Welcome back to our NWSL preseason preview! Today we’ve got Sky Blue FC midfielder Jennifer Cudjoe, who became an instant fan favorite after her showing in the Challenge Cup last season. Then came some offseason drama as Louisville took her rights in their expansion draft, then Sky Blue traded with them during the college draft to get her rights back.
So now Cudjoe is right back where she started, no doubt eliciting a huge sigh of relief from Sky Blue fans who saw her help revitalize the midfield and plant the seed of hope for a big turnaround in 2021.
You can find our other preseason previews linked below:
Shea Groom | Jess McDonald | Abby Smith
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. It was originally recorded on February 9.
All for XI: I just want to jump right in with you and ask what is the feeling in preseason camp right now at Sky Blue?
Jennifer Cudjoe: Well, to be honest, it is really great. Everybody is so happy to be back. And for me, personally, the work that everybody’s putting in, everybody’s just like, right from the bat, it doesn’t feel like we’ve lost so much. We all want to come out here and keep working and just get better and keep continuing what we built last year, so it’s been really great. The connection, and for me, in general, everything has just been amazing. Everybody’s just really happy to be back there. Everybody’s putting in the work, they’re working on helping each other grow in any way that you know, we can bring the best out of everyone. So preseason has been great. The first few days has been amazing. So I’m looking forward to more of it.
AfXI: I’ve talked to a couple players, and a lot of them have said that first week, maybe two weeks, everybody has a lot of energy. And you kind of have to manage that energy. It’s a long preseason too, it’s about 10 weeks. So everyone has to be careful to not go too crazy in the beginning, because you have a long preseason ahead.
JC: Yeah I think pretty much every player will feel that when you sit at home for a month or two. That’s what you look forward to. So coming in, you don’t want to be just a player that “Oh, I’m here already.” You know, you want to start from day one, you want to bring that energy, the same energy throughout the season. So I’m pretty sure, I’ll definitely say everybody has the same energy. But I believe that everybody is going to keep the same momentum. There might be times where it’s going to be ups and downs. But I’m pretty sure everybody knows the task, what we aim for this season, what we’re looking forward to do. So everybody’s in a pretty good place to manage their time and energy every single day.
AfXI: You mentioned momentum as well. I think Sky Blue, watching last year, people felt energy from the team. I’ve watched Sky Blue for a long time. The team has had its ups and downs. But last year felt like it was moving up. And so I think for Sky Blue in particular, can you talk about what it feels like to you in terms of that momentum, what you want to do to keep that energy going up this year?
JC: I think this style, the way we play, fits every individual player, which is something that everybody loves to do.... It’s really interesting to see how each player reacts to everything, because it’s different. We thought that maybe it was different. Is everybody gonna be able to adjust to it? But then everybody was just so into it because we’re all ready to learn and help each other get to the next step. So going into next season for sure, there’s so much that people are gonna get to see from Sky Blue that we’re not gonna change anything, and it’s just gonna keep developing and getting better, the way we played last year. I’m looking forward for people to see what we are gonna bring.
AfXI: Do you think getting to start with that Challenge Cup is going to be beneficial for Sky Blue, in particular, because it’ll help you guys keep going with that momentum and give you a chance to really find out how you work together as a group?
JC: For me, in particular, I love to have different types of competition, if it’s like FA Cup, if it’s “something” cup in between seasons. You get to taste - you might play the same thing twice, but you get to see different sides of the teams each and every whatever, it’s a tournament, whatever it is for a season. So for that, it’s good for us to get ourselves prepared, having a long preseason, knowing that every player will be on the same in our level when that time comes. And then taking that into Challenge Cup, which is amazing, because you not only looking into a long season, now I have to focus on Challenge Cup, what can I do. There’s a different approach that you have to take to be able to win that Cup or get to a certain level that you want to get. But then when you go into season, it’s also different. So that will carry on. Because if you tackle that Challenge Cup, then you have the confidence, you have everything that you wanted to work on as a team to be able to feed the full on season. I think it’s a really good outline that the NWSL have done. It will help players not just individually, but as a group, to take time to learn from your teammates much better than just doing preseason and going straight to season.
AfXI: Where do you want to be at the end of preseason to be ready for Challenge Cup both yourself personally, and as a team?
JC: After preseason, I want to make sure that I’m better than I did last year, where even if it’s not 100%, I’m make sure that I’m at least 90, 95% better than last year. For me my goal is throughout the year, doesn’t matter if it’s Challenge Cup or season. For me personally, my goal is to make sure that coming into season this year, I’m different than yesterday, I’m better, I’m working on the weakness and all of that. And as a team, I’m pretty sure it’s similar too, because we don’t just want to be the good looking team, we want to make sure that we create something. We want to make sure that we win a championship, we want to make sure that we put ourselves out there, tackle everything, and make sure that every time teams come and meet us, they’ll know that it’s not just going to be easy. We’re also a championship team. So I’m pretty sure that’s our main goal, looking to get to playoffs and then championship.
AfXI: We’ve seen you in a few different positions in the midfield but I think you said before you really like to be an attacking midfielder. We’ve seen some stats from you where you can not only defend, but play the ball out from all over the midfield. A really good pass completion rate, a great ability to turn out of pressure and find that outlet that pass, those are your strengths. But what are some of the things that you think in your game, that when you work on them, we’ll see a whole new level?
JC: I think also maybe goalscoring. It’s something that I used to love, goalscoring. But I think the way I kind of build myself as a midfielder I wanted to be more of a creative player and all of that. So I think it’s one thing that I’m working on this season, being able to score goals and being able to provide more assists and get into attack more. I’m a good defensive player as well. So in both sides, I’m trying to learn more about if I’m playing holding mid or defensive mid, things that I need to do to be better. Not just good, I wanted to make sure that I’m better. So those are the things that I’m looking to make sure this season they see the real side of me, either I’m playing defensive or attacking. It’s not like I’m just there. You have to see something, the qualities that are in me. Getting better at being able to win balls and attack more. And that’s one thing that I’m focusing on.
AfXI: So maybe hoping Freya [Coombe] plays you a little higher, like come on coach, let me push as high as I want into the box.
JC: No, I think in midfield the way we play, whether you are playing defensive mid, attacking mid, you always find yourself up there. So for me, it’s not like I want to be as up there all the time. Anywhere they put me to benefit the team, I’m always gonna do it. But I as a player, make sure to sometimes go out of my way, try my best to get what I want, which is if you score goals, if it’s a corner, then I have to put myself out there, and then maybe get a header or rebounds, something like that.
AfXI: Sky Blue also made a lot of effort to get you back this offseason. For you personally, were you watching that and just waiting to see how it played out? Did you have any feelings one way or another about where your rights were going to end up in 2021?
JC: Mm. No, for me, you know, every player is different. As a player, coming in before NWSL my goal is to make sure that I’m always ready to tackle anything. There’s an emotional aspect of it. But at the end of the day, it’s my first time being in that situation, and I didn’t know how it would play it out. So best thing for me was to keep training and get better. And you know, even if it’s hurt, like you don’t know what’s going on, at the end of the day, I trusted the teams that are doing what they are doing. And I was just ready to prepare myself for any team that is gonna pick me, even though I don’t know which team. It’s a lot but at the end of the day, I kind of end up in a place where God feels like it’s right for me, you know what I mean? So either way, it would have been great. Wherever I end up I’m happy.
AfXI: When the news came out that Sky Blue had gotten your rights back there was a lot of celebrating on social media. Is it nice to see that the fans were just so excited to know that you were staying at Sky Blue?
JC: I always want the people that I’m playing for, put a smile on their face. So for them to show that much interest and care about me, it meant a lot. I felt from day one, I know this has been my home. Whatever team that I end up at, I’m always going to make sure that I work hard and make sure that it became part of me, so it felt really great knowing that all the fans out there, the club, and everyone involved really cared about me that much to bring me back, so it was special. I was shocked but it was special. I’m always grateful for that. You don’t get these chances, only a few people get those chances, so for me to be able to go through everything and then stay, it’s amazing. Even if I left - I don’t know the future. You know what I mean? I might definitely in the future come back here. Every team that I’m gonna play is going to mean something to me. So it felt good. And I’m always grateful for fans, and I’m gonna keep working out for them and make sure that I do my best every single day to win a championship. That’s my biggest goal now.
AfXI: To start wrapping up, some fun questions now. What kind of cleats are you wearing? And do you have any you really prefer?
JC: So now I have Nike. I do have Adidas too. I like both of them for now. I can’t specifically pick which one is favorite, but I love Nike cleats right now. I’m wearing Nike right now.
AfXI: Are you watching any TV or movies or reading any books or playing any games right now?
JC: Actually I got a coach who sent me a book called Relentless [by Tim S. Grover]. It’s like, from good to great and then unstoppable. I think it’s about Kobe Bryant and hard work in players and all of that in NBA. I’m normally not a book person but ever since I got that book, it’s been really helpful for me. I love all the the hard work and everything that comes with it. For what I want to be, I think that’s a book I need to push myself and just keep reminding myself every day. And I also play a Nintendo Switch. It’s a soccer game that I play. So I keep busy.
AfXI: Which soccer game on the Switch?
JC: FIFA 21. The men’s actually. I want it to have the women.
AfXI: I think one day they’ll have NWSL and then you can play as yourself on FIFA. I think that’d be really cool.
JC: Definitely, I can play my whole team myself.
AfXI: Who’s the player on Sky Blue who deals the best with the cold? And who is dealing the worst with the cold right now?
JC: Oh, let’s see the best. Everybody’s cold.
AfXI: The answer can be no one.
JC: I think one of the trialists, Taylor [Aylmer], loves to wear short pants even if it’s cold, I think. Yeah, I think she’s really good with the weather. And I will say I don’t think - maybe McCall - no. I think the rest of us, we are all cold. And the worst person, worst is me. Me and Estelle [Johnson].
AfXI: If you had to sum up your 2020 in a few words, or a sentence.
JC: It’s a grateful year for me. It’s a year that I will never forget. It made me who I am, got me to the place I am right now. To be able to talk to you and being able to show people what I love because I know it was a hard year, but it really changed my life for good.
AfXI: And if you had to sum up your hopes for 2021 in a few words or a sentence.
JC: I hope that people really start changing and treat people nice, be able to love people, no matter who they are, and all of that. It doesn’t matter the color, it doesn’t matter about race, where you’re from. Just want people to be nice and be able to be genuine and help one another. Also, my hope is to win a championship. Something that I’ve always wanted, I haven’t won a big championship.
AfXI: I cover the whole league, but Sky Blue has a really special place in my heart.
JC: We should get you my jersey. I’ll get you mine. [laughs]
AfXI: I would buy a Cudjoe jersey. I have a Nahomi Kawasumi jersey for Sky Blue from last year.
JC: Oh nice.
AfXI: Yeah, we gotta add to the collection.
JC: Yeah, we should, we should. I think I need to start collecting... I do have a bunch of favorite players that before I came into this league, I looked up to them and looking forward to swap jerseys. Hopefully they will give it to me.
AfXI: What was your number one target for swapping a jersey right now?
JC: Morgan, Alex Morgan. Yeah, since I was young I think she inspired me on different level as a player that she didn’t give up. It doesn’t matter what people think about the way you play it’s just that she’s always been that player that does the work and give everything to make sure that things happen. So that’s the drive that I got from her, making sure that no matter in any situation, I have to give my 100%. In that way, my job will always speak for me. Yeah, so that’s one thing from her. Her and also Carli Lloyd, maybe McCall, I haven’t asked McCall yet, Marta. A lot of a lot of players actually, so hopefully I’ll be able to get that.