Stanford alums kick off historic World Cup

This article is part of a series on the 2023 World Cup. 

Less than a week into the 2023 Women’s World Cup and history has already been made. It’s the first time the event has been hosted by two countries (Australia and New Zealand), is the first spanning two confederations and is the first held in the Southern Hemisphere. But perhaps more importantly for Cardinal fans, this year’s tournament is also the first time *seven* former Stanford players were selected for World Cup rosters — the most alums in a single World Cup, mens or womens, in university history. 

Historically, Cardinal have been part of every major U.S. women’s championship, with at least one player on teams that won World Cup titles in 1991, 1999, 2015 and 2019 and Olympic titles in 1996, 2004, 2008 and 2012. 

But producing five of the 23 players on the current USWNT roster, plus two for other nations, is unprecedented. 

That is to say, if the United States claims their third consecutive Women’s World Cup title — a feat that has not yet been accomplished by any nation — it will be thanks in large part to the Stanford program. No other university is contributing as many players to the U.S. roster. The Santa Clara Broncos (Julie Ertz and Sofia Huerta) and the North Carolina Tar Heels (Emily Fox and Crystal Dunn) have two players each on the USWNT roster, but no other NCAA team had more than one alum called up for the women’s tournament.

While the USWNT is certainly a favorite to win the entire World Cup, the U.S.’s road to the final on Aug. 20 is perhaps harder than it’s ever been with stacked teams such as Brazil, Germany, Japan and Spain starting the tournament with statement wins.

But Stanford’s influence on the 2023 World Cup extends beyond domestic borders, too. Forward Kyra Carusa ’18 and defender Ali Riley ’10 are representing Ireland and New Zealand, respectively. While Carusa’s side lost its opener 1-0 to Australia, Riley and the Ferns began their tournament on a positive note, upsetting Norway 1-0 in New Zealand’s first ever World Cup victory. Riley, the team’s captain who is appearing in her fifth World Cup, played all 90 minutes. If you haven’t seen her tearful pre-game national anthem, post-game interview featuring a tribute to LGBTQ+ rights and hug with her mom, I’d check them out. 

On the American side, the World Cup has been the Sophia Smith show. At times, it was hard to believe it was only her first World Cup. 

The forward, who left Stanford as a sophomore following the Cardinal’s 2019 NCAA title run to become the then-youngest drafted NWSL player, has been the bright spot for the U.S. national team — if not the tournament as a whole. 

When the United States struggled to find the back of the net versus Vietnam, Smith stepped up to deliver two goals and an assist en route to the USWNT’s 3-0 win. Despite the team’s victory, the U.S. women didn’t look as impressive as they have in the past. So, Smith’s ability to provide a spark for the national team in crucial moments proved more important than ever. Even when established stars like Alex Morgan faltered, Smith showed her skill and speed. I won’t be surprised if we see the former Cardinal star claiming the Golden Boot at the end of the tournament next month — although Brazil’s forward Ary Borges, who plays for the NWSL’s Racing Louisville, currently leads the race following a hat trick against Panama.

Smith’s Stanford classmate Naomi Girma ’22 also made her World Cup debut versus Vietnam. Despite her relative youth, Girma is already an established professional after being drafted No. 1 in the NWSL draft in 2021. 

In the USWNT’s opener, the U.S. backline went largely unchallenged by an inexperienced Vietnam, but Girma’s composure helped to stop the fleeting chances that the World Cup debutants did muster and her long, diagonal passes caused disruptions for her opponent down the stretch. The San Jose local will likely get the start in Tuesday’s game versus the Netherlands — a much more threatening opponent with a potentially lethal attack. 

Throughout the World Cup, both Smith and Girma have been vocal about their intention to honor the late Katie Meyer ‘22, their Stanford teammate and close friend. After Smith scored her second goal versus Vietnam she made a “zip your lips” gesture, replicating Meyer’s now famous celebration during the 2019 NCAA College Cup.

“We said if one of us scored — probably her [Smith] — then we’d do that,” Girma said post-game. “It’s just another way of honoring her.”

The cameras broadcasting the game largely missed the motion, but Meyer’s legacy extends beyond the pitch, too. 

In an article for the Players’ Tribune, Girma shared a touching tribute to Meyer and outlined a new mental health initiative, Common Goal. In effort to destigmatize mental health struggles, Fox Sports will dedicate “1% of its broadcast coverage to spotlighting the importance of mental health across all its platforms.”

“After the World Cup, we’re going to send out mental health professionals to youth sports organizations in communities across the country, to make sure that the coaches and players have the tools and skills to know when someone is dealing with a mental health issue, and how to get the proper help,” Girma wrote. “This is personal for me, and for everyone who knew Katie.”

Rounding out the Cardinal in red, white and blue are defender Kelley O’Hara ’09, making her fourth World Cup appearance, and defender Alana Cook ’19 and midfielder Andi Sullivan ’18, both in their debuts.

Sullivan played all 90 minutes, while O’Hara was subbed in at the 84th minute, contributing a crucial tackle.

Looking to second games 

Watch the U.S. Cardinal as they take on the Netherlands Wednesday, July 26 at 6 p.m. PT. This will be the first true test for the USWNT of the tournament. Riley and the Ferns fell to the Philippines 1-0 on Tuesday, July 24, and Carusa’s Ireland plays Canada, the reigning Olympic champs, on Wednesday, July 26 at 5 a.m. PT.