom, why are you driving so slow?’ Girma recalls. “And she’d say, ‘Because you are telling a story and I want to hear it!’”

Her coach, Bob Joyce, made sure the whole team knew about things like tryouts for the Olympic Development Program, which feeds into the junior national teams.

“I credit him so much with making sure we knew Naomi should be going to things like that,” says Seble. “We were not typical soccer parents. I did not know how it all worked.”

The day Seble got an email saying her daughter had been selected for the U-14 national team, she had no idea what it meant. Puzzled, she walked into Girma’s bedroom to wake her up, and she had no idea, either. “We almost thought it was a scam,” Girma says with a laugh. But the other Crossfire parents did know what it meant, and Girma had her chance.

Most kids at national camp are ECNL players; she wasn’t, and that worried her initially, but she was never outclassed. At the end of national camps, the coaches encouraged Girma to challenge herself, but not by leaving her local team.

“Someone told her there is such a thing as a guest player,” says Seble. So she kept playing on her local team and she also began going to practices and games with the De Anza Force. There was still no real notion of playing for a scholarship or an ability to be seen, though.

“The first time my club coach told me that a college coach wanted to talk with me, my reaction was, ‘What on Earth for?’ My parents and I had no idea soccer could get me a scholarship,” Girma says. “I guess I knew that happened to people, but I didn’t know that could happen to me.”

Musing on why there haven’t been more first-generation immigrants on the USWNT, Girma wonders whether it comes back to not knowing how it all works.

“You know, my parents had no idea about the college recruiting process. They didn’t even know how to get me onto a club team. Even, like, what is AYSO? The concept of rec—all these little things—you have to learn that, and if you didn’t grow up here, why would you ever know what AYSO is? You’re not going to look that up. So I feel like a lot of things fell in place on my path because of the people I was surrounded by, and I’m extremely thankful for that, because I know I would probably just still be playing at the park on Saturdays—still having fun, but I wouldn’t have gotten where I am today.”

Naomi Girma and her mother after the 2019 NCAA championship game

“I never dreamed or imagined that something like this would happen,” Seble, pictured with Girma after the 2019 NCAA championship game, says about her daughter’s career. “Anything is possible.”

NCAA College Cup, San Jose, 2019

On Dec. 8 at Avaya Stadium in Girma’s hometown, Stanford played UNC for the national championship. Girma, as a sophomore, was a team captain, and after Stanford beat UNC in a penalty shootout, Cardinal players sprinted and slid into one glorious dogpile.

When Girma walked to the family-and-friends section of the stands to find her parents, she saw even more: so many of her friends and family who helped her along the way. The Maleda Soccer Club—the kids she grew up playing with, the younger kids who are playing there now and all of their families—were together in the stands, waving excitedly, screaming and cheering proudly.

As a kid, she remembers a handful of moments “being ashamed of having another culture, when you want to just have the same as everyone else,” she says. “Now, when I look back, I’m like, that was so dumb to feel that way. But in the majority-white town where I grew up, even being Black was different, and then having this other culture also, it could be a little difficult. If my mom would speak in Amharic, I’d be like, Just speak in English around my friends, because I didn’t want them to feel left out.”

Standing on the field looking into the stands, she knew there were kids watching who could see themselves in her and in her other Stanford teammates—and feel both pride and possibility.

Stanford, 2020-21

In March 2020, just as the onset of the pandemic was hitting the U.S., Girma and the U.S. U-20 national team returned from World Cup qualifying in the Dominican Republic. By year’s end, she was named U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year, having captained the U-20s during qualifiers. But prior to that, after competing in a senior national team camp in October, she tore her ACL in Stanford training, and the pandemic was in full force. It was strange to receive the biggest award of her life while looking at months relegated to the sideline, in a world where everything was shut down. 

Blank slate in front of her, she grew contemplative. She’d always wanted to apply to the Mayfield Fellows Program, where 12 Stanford students, aspiring leaders, are chosen for an unparalleled and prestigious opportunity: a nine-month, world-class internship in high-tech entrepreneurship. Students learn how you actually go about creating start-ups and making things happen in Silicon Valley. Girma applied and was chosen, becoming part of yet another tight-knit cohort.

Her other such group, her Stanford team, lived together in a bubble. Campus was shut down and classes were virtual, and while this wasn’t the college experience anyone had imagined, they still enjoyed one another’s company. In the house, they daydreamed and plotted future adventures, imagining what life would be like when they were free and COVID-19 was gone. They would go to England, they would attend as many Premier League games as possible, they would set some kind of record.

Eventually, Girma was cleared to jog. Previously, when a teammate had reached this same ACL-recovery milestone, a bunch of them had huddled around her on the treadmill and whooped and cheered as she took those first steps. COVID-19 made it challenging to do something similar for Girma: Almost nobody was allowed on campus. If you didn’t have a special stamp on your badge granting you access into the training room, you weren’t getting in. But Girma’s best friend, Katie Meyer, had a not-to-worry, we-will-find-a-way sort of mentality. She went up to the desk at the entrance, gave them a show-your-teeth smile and displayed the backside of her Stanford college-athlete badge, on which she’d written “NAOMI’S BEST FRIEND.”

When security deemed this insufficient and shooed her away, Meyer headed to the window outside the training room. It’s that fancy tinted glass where you have to press your face right against it to see. Meyer did so, beaming and waving at her bestie. As Girma jogged for the first time, Meyer kept her forehead on the glass, pumping her fists and cheering on her best friend: “YES, Nay, YES.”

Virtual NWSL draft, London, 2021

In December, four friends went on that dream trip to England: Girma, Meyer, Stanford teammate Sierra Enge and another friend, Kendall Titus, a lightweight rower. COVID-19 protocols had lifted just enough to take the trip they’d dreamed of: They went to six games—they saw Arsenal, Man City, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal Women.

The NWSL draft fell on a day during their trip, and the friends were ready for it: They hauled in a painting and a lamp from the bedroom and propped it up over the couch, rather pleased with themselves and the Zoom backdrop they’d created. In the shot, you see the four friends squeezed onto the couch: When Girma was selected No. 1, the three friends shook her and screamed, while Girma couldn’t stop giggling.

On the phone, her parents started crying. “Oh, Naomi!” her mother said. “Remember when we drove everywhere, our Camry took us everywhere! All those rides together—they were all worth it!”

“She cherished those car rides as much as the games,” Girma says with a smile.

As Aweke says, “It has been quite a journey.”

San Diego, 2022

Down the coast from where Girma grew up, she began her professional career. She liked being on an expansion team. As a rookie, you usually enter a premade universe; here, they are all new to each other, and together they are creating what they want this place to be. At practice every day, she’s playing against one of the best forwards in the world, Alex Morgan. Her coach, Stoney, played in three World Cups as a center back and gives off quiet resolve. There is no one better to offer Girma positional insights.

But a month into her new life, Girma got the shattering news: Meyer was found unresponsive in her dorm, her death ruled a suicide. Girma had lost her best friend.

Throughout her entire college career, Meyer was by Girma’s side. Freshman year they rode bikes together to practice; Meyer’s was electric and Girma’s wasn’t and Girma is a self-described slow bicyclist, but Meyer would coast along ever so slowly to stick with her friend. When Girma thought about applying for the Mayfield Fellowship, Meyer was the one who had encouraged her.

If you watch that draft video of the four friends in London, while Girma watches the draft on-screen, Meyer focuses only on Girma, sneaking one loving glance after another, brimming with pride.

“She was a light. She made everyone around her shine,” Girma says. “She taught me to not overthink things, to just go try things. She was the biggest hype person—always, ‘You should do it, Nay.’ She impacted the way I think. I’m so lucky to have had her as a best friend during the most formative years.”

Naomi Girma was close friends with Stanford teammate Katie Meyer

Girma traveled to London with Meyer (left in left photo), paid tribute to her at Stanford graduation and wears a wristband with her initials.

On Instagram, Girma posted a tribute reel “[to celebrate] you the only way I know how—a reel and one of many songs you loved to scream in the car.” That song is Matt Maeson’s “Hallucinogenics.”

As Maeson sings ’Cause I just couldn’t open up, I’m always shiftin’, there’s a montage of friendship: There’s a shot from Meyer’s 21st birthday—when Girma and Enge drove her blindfolded to a mystery location and Meyer took off her blindfold, Golden Gate Bridge before her, rising out from the fog. Meyer exclaims, “This is the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen!” There’s a lightsaber battle in a dining hall, campouts in a sea of blankets, poses at a subway stop in London, bear hugs on a field in a sea of championship confetti. In a back seat, with the overhead car light making their eyes shine, they sing into their mike-shaped fists, lean into one another, and laugh until they’re struggling for air.

In her caption, Girma wrote: “Most of all, thank you for being my truest friend in every way. I love you forever. Until we meet again, Nay.”

At the Stanford graduation, for Wacky Walk, where outgoing seniors dress in homemade costumes with personal significance, Girma, Catarina Macario and Sam Hiatt went Star Wars–themed, in honor of Meyer. They jousted for her, extending their lightsabers toward the sky. And the Mayfield Fellow has an idea in the works: It’s still forming, and she doesn’t know exactly yet what all it will be—but she knows Meyer will be at the heart of it.

“I want it to be something that would have helped her,” Girma says.

Girma’s father’s words—People are powerful. You can never let go; you can never forget them—have been at the center of their lives since that day in the mountains of Ethiopia. Both he and Seble have instilled this value in their children. The “community” Girma speaks of is a wide prism of faces. It is her father and the Maleda Soccer Club; it is Jenna at the YMCA after-school program and her grandparents in the pickup truck; it is neighborhood bike rides with Crossfire; it is her mother and those car-ride conversations during odysseys across the state; it is her Stanford team and Meyer shouting, YES, NAY; it is watching sunsets in Del Mar and winning games in Torero Stadium with her Wave teammates.

A letter written by Naomi Girma’s friend Jenna

A letter written and preserved by Girma’s childhood friend Jenna.

Recently Jenna stumbled upon an old letter that her 15-year-old self had written to her future self. It is full of questions written in red-orange marker. Did I end up at Cal Poly or Sonoma State? Do you still play soccer? Are you still friends with Naomi Girma? And, Is Naomi a soccer star?

Yes, she is. The kid who once put her shinguards on the outside of her socks now has her face on a billboard at Fashion Valley Mall in San Diego. (Her father’s old football friends call him and tell him excitedly, “Mr. Midfielder, I saw your daughter on a billboard!”)

She also has a life off the field. As she orchestrates the Wave’s backline, she is simultaneously getting her master’s in management science and engineering. And in the coming weeks, Girma and the U.S. will attempt to qualify for the two competitions that will define the team’s next two years. She doesn’t know yet whether she will see minutes—but if she does, you can bet her communities will be watching.

Gwendolyn Oxenham just launched the audio docu-series HUSTLE RULE, hosted by Ted Lasso’s Hannah Waddingham, which is based on her book Under the Lights and in the Dark: Untold Stories of Women's Soccer. Check out a trailer here. She also made Pelada, a documentary about pickup games around the world.

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