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Why Naomi Girma could be the USWNT’s most important player at the World Cup

Girma is everywhere she needs to be at exactly the right time. Will this summer’s World Cup be her breakout moment?

© Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Five months out from the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and the United States women’s national team appears undecided on its center-back situation. Three players are battling for two positions. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski rotated his pairings in the recent SheBelieves Cup — Alana Cook and Becky Sauerbrunn against Canada; Cook and Naomi Girma against Japan; Girma and Sauerbrunn against Brazil.

Of this trio, Girma is the most junior. At 22, she is three years younger than Cook. She is also the least experienced, with 14 caps to Sauerbrunn’s 214. However, over the last few months, Girma has made a strong case for being the first defender Andonovski writes down on his team sheet when the World Cup begins. The question is: Will she be?

There were times in the SheBelieves Cup where the U.S. leaned on its back line, particularly in the 1-0 win over Japan. Japan dictated play early, then attacked in waves in the second half, searching relentlessly for an equalizer. The Americans required a solid performance from goalkeeper Casey Murphy, and duly got one. They also needed their defense to engage more than usual to stop attacks getting that far, and Girma led the way, obstructing shots, cutting out through balls, heading away crosses.

The minute preceding the game’s only goal was a microcosm of what makes the youngster so reliable. On 43 minutes and 19 seconds, she intercepted a pass to prevent Japanese striker Riko Ueki from getting in on goal, then slid in to stop Yui Hasegawa from having a clear shooting chance. Ten seconds later, Girma made a headed clearance to repel a long ball, helping the U.S. defense move up the field. There was no switching off, no loss of focus, no slowing down as she fended off attack after attack. It was a comprehensive, resilient display.

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