Naomi Girma still seeking her full potential as a next-gen USWNT star

With teenager Jaedyn Shaw and Alex Morgan, who is not a teenager, combining for three first-half goals, the U.S. women’s national team routed Argentina 4-0 in group play of the CONCACAF W Gold Cup on Friday, running its unbeaten streak to 21 games.

Unbeaten in regulation time, that is.

The qualifier is important because four of those games ended in ties, including a scoreless draw with Sweden in the round of 16 at last summer’s World Cup. Sweden ended up advancing on penalty kicks, sending the U.S. home short of the semifinals for the first time in tournament history.

And for defender Naomi Girma, there’s no way to look at that result as anything other than a loss.

“As a competitor, if you don’t win, there’s always something to do,” she said. “That’s always how I will feel.”

If anyone had reason to feel good about last year, it’s Girma. She played every minute at center back in her first World Cup, anchoring a defense that gave up one goal in four games. That performance helped her win U.S. Soccer’s female player of the year award and drew the attention of some of the biggest clubs in Europe.

Yet she is looking forward, not back; looking to get better, not rest on her substantial laurels.

“There’s so much more to do,” said Girma, who started 16 of the national team’s 18 games in 2023, finishing third in minutes played. “I don’t feel like I’ve tapped my potential yet. There’s so much more that I can improve on.

“So yeah, I’m excited for the future.”

The immediate future involves a chance at winning the W Gold Cup, the first tournament for the national team since last summer’s World Cup debacle. With Shaw scoring twice in the first 17 minutes, Morgan — at 34, the oldest player on the field — adding another goal on a header a minute later and captain Lindsey Horan collecting a second-half penalty-kick goal, the U.S. (2-0) clinched a spot in the quarterfinals heading into Monday’s group-play finale with Mexico, an 8-0 winner of the Dominican Republic in Friday’s first game.

With the top two teams in each four-team group assured of a place in the next round, Mexico (1-0-1) can also advance with a win or draw against the U.S. or a Dominican win over Argentina.

Girma once again went the distance Friday in her 27th appearance with the national team. That’s well down the list on an experienced team that has six players with more than 90 caps. But she has already established herself as the heir apparent to Becky Sauerbrunn as the team’s defensive leader, just as Sauerbrunn succeeded Christie Rampone.

“It’s great to see that when we are done with the program, it’s in such great hands,” said Sauerbrunn who, at 38, is preparing to pass the torch. ”The things they’re doing now at that age, just think about them in 20 years and how great that they’re going to be.”

Girma, 23, made her USWNT debut in 2022, three weeks before making her NWSL debut with the San Diego Wave, who made her the No. 1 pick in the franchise’s first draft. With the national team she’s part of a young generation that includes Sophia Smith, her Stanford teammate who is already an NWSL scoring champion and MVP at 23; former NWSL rookies of the year Trinity Rodman and Jenna Nighswonger; and teenagers Shaw, Olivia Moultrie and Alyssa Thompson.

“There’s no drop-off in the level. They bring in what they’re great at,” midfielder Rose Lavelle, a two-time World Cup veteran, said of the youngsters . “We’re seeing them being confident in this environment. They’re just going to keep getting better and better.”

If even half of those players make the team for this summer’s Olympics, the U.S., which sent its oldest team ever to the Tokyo Games in 2021, could have one of the youngest in the Paris Olympics, which will be the first tournament for new coach Emma Hayes.

“It’s a period of transition for us,” Girma said. “We have a lot of younger players coming in, but I don’t feel like a veteran. I still feel like there’s always so much more to learn and so much more to do.

“Older players, they say the same thing. That’s just kind of the mentality of this team.”

Hayes, currently coaching Chelsea in the Women’s Super League, can’t join the USWNT until her club season ends in late May. And when she arrives, she’ll become the team’s third coach in 10 months, following Vlatko Andonovski and interim manager Twila Kilgore. Girma says that won’t change how she approaches her job.

“I always feel like you have to reprove yourself,” she said. “That’s just the nature of the camp with new faces coming in, how competitive it is. With the environment we have here, it’s always kind of like you’re earning a spot.

“You have to show up, you have to perform.”

That means winning, not just failing to lose. The U.S. tried that in last summer’s World Cup and it didn’t end so well.

“I feel grateful for my first two years. I just feel like there’s so much more to do,” Girma said. “I think I am just getting started.”

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