Naomi Girma discusses NWSL playoffs, the Wave’s defense and USWNT duties

Naomi Girma has been a rock for the San Diego Wave this season alongside center back partner Abby Dahlkemper. The Wave had the second-lowest goals against from the regular season (22) and won the Shield — a trophy awarded to the team with the most points at the end of the regular season.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Wave is solid in central defense given head coach Casey Stoney spent her playing career as a center back, too. That foundational defensive security for the team could be instrumental in helping them reach a national championship in only their second season of play.

The Athletic spoke to defender of the year finalist Girma before the Wave’s semifinal game against OL Reign on Sunday, Nov. 5 at 9:30 p.m. ET.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You are about to face the Reign. Head coach Laura Harvey said most NWSL games are won or lost in the midfield. From your perspective, particularly in the Wave setup, do you agree?

I think second balls are a huge part of this league, and transition is a big part of this league too. A lot of that does happen in the midfield. So yes, I think that’s true. For us, it’s when we’re defending making sure that we’re communicating to our midfielders, making sure that they know what’s happening behind them and they’re in the right spots. I think a lot of that can be helped from the backline. And then the attacking, just making sure we’re getting them on the ball in good positions where they can face forward and spring that attack.

Your defensive pairing, Abby Dahlkemper, has always been a great center back, but I feel like she’s had an especially good season. How has that partnership felt this year? And how does it feel going into this semifinal game?

Abby has had a great season. She came back from injury and just quickly got back to her game, which is really great to see. I feel like she is really good at communicating. We have a good relationship where we can bounce off of each other and we’re always in constant communication on little things throughout the game. And I think that helps us a lot to make sure that we’re in the right positions as a backline and also us communicating forward to the lines in front of us. I think going into this next game, it’s going to be important that we do that same thing with a lot of the rotations that the Reign do.

Dahlkemper and Girma have helped form the Wave’s strong defensive performance. (Photo by Ray Acevedo, USA TODAY Sports)

Without blowing up your tactical plan, how are teammates Danny Colaprico and Emily Van Egmond adding to your comfortability in holding the ball deeper and building out your press?

They both have been very big for us this year in the midfield, and I think they’ve been a big piece of connecting our attack, and they’ve also been a really big piece of disrupting a lot of the opponent’s attack when we’re defending. All of our midfielders have been taught those principles, like Meggie Dougherty Howard, Jaedyn Shaw, Taylor Kornieck and Sierra Enge.

Now, I feel like I have to name everyone (laughing). They’ve done a great job of just learning those principles and making sure that there are options in attack and that they’re also in the right positions when defending.

If you had to assess the season, it may have been a little rough start. But, especially after the World Cup, you guys really took off. How has that felt for you from a defender’s point of view?

It could always have been better. There are always goals you look back on where you’re like ‘Ugh, we could have prevented that so easily.’ But I think it is the backline and us knowing our roles and the goalkeeper, but also I think it’s when we as a team, all 11 of us understanding what we’re supposed to be doing and when we’re executing defensively: whether it’s press, whether we’re sitting in, whether it’s goal-kick defending shape, whatever it is. When we’re executing that well, I think we’ve done a really great job of putting teams under pressure and making it really hard for them to break us down and score. I think that’s definitely something that improved as the year went on.

Is there anything in particular you can attribute to helping with that improvement? Is there anyone you want to shout out who you felt was really helping improve things in that area?

I think when our wide forwards get it down it helps us be really successful. I also think, as you mentioned before, Danny Colaprico has been really good in there and has that understanding as a 6 of where she needs to be, when she should be stepping out and when she should be covering a forward or where she needs to be in transition. I think she has been really solid for us in there this year.

Looking at the NWSL season as a whole, I want to ask about your performance and recovery routine. We are here because of your partnership with Rockin’ Protein, why did you decide to work with them?

It was a strategic decision earlier this year knowing I’d be going into a year with the World Cup, NWSL season, and a lot of camps. They’ve been great for me. It just has high-quality protein, low carbs and a lot of other good stuff that helps me recover. It’s made with Shamrock Farms milk and I think a lot of other protein shakes I’ve had, I just don’t look forward to drinking which makes me not drink them as much. So the flavor and the smooth taste make it a plus for me.

They advertise that it doesn’t get that chalky taste. When I was younger, I was addicted to chocolate milk. I feel like this would become a problem where I’m having too many gains because it tastes good.

(Laughing) I’m too strong. Yeah, exactly. I definitely crave it. It’s like a good flavor. I like vanilla, so it tastes like the In-N-Out milkshake.

Oh, no. Please don’t tell me it tastes like the In-N-Out milkshake. I’m really tempted to ask you about In-N-Out opinions now but we have limited time. So let’s get back to NWSL playoffs. You guys got a bye. What has that been like in communicating with your performance staff about staying sharp and maintaining focus?

I think we’ve done a really great job in San Diego just having that vibe but still staying focused, making sure training is intense. You want to still have that training flow of like, getting up like you do have a game just so your body is used to that higher load when it needs to go. I think the focus has been high, and the intensity has been high in training. It has been really good, but at the same time, we have had a bit of extra time to recover. You want to have that balance of taking advantage of it but not getting into a slump.

You also attended U.S. national team camp during that time. What is it like bouncing between environments? Does it make it a little harder to get that consistency?

I think with the high-performance stuff, clubs and national teams do a good job of collaborating and making sure that they’re on the same page. Our club has different things they want us to do than the national team because we’re going in to play a game but they try to align as much as possible and they’re open with us too. I feel like I have input in that process and can say, ‘Oh, I feel like I need this today.’ Or maybe I need to come down a little bit to be ready for the game. It’s really just everyone collaborating, making sure we’re all on the same page because ultimately they want their athletes to perform their best and they want to set us up for success.

I want to wrap up by looking at the semifinal. What do you think is one thing that is important to shut down the Reign? Is it their midfield? Jess Fishlock? Megan Rapinoe looks like she’s feeling good out there.

I think they have a really dynamic attack. They have a lot of players getting forward, a lot of players in the box, and they serve a lot of crosses. I think they’re a great team and it’s going to be us just denying those threats and trying to exploit them where we can.

(Photo: Jenny Chuang/Getty Images)

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