Column: San Diego Wave found role model in top draftee from Stanford

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Soccer on television, soccer day and night, men playing soccer, women playing soccer.

Inside the San Jose home, soccer viewing and planning evolved into a family pastime.

The dad, a former player, oversaw a youth club and sometimes showed the kids how it’s done. The mom drove the two children to practices and matches as far away as San Diego. The daughter was 4 when she teethed on the game, poking the ball with her dad. “As soon as I could run and kick the ball,” recalled Naomi Girma.

Last week the newly formed San Diego Wave Fútbol Club selected Girma first in the National Women’s Soccer League draft, in effect making the Stanford graduate the top choice of the top women’s soccer circuit in the world.

Not just a big moment for Girma, it was a step forward for the girls and young women in San Diego who may aspire to take soccer as far as they can take it.

San Diego had no professional women’s soccer for nearly two decades despite being a top-10 US city in population, not to mention its thriving youth programs, proximity to soccer-loving Mexico and pleasant weather year-round.

That void has been filled.

The Girma team is joining will allow locals to see up close many of the world’s top women players. Wave forward Alex Morgan, for example, is a World Cup veteran who’s banked 115 goals for the US national team. Visiting clubs will bring other players with World Cup and Olympic backgrounds to NWSL matches at the University of San Diego and San Diego State’s new stadium.

“It’s super exciting,” said the 21-year-old Girma, a two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.

She’s a big soccer fan herself, having returned days ago from a soccer vacation in England where she watched Arsenal in the Women’s Champions League and attended Manchester City’s record-setting 7-0 victory against Leeds in a men’s Premier League match.

Growing up, she watched soccer telecasts with her brother, Nathaniel, mother, Seble, and father, Aweke. The parents emigrated from Ethiopia as teenagers, bringing with them a love for the world’s most popular game. Maradona. Ronaldo. Ronaldinho. They were among the men’s stars the family enjoyed watching. Women’s soccer as played by Brazil’s Marta and American World Cup standouts Brandi Chastain (a San Jose native) and Abby Wambach commanded the Girmas’ attention and stirred Naomi’s hopes, even if some of those matches were played years before she first saw them.

“I was inspired by the (women’s) national team,” she said. “The national team, to me, seemed like the highest level to achieve as a women’s soccer player. Especially the US National Team and how much success they’ve had over the years — and how they’ve been dominant throughout the world. That was really cool to see growing up.”

Father and daughter binge-viewed the Women’s World Cup. They became hooked on the NWSL, founded in 2012.

“It was cool to have role models who were female players, rather than just from the men’s side,” said Girma, who has played for the national team’s junior clubs.

A mentor herself, Girma has counseled high school athletes about college recruiting and other topics that arose in the “Go Cardinal” workshops set up by Stanford students. In San Jose, she enjoys mixing with children and teens in her father’s youth club. If she can assist a young person, she it’s on par with blocking a shot or heading the ball to a teammate.

“Something I’ve realized a lot, just reflecting on the past couple of years, is how important representation has been for me and how important it is for younger girls,” she said.

“That’s younger girls, in general,” she added, “and younger black girls being able to see people who look like they achieve at the highest level of whatever they want to do. And, I hope that I can now, being a professional player, be able to give back in that way.”

She’s an experienced leader. As a sophomore, Girma captained the team that claimed Stanford’s third national title in women’s soccer. As the middle player on the 4-3-3 formation’s back line, she directed the defense. Teammates named her captain for three different seasons.

She counts among her favorite Stanford experiences a class on decision-making. “It was cool to have something that was more practical, that I could try to apply in my life if I wanted to make rational decisions, which obviously no one always does,” she said.

When she tells high school girls that it’s not only possible to balance a wide spectrum of activities, but to improve at all of them amid the juggling, she speaks from experience. Ella’s college journey saw her earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in symbolic systems, which encompasses computer science, psychology, philosophy and linguistics, while also completing a 68-game soccer career that demanded diligent rehabilitation from a torn knee ligament.

Exactly one year after the ACL in her knee was torn during her junior year, the 5-foot-7 senior was named the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year for 2021. She scored four goals in the same season, doubling her career total .

Calling it a “cool” part of her life, she plans to work further toward a master’s degree in science and engineering after diving into her soccer career. All the while, she’ll nurture her dream of playing in the World Cup. If that happens? “I’d have no words,” she said. “That would be incredible.”

So, it’s a large wave she’ll be riding into San Diego and a March launch to the Wave’s first season.