Onyeka Gamero: Just Winging ItWhy does Onyeka Gamero, one of the rising stars of the U.S. Women’s Youth National Team program, put in the work to be her best self on the field? To have as much fun as possible.
In the final scene of Cameron Crowe’s 2000 coming of age film “Almost Famous,” young Rolling Stone reporter William Miller finally gets his interview with Stillwater lead guitarist Russell Hammond, played by Billy Crudup.
William asks: “What do you love about music?”
Russell’s answer: “To begin with, everything.”
U.S. Under-17 Women’s National Team forward Onyeka Gamero, who has a name that rolls off the tongue and a lively, curly mane that fits her playing style, is an artist with the ball as she composes her own kind of music on the right flank: part improvisational jazz, part hip-hop and a whole lot of rock & roll.
Enthusiasm pours out of her as she plays the game, through her relentless movements, her effervescent smile and her constant desire to go forward.
When asked what she loves about soccer, Gamero answered: “Everything.”
Gamero is a Southern California girl at heart. Although she lives a bit inland in Cerritos, Calif., she loves to make her way west to the sand and waves of the South Bay, charging into the surf at Hermosa Beach or Manhattan Beach, board in hand and hoping the swells aren’t TOO big that day.
She makes sporting and spiritual parallels between surfing and soccer.
“Timing is everything,” said Gamero, while talking about surfing, but also about her unique qualities on the pitch. “When you’re waiting for the wave, you have to paddle at the exact right time as the wave starts building. The hardest part is standing up, but once you do, once you get that right, that’s when the fun begins.”
On the field, the U.S. U-17 WYNT, a fiercely united squad whose dynamic, ball-possession style has already made many fans in India, builds its attacks likes waves. Playing right wing in the USA’s 4-3-3 formation, Gamero is at the crest. When the ball rotates her way, she checks her shoulder and feels the distance she has from her defender, and then things start rolling.
“On the field, it’s always about trying to be craftier than your defender, making her move the way you want her to move,” said Gamero. “I love to draw in defenders, then move the ball as they dive in. You have to have patience to wait for them to bite. Sometimes you speed up and sometimes you slow down, and when they freeze for that moment, that’s when you’re past them. Like surfing, the hardest part is the beginning, but when you feel that separation from your defender and you’re running at goal, that’s when you have the most fun.”
Watching her play, it’s abundantly clear that Gamero was born with special abilities. Her dribbling is the kind that brings stadiums to their feet. At top speed, she’s able to go inside or outside, bobbing and weaving, finding space where there seemingly is none, culminating more often than not in a shot, a cross or a corner kick earned.
But even though she is blessed with those skills, Gamero is hyper-focused on cultivating her talents on the training field. She plays her club ball with Beach FC, credits that environment for much of her growth and feels lucky to have been competing with the same group of girls for a while now.
“I just love when the things you do on the practice field transfer to the game,” said Gamero. “When you go to the practice and just do things over and over and put yourselves in situations you’ll see in the game, whether it’s one-on-ones, or working in tight space on the sidelines, or finishing inside the box, once you get to the game things just seem to happen naturally.”
The speedy 16-year-old is a one-on-one artist in the mold of many great wingers who have come through the U.S. National Teams, but while she revels in the individual part of the game, she appreciates the team aspect even more.
“My favorite thing is when so many people connect with ball,” said Gamero. “I usually have a very good relationship with the outside backs on my side (Gisele Thompson for country and Keira Wagner and Leilah Raad for club) and I love to combine. I do like to dribble and use my special skills, but I want to use them to benefit the team and help my teammates too. That’s really satisfying.”
When talent, personality, worth ethic and a humble appreciation for the opportunities earned combine in one player, it can be a lethal combination. Gamero, though, is not taking anything for granted.
“In our team talks, our coaches Natalia (Astrain) and Morgan (Church) told us to think about the first time we started playing soccer and all the hard work we’ve put it to get here. And it’s true. We’ve all worked so hard to get here, so can you imagine not giving your all, or suppressing your abilities because you are afraid to make mistakes? You just can’t do that.”
Herein lies another of Gamero’s best qualities: fearlessness on the field.
“You have to have the confidence,” she said, showing insight surely belying her age. “It’s one thing to practice things and another to be confident or brave enough to try them in a game, brave enough to know it’s going to get physical at times and you have to be strong, mentally and physically. You can’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s all part of the process as young players. If we mess up, we just have to keep trying, find out what works and keep doing that.”
Tobin Heath, one of the USWNT’s most renowned entertainers with the ball at her feet, was once asked when she knew a player was ready to be the victim of one of her nutmegs. “You MAKE them ready!” said Heath.
Gamero feels that vibe.
“Anywhere on the field, your first touch is super important, but especially on the wing when defenders are running at you and trying to close you down,” she said. “You have to be able to freeze them with that first touch. You have to know how to position your body, how to use space, how to use their momentum against them, and that takes many games and many trainings of just trying things.”
Gamero has verbally committed to attend Stanford University, and there is little doubt that she’ll be a fan favorite on The Farm. The high school junior is set to start terrorizing Pac-12 defenses in 2024.
For now, she’ll squeeze every drop of experience and fun that she can out of the FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup in India. It’s a special time in her life, to represent her country at the World Cup, especially in such a far-flung locale, but she knows there are many more games to come in her young career and endless waves to catch on the coast of California.