The defenders are the backbone on any team. The U.S. U17 Women’s National Team is no different. Head coach B.J. Snow’s World Cup roster includes seven defenders with six of those hailing from the great state of California.
Over the past month, TopDrawerSoccer talked to the club coaches of nearly every player on the World Cup roster. Learn more about the common thread between the defenders from California below.
Naomi Girma, Defender, Central Valley Crossfire
It does not take long to notice that Naomi Girma is special. She moves around a soccer field with an ease about her that makes it seem like she is never really taxed, which has encouraged the youth national team staff to continue to push her.
Her youth national team career began with the youngest youth national teams, but it only took one game with the U16 GNT against the U17 Women’s National Team to realize that she belong with the older group. Girma, a 2000, dominated that game against the U17s, which consistently entirely of players born in 1999 at the time. Since then, Girma has been a mainstay in the starting lineup for Snow.
Her club career oddly mirrors her national team ascension.
“Naomi [Girma] joined us eight years ago,” Central Valley Crossfire coach Bob Joyce told TopDrawerSoccer. “She started with the third tier team in the age group because she came with her neighbor and they needed a player for that group.”
While there is little question that Girma would have been with the first team immediately, she started with the third team because her neighbor and friend was there. She carried the load for that team. She was the center back and she navigated the group forward during her one season with the team.
After that season, Joyce moved her up to the first team, Crossfire. The coach kept her at center back, but Girma had other ideas.
“When she first joined the first tier team, we played her as the center back,” Joyce said. “Her mom and her talked to me about playing her as a center midfielder.”
Girma jumped into the center of the field and controlled the game from there. The need to play her at center back was no longer an issue with the stronger group and she advanced her game from that role.
With the success of the team, Girma earned attention from the Olympic Development Program. Joyce encouraged her to attend every event which was the precursor to her youth national team success.
“It’s kind of an ongoing growing process,” Joyce said about Girma’s growth as a player over the past eight years. “She was always so quick and fast. In the beginning, she dribbled too much. Without saying or doing anything, she has adjusted. She puts just the right weight on the pass. She’s very unselfish.”
It was not a specific moment in a game, but rather a consistent change in how Girma played for when Joyce realized that she could be someone special in the women’s game.
“When she made that transition to finding the right target, that is the point where I realize that she understands the game well,” Joyce said. “Some people aren’t that clever or smart. She’s exceptionally improvisational.”
Girma’s success with the youth national team has made her less available for her local team. Snow and his staff have put restrictions on when she can participate with her club team, but her presence can still be noticed when she does play.
The long breaks between appearances with her club has shifted her game. Joyce pointed out some elements that have shifted in her game over the past year.
“She’s not taking people on,” Joyce said. “She’s not dribbling away from pressure. Dribbling control is not as good as it used to be. She’s played so infrequently for us, but she is still an excellent player.”
Joyce told a tale that reveal the type of perfectionist that Girma is about every detail. After a U15 GNT camp, she was dinged for ability to play the ball out of the air, which came with a list of compliments as well.
“She got downgraded for playing balls out of the air,” Joyce said. “She showed me the evaluation from the camp. She contested that this is false. I told her that you need to improve that regard.”
Of course, Girma improved in that regard and did her best to round out her game with every criticism along the way. Joyce’s guiding hand and previous experience with a number of youth national team and professional players certainly helped push her to the next level. Now, the 16-year-old is looking to take the World by storm at the 2016 U17 World Cup in Jordan.
Emily Smith, Defender, De Anza Force
Emily Smith has a lot of patience. She had to wait until December of 2015 before she got the call up to the U.S. U17 Women’s National Team. Since then, she has been with the team for every camp, and now she heads to the World Cup as one of the key defenders from the group.
With her club team, she needed that patience too. Like Girma, she did not start with the club’s top team in her age group. She waited for her time to make the jump up.
“Emily has been a De Anza Force SC player since a very young age,” De Anza Force ECNL Technical Director Andres Deza told TopDrawerSoccer. “ [I] can't remember exactly probably U10 or U11.”
Smith’s development has been on a slower path than most as well. She was with the club’s second team until the U13 age group.
“That realization came late,” Deza said when asked when the coaching staff noticed she had national team potential. “Probably by the time she was U15.”
Smith’s patient approach carried over into her game. She is very deliberate in her actions on the field. She is purposeful in trying to pick out the best pass to help her teammates. Her thoughtfulness with the game helped prepare her for when she arrived with the youth national team.
Deza said she returned to the club team with more confidence after her time with the U17 WNT.
It has certainly helped Smith that her home environment is such a challenging group. Smith’s team is normally a national title contender and includes seven players committed to California or Stanford.
“Emily’s team was top four in the country in the ECNL four years in a row from U14 through U17 so it was quite a competitive environment she trained at every day,” Deza said.
Smith arrived with the U17 WNT as an option at center back, but her impressive vision from that position made her a standout in that role. After waiting her time, she is now making the most of her opportunities for club and country.
Kiara Pickett, Defender, Eagles SC
Kiara ‘KiKi’ Pickett loves competing. It’s easy to get that impression from watching her play, but her coaches sing the same praises. Pickett wants to be challenged and she wants to get better. Her Eagles coaches quickly figured that out and put her on a path to reach the highest levels by continuously challenging her.
“In the short time I’ve been with her, she has demonstrated that not only is she a great player but a great leader on the team,” Pickett’s current club coach Lalo Alvarado told TopDrawerSoccer. “She is also a wonderful human being.”
Alvarado recently took over as the head coach of Pickett’s team. While she has been with the club since U12, his time with her has been brief.
“She comes to training session focused and ready to train,” Alvarado said. “As you know, she is not the biggest player but she’s a fierce competitor and her work ethic is second to none. She often comes to the fields early to work on skills or extra fitness.”
Pickett, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-native, traveled to Eagles (Camarillo, Calif.) at an early age in order to get the competition that Eagles offered in the ECNL, but she has searched out even more competition beyond that.
“To challenge her, we have her practice with our boys 2000s and she does really well,” Alvarado said.
Vince Thomas, Pickett’s coach for many years with the Eagles, echoed Alvarado’s praises for the young defender.
“From the moment Kiki (Pickett) was an Eagle, we knew she was elite,” Thomas said when asked if there was a moment that made the coaches realize she had national team potential. “She hates to lose, is incredibly fierce, has an amazing engine, and will never give up.”
While Eagles previously used her as an attacking center midfielder, Snow played her as a right back with the U17 WNT. The Eagles and Pickett adjusted her position with the club accordingly about a year ago.
The extra repetitions at that spot helped with the U17s, but it also opened up a door for her to make her debut with the U.S. U20 WNT in the past year as well. Pickett was only one of four U17 players to make the U20 team for the CONCACAF Championship.
Thomas said that since Pickett’s arrival with the U17s and U20s, he has noticed that she is more dedicated to keeping a high fitness level.
The extra training and commitment have paid off for the 17-year-old. Pickett is now one of the leaders of the U.S. side headed to the U17 World Cup in Jordan.
Kate Wiesner, Defender, Slammers
Wiesner’s introduction with the U.S. U17 Women’s National Team came in a game against Japan. She had made a previous appearance, but the game was a monumental occasion for the youngster. Wiesner was playing up two years and starting at left back against one of the best teams in the world.
She received the ball in the left channel and beat two players on the dribble before playing in a cross that was nearly turned into a goal. It was an ah-ha moment that this player could be something. She has a lethal combination of speed and skill that would make her one of the best wingers in club soccer, but her fiery competitive side makes her an unreal outside back.
Wiesner is one of four players on the World Cup roster who were born in 2001. The quartet is playing up two age groups, but they are ready for the spotlight now. Wiesner has never shied away from a challenge.
“From the moment Kate got here at Slammers, you could see she was full of intangibles that were going to help matriculate up in her career,” Slammers coach George Larsen told TopDrawerSoccer. “She carries herself with a quiet maturity that is rare at such a young age. She is obviously a talented athlete and had a good base to her game when she got here, but it was the intangibles of class, maturity, coachability, dedication, and professionalism that really stood out where I thought she could be really good.”
Wiesner joined Slammers at age 13. It’s been a wonderful couple of years for her and the club since then.
“She and her team have been very successful as they are now back-to-back national champions,” Larsen said. “She has had quite an eventful and successful two years both individually and with her team.”
Larsen set out a goal for the youngster shortly after she joined the club.
“I think it was about six months from her joining that I approached her as making a national camp as a goal,” Larsen said. “She shortly after was invited into the U15 GNT camp where she spent the next year where she continually ranked amongst the top of that group.”
Her impressive play with the younger national team had U15 GNT head coach Mark Carr suggesting to Snow that he give Wiesner a shot with the U17s.
“She was called into camp and the rest is history and is now getting ready to play in a U17 World Cup playing up two years,” Larsen said. “Again, I go back to her mental make up as the reason she has done so well in the national team environment.”
Wiesner got a taste for the level with the national team, but she was never satisified. She wanted more. Larsen asked her to work her way into a starting spot with the U15s. She eventually ended up as a captain of the team before moving onto the U17s.
“She would take the feedback from her national camps and you could see her working on those areas of development within her team training here at Slammers,” Larsen said.
Despite the massive amount of success, Wiesner never developed an ego.
“Our approach to our players starts with an enjoyment of the game as well as remaining humble,” Larsen said. “It is so important that you stay grounded when you experience a high level of success as a youth player. In the last two years she has won back to back national championships with her club team and been moved up two years to play in a U17 World Cup. I don’t think you can have much more success than that.”
Slammers’ club philosophy helped Wiesner keep her feet on the ground despite this ascension.
“For Kate, she has not changed one bit,” Larsen added. “She is still the sweet, humble, classy young lady she was when she walked through our door. She shows up every day to get better. Challenging her or motivating her has not been a problem. At our club, she is fortunate to have plenty of accomplished teammates and older club players to compete against on a daily basis. It is not our way to have players take their foot off the pedal so to speak. Kate came to Slammers so she could accomplish her goals of reaching these levels and it is has worked out well for her thus far. We couldn’t be prouder of her accomplishments.”