How Naomi Girma broke through soccer’s systemic barriers to become a USWNT star

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The curious email slid unannounced into Seble Demissie’s inbox on her final weekend of innocence. She opened it on a Sunday morning in August 2014, with her soccer world still small and her daughter, Naomi Girma, still asleep. “Dear Athlete,” it began. “Congratulations! You are part of the initial group of players selected to the roster for the upcoming U.S. Soccer Under-14 Girls’ National Team training camp.” Demissie read it, and read it again, perplexed.

It was meant, of course, for Naomi, a teen destined for Women’s World Cup stardom.

But when Mom entered her bedroom early that morning, she didn’t come to celebrate the invitation; she came confused.

“My mom thought it was fake,” Girma says. “I didn’t know it was real.”

They both knew she was a precocious, graceful midfielder-turned-defender, but neither knew that a U-14 national team even existed — because it lived within an exclusive, convoluted pathway that so often eludes first- and second-generation Americans like Naomi.

As the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants in San Jose, California, she grew to love the game but struggled to comprehend the systems that govern it. “There wasn’t, like, this path that we had seen drawn out,” Girma says; and her parents, who came to America in their 20s, had never navigated it. They didn’t know where to find a competitive club or exposure within youth soccer’s alphabet soup of leagues and sanctioning bodies; and even if they did, they’d need rides and money to access it.

They ultimately gained access via sacrifice and support. Teammates’ parents arranged carpools; coaches flagged opportunities. Naomi learned of an Olympic Development Program tryout, made her regional team, and flickered onto U.S. Soccer’s U-14 radar. When she got the national team invite, she shrugged it off and focused on her game that day, 30 minutes away in Palo Alto; but Demissie showed the email to their local club team’s manager, Jill Baldwinson, whose reaction was immediate: “Wow, congratulations!” (In other words: Yes, this is real!)

So Naomi jetted off to Florida two weeks later. She settled in for a welcome meeting, and her eyes bulged in amazement. She was already feeling out of place, surrounded by girls from the vaunted Elite Clubs National League; then head coach April Kater flipped to a PowerPoint slide with a depiction of a pyramid. It illustrated the path from clubs to youth national teams to the U.S. women’s national team. “Whoa!” 14-year-old Naomi thought. “That’s crazy!”

United States' Naomi Girma, front, controls the ball as Vietnam's Nhu Huynh (9) chases during the first half of the Women's World Cup Group E soccer match between the United States and Vietnam at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, Saturday, July 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)
Naomi Girma made her World Cup debut as a starter for the USWNT against Vietnam at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, Saturday, July 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

She soon climbed the pyramid, and now stands atop it, as an undisputed USWNT starter. She debuted at the World Cup on Saturday, at age 23, and “looked like she has three World Cups behind her,” USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “So comfortable and flawless.”

But she still thinks about the climb; about the dozens of generous people and happenstance events that enabled it. She thinks about the socioeconomic barriers she overcame; but also about the thousands, perhaps millions of kids who can’t overcome them, because they don’t get similar support, and never get access to the pyramid’s base.

“I feel like I got really lucky,” Girma told Yahoo Sports in an interview this spring. “Because, like, with one person not being there, that could’ve been me.”

I feel like I got really lucky. Because, like, with one person not being there, that could’ve been me.

‘She would pick things up like that’

The Naomi Girma story begins a world away from the USWNT, in 1970s Ethiopia, an East African country plagued by conflict and authoritarianism. Girma Aweke, Naomi’s father, was a young leader within a clandestine group that opposed the Derg dictatorship. As violent crackdowns intensified, and took the lives of his friends, he fled — first on foot to Sudan, and eventually to the United States. He settled in the Bay Area, where he later met Demissie, who’d also come from Ethiopia to pursue school and a career. They had a son, Nathaniel, in 1997; and three years later a daughter, Naomi.

And before long, they could tell she was gifted.

She’d follow Nathaniel to the local YMCA or a nearby park, to the monkey bars or the basketball court, and she’d learn without being taught. “She would observe what he did,” Demissie remembers. “And she would pick things up like that.”

She also took to soccer once a week, on Saturday mornings. Her dad would organize the games. He called them Maleda Soccer, but really they were community gatherings. Ethiopian American kids would scurry about in oversize jerseys, divided into three groups: big, medium and little. Their parents, meanwhile, would barbecue and help one another navigate life in a foreign land. They, like millions of other immigrants, found various American institutions difficult to decipher. And one of the many was youth soccer.

Naomi came home one day from elementary school and asked Demissie: “Mom, can you sign me up for soccer like [her friend] Jenna?”

Demissie knew nothing about soccer sign-ups, so she asked Jenna’s mom, a neighbor and family friend, who broke the unfortunate news: “You just missed the tryout.”

But opportunity soon knocked; the team had thinned, and a spot opened. Naomi hopped into the back of Jenna’s grandparents’ truck and cruised to her first official soccer practice. Demissie, who worked 9-to-5 at a bank, arrived after work for pick-up to learn that Naomi had wowed with her skill. So she filled out paperwork to formalize Naomi’s place on the Central Valley Crossfire blue team. And together, they ventured off into a world that neither of them understood.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 21: Naomi Girma #4 of USA celebrating during the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group E match between USA and Vietnam at Eden Park on July 22, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Lynne Cameron/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Naomi Girma celebrates during the USWNT’s 3-0 win over Vietnam in their World Cup opener. (Photo by Lynne Cameron/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Navigating the youth soccer maze, with a lot of help

There was also a Crossfire red team, and a white team. “It was top team, middle team, lower team,” Girma explains now, but at the time, even this arbitrary hierarchy seemed “weird.” The club eventually nudged Girma up to the red team. But the leap came with side-effects, challenges that countless working-class families have encountered in a soccer industry largely headquartered in suburbia.

“I think people underestimate how challenging it is to get rides when both your parents work full-time, and training’s at like 3 or 4 p.m.,” Girma says.

Other parents eagerly volunteered, and sometimes made multiple afternoon stops — one at Girma’s public school, another at their daughter’s private school — to scoop her up and get her to practice. She knows that thousands of kids nationwide don’t get similar lifts. “Sometimes people don’t even wanna ask for help,” she notes, because they “feel embarrassed.” She’s grateful that her parents spoke up.

She’s also grateful that she had a Crossfire coach, Bob Joyce, who knew the dates and times for ODP tryouts.

She eventually learned from peers that she could “guest play” for elite clubs while still remaining loyal to Crossfire, which she did.

She’s grateful that her mom was willing to shuttle her around the Bay to soccer events in their turn-of-the-century Toyota Camry whenever possible.

She’s grateful that U.S. Soccer found her off the beaten path, and that teachers and school administrators would accommodate her when youth national team trips took her away from class.

“At every stage, somehow, the right person would come along at the right time,” Demissie marvels.

And if they hadn’t?

“Oh my,” Demissie says. “Maybe she would still be playing in the park somewhere.”

Girma’s authentic self shines in World Cup debut

At every stage, of course, Girma’s talent also propelled her toward the next one. She accelerated from U-14s to U-17s, and then to Stanford. She captained the Cardinal to a national championship. She became a No. 1 overall draft pick. She claimed the National Women’s Soccer League defender of the year award as a rookie, and earned her place in the USWNT starting 11. Along the way, teammates and coaches raved about her silky on-ball skill and precocious maturity.

They also hail her soccer IQ and all-around intelligence. Girma majored in “symbolic systems” — a blend of computer science, psychology, philosophy and linguistics — at Stanford, and graduated with a 3.92 GPA. She’s now working intermittently toward a Master’s degree in management science and engineering. She’s also using her platform, even as a World Cup first-timer, to spearhead a mental health initiative and perhaps save lives.

“You can tell that she’s not only one of the best center backs in the world,” says Lilli Barrett-O’Keefe, the executive director of Common Goal USA, who helped Girma launch the initiative. “She is one of the loudest advocates that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. It’s incredible.”

But perhaps her most celebrated attribute, years ago and today, is her calmness.

And its source, ironically, is her upbringing. It shielded her from pressure and gave her space to love the game. Her parents never pushed her toward a college scholarship or the pros. “That,” Demissie says, “was not our gameplan at all.”

Instead, she’d tell young Naomi: “If you make it, you make it. No stress. Just do your very best. And whatever it is, make sure you have fun.”

On Monday here in Auckland, Girma recalled that advice. It’s now engrained in her approach to soccer. She felt the customary nerves ahead of her World Cup debut, “but once the whistle blew,” she said, “I did feel that calmness, that confidence.”

“My mom always tells me: ‘Just be yourself and have fun,’” Girma reiterated. “And that’s something I’ve stuck to since I was a kid.”