Suiting up for Sky Blue FC this summer in the NWSL Challenge Cup, was a decidedly fresh face.
Jennifer Cudjoe, despite being a newcomer, quickly stood out as someone who looked like she belonged at this level. Cudjoe, a Ghanaian international, started the tournament with some promising substitute appearances in the early group stage matches. Cudjoe received worthy praise throughout the tournament from media members and fans alike for her ball-winning abilities and efficient passing. She soon earned a starting role in the Sky Blue midfield, and began raising some eyebrows around the league.
I don’t know @JenniferCudjoe personally but I follow her on social media and see how dedicated she is to her craft. She just got her NWSL debut for @SkyBlueFC after going to their open tryout and eventually earning a contract. I love seeing her achieve this dream!
— Yael Averbuch West (@Yael_Averbuch) July 1, 2020
But this was no fluke from the Ghanaian native. It was the fruit from years of hard labor and a nomadic lifestyle. She didn’t play at a big Division I school, and was instead constantly seeking new opportunities and challenges, moving around the country to keep her dream alive.
With only nine current teams, opportunities in the NWSL are limited for women who didn’t play at elite Division I schools in the NCAA or at high level professional clubs abroad. The pathways to the top of the women’s game are tough and uncertain, and only the most determined survive. Cudjoe’s story is intriguing, as she defied the normal pathway to the top level. Her determination to do things her way, through hard work and inviting new challenges, will certainly be an inspiration for young women who want to play at the next level.
We caught up with Cudjoe following her breakout Challenge Cup performances, to get an idea of what her journey to the top was really like.
Cudjoe grew up in Accra, Ghana, where she fell in love with the game and spent a lot of time playing with the local boys and girls. She adopted a fast, creative playing style and quickly developed aspirations to play the game at the highest level. According to Cudjoe, as a kid in Ghana, you get a nickname based on how you play.
“Where I grew up, when you’re a kid, everybody, especially the older people when they see you play, they call on you based on the player that they think best fits your style. When I was like, eight or nine years old, Kaka was my role model. I always loved watching him play for AC Milan, and Brazil. So, one day I was playing with the boys and I needed a name to play. There was this old man who was sitting right next to the field and he was like, ‘Oh, you’re like Kaka from Brazil.’ Pretty much from then on I was Jen Kaka.”
The Kaka name developed into more than just a fun nickname, it became an identity for how she played the game. Cudjoe played with reckless abandon, with a passion to attack, score goals, embarrass defenders, and have fun. It’s the style she developed playing with the neighborhood boys. But as she developed later on in her career, it was clear she would have to evolve in order to reach the peak of her abilities.
“I can be Kaka, but I don’t want to be too much Kaka. You may be annoying to your teammates for that. And then they won’t know what I can do.”
It was clear that the Kaka style of play would only get her so far in an organized team setting. At some point she would have to adapt to what the group needed to be successful. And so another playing identity emerged, the Jennifer one.
“If I’m being Jennifer, that player is versatile. Jennifer would ask, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And then deliver what the team needs, you know? And I think coming here (to the USA) I realized, I can be Jennifer and I can also be Kaka. It’s how I blend these two, you know? And so, for me, I let the coach know. I can be defensive, I can be attacking. So whenever the team needs me to play a different role, I’m glad that I can be both.”
These dueling playing styles Cudjoe managed to combine into a truly effective, adaptable approach to her game.
Even from the beginning, when she was still playing with the neighborhood kids, the dream of making it to the professional level began to develop.
“I knew at the age of thirteen that I wanted to be a professional player. Now growing up in my country, soccer is there but it’s not as organized as a club or, like they would do here (in the US). I don’t know, it’s fun, but also it’s not as competitive as playing club.”
Cudjoe advanced as far as she could in Ghana before she decided she needed to expose herself to new challenges. There is a professional league for women’s players in Ghana, but if she wanted to reach her potential, she decided she would have to look elsewhere.
“There are still changes that need to be made to help women’s soccer in Ghana. And I hope one day I can help to make that change, help push it to be more professional, you know, it’s difficult to be seen (by scouts and agents) which makes it hard for them (women’s players) to get out.”
Luckily for Cudjoe, she had been selected for the women’s U-20 team that would travel to Japan for the U-20 World Cup. She also had a sister, Elizabeth Cudjoe, who was already playing in college in the US. After her sister reached out to a couple of college coaches in the states with highlights from the World Cup, Cudjoe was on her way to the US for a new chapter in her playing career.
She was set to play for Northeastern State, a Division II school in Oklahoma. But following some problems with athletic eligibility due to her international background, she wound up playing at local Junior College Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, until they could sort out her eligibility. The adjustment to a new country and culture took a toll, and Cudjoe had to be resilient to stick it out.
“Yeah, it was a culture shock. I just had no idea, you know, my sister was in the same state so I thought, oh, I’m gonna see my sister but then she’s another few hours away. It was different to the way I lived back in my country, and after a month or two I was going to tell my sister, ‘Oh my god this is a lot.’ It was hard for me to make friends, and my English wasn’t that good.”
“But she would keep reminding me, ‘Hey, remember when you told me you wanted to come here. You want to play professional? These are the rules, you know you have to get your education.’ And, yeah, that was the day I decided to go for it, I signed up for this.”
Once she finally locked in and set her mind to playing in college and finishing her degree, there wasn’t another option. Jennifer Cudjoe was going to keep pushing. It wasn’t an easy road, and due to lingering problems with her NCAA eligibility, she wound up playing for three different schools during her collegiate tenure: Northeastern Oklahoma A&M (junior college), Northeastern State (Division II), and for the University of Maine at Fort Kent (small school in Maine).
After graduation, prospects from the top were still slim, after all, NWSL coaches aren’t usually looking at players in the lower collegiate divisions. Cudjoe never lost sight of the final destination, and began to design her own training sessions that would challenge her and simulate the intensity of the professional level of play.
“I started designing my own training based on watching these top professional teams. I went to one of the NWSL trials, just to test how hard the environment is. And that’s what I based my training off of, because it was intense.”
“Just as an example, If I’m working on moves, where do I put the cones? Then more importantly, how is it going to transfer to a game? In a game you don’t just move for two minutes, you are constantly working, maybe for 10-15 minutes without stopping. That’s how I developed my training. I do everything based on the actual game.”
In the summer of 2018, Cudjoe heard of a new semi-pro team, Asheville City SC (WPSL), that was forming in Asheville, North Carolina. Following a few conversations with Stacey Enos, the Asheville head coach, Cudjoe decided that she would take on the new challenge, with the end goal being to move on to the professional game if possible.
“The conversation from the start was, ‘Hey, this is my plan, you know, how can you help me get there?’ And with the North Carolina Courage nearby, and Asheville promising to push me to get to the next level, I was in.”
— Asheville City SC (@AshevilleCitySC) July 9, 2020
After two successful seasons in Asheville, Cudjoe had established herself as a key part of the Asheville midfield. A close friend of Cudjoe’s surprised her with tickets to the 2019 NWSL final between the North Carolina Courage and Chicago Red Stars. According to Cudjoe, the experience wasn’t inspiration to finally go for it, she already had the inspiration. Instead, it was justification for the challenges of the past few years of her life.
“It was the craziest feeling I’ve ever felt. I wanted to be on the field and I had these little tears, you know, looking at the crowd, the way game was played. And I said, this is where I belong. That’s the words that came out of my mouth. This is where I belong.”
Shortly after witnessing the NWSL championship in person, she began planning how she was going to get seen by NWSL coaches. She ended up attending an open tryout for Sky Blue back in February, and out of 50 players was one of only a few selected to attend preseason training. Following the COVID-19 lockdown, and the decision to create the Challenge Cup bubble, Cudjoe finally got the call she had been waiting for since she first left home. She would be on the final roster for the tournament.
Inspirational isn't a strong enough word. @JenniferCudjoe's rise from open tryout signee to a key midfield figure for @SkyBlueFC has been one of the top stories of the #NWSLChallengeCup. pic.twitter.com/surZuSVVJg
— NWSL (@NWSL) July 22, 2020
“Sometimes I keep reminding myself like, How did this happen? How did this happen? You know, but I feel like it’s hard work and if you believe in it, and you have the right people around you to push you to work harder. For me, people see where I am now. But it’s not easy, this journey.”
“I always tell myself, just do Jennifer things, and just do Kaka things, and I will adjust to the level.”
It may seem like an impossible journey, for girls looking to follow in her footsteps, but Cudjoe has a message for them.
“Reach out to teams like I did. Send a bunch of emails to coaches. It’s all about getting the chance, because for me, I don’t have an agent, and if I didn’t go to the (Sky Blue FC) tryout, I wouldn’t have ever had the chance.”
“Other than that, model your training so your intensity and the way you think will be the same as the professional game. It’s a lot of sacrifice. There’s so many things you miss out on because you need to stay focused. But it’s going to pay off for sure.”