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Last year, only the small handful of people who follow second division women’s soccer closely could have told you anything about Jennifer Cudjoe. The Ghanaian midfielder finally got her break with Sky Blue FC this year after impressing in an open tryout, and out of nowhere, she’s rocketed up the depth chart to a starting role.
“Every day I wake up and it feels like I’m still dreaming,” Cudjoe told Bria Felicien at The Equalizer ahead of the NWSL Challenge Cup. But on Wednesday, we learned that this is going to evolve into a much longer-term story. Friends, Jennifer Cudjoe is an absolutely sick all-around midfielder.
Sky Blue FC posted its first win of the Challenge Cup on Wednesday night, defeating the Houston Dash, 2-0. A lot of attention is deservedly on Nahomi Kawasumi for her excellent chipped goal (please read Meg Linehan on that subject), but I felt like Cudjoe really stole the show with her performance in midfield.
Cudjoe completed 83 percent of her passes and won the ball back 14 times in just 70 minutes of action. Most importantly, she was everywhere. Look at the wide variety of locations she’s making these passes and recoveries from. Cudjoe was all over the pitch.
It’s worth noting that Cudjoe was able to play like this because her teammates enabled her. McCall Zerboni did a ton of pressing work as an unconventional defensive No. 10, while Sarah Woldmoe was extremely disciplined in her positioning. With those two players doing the thankless jobs, Cudjoe had the freedom to influence the game however she saw fit, and she took full advantage of the cover she was given by influencing the game in all phases, all over the pitch. And she’s fully appreciative of the work her teammates are doing to enable her to succeed.
“My teammates have my back all the time and it’s amazing because it’s a new environment for me and communication has been a huge part in my game,” Cudjoe said after the match. She added, “I think having a little freedom today made me feel comfortable and confident to hold the ball and do whatever I wanted to do with the ball, and connect with my teammates.”
Cudjoe also had a ton of great moments that don’t show up as statistical events. Her high level of activity, ball-winning capabilities and creative passing might all be less important to her game than her ability to turn out of pressure. In Wednesday’s match specifically, the Houston Dash wasn’t able to generate many of the counter-attacks that have become its signature due to Cudjoe’s ability to control the ball in moments that look like certain turnovers.
“She’s difficult to play against because she’s very good on the ball,” Sky Blue FC head coach Freya Coombe said after the match. “When she holds possession sometimes, you think the ball’s gone, and then she manages to wiggle out of the situation.”
Coombe deserves a lot of credit for figuring out how to use Cudjoe most effectively, and seemingly evolving in her ideas over the course of just a few games. Cudjoe’s debut came late in Sky Blue’s opener as a pretty much a pure No. 6. She was asked to hold position and did almost no creative passing or dribbling, though it was apparent how clean she was on the ball.
The next day, media asked Cudjoe what she thought her best role was. “If I have to be honest, I’m definitely a better [attacking] player,” Cudjoe said. She added that she can defend and was willing to do whatever Coombe asked of her, but when she was asked what her biggest strengths were, Cudjoe said “I can use the ball well, I can create a lot of stuff.”
Sky Blue has a lot of work to do before it can feel like it’s on a good path towards competing for a playoff spot. The Dash rotated heavily in this match, played especially poorly in midfield, and gave Cudjoe a lot of space to operate. But the fundamental idea of having a holder on one end of midfield, an aggressive presser on the other end, and Cudjoe in a free No. 8 role between them looks like a fundamentally sound one. And Cudjoe appears a talented enough player to be worthy of that kind of freedom.
Not bad for a DII and WPSL player, huh?