His middle name means “prince” in Swahili. And, living up to his name, Jason Okhari Cudjoe has been regal on the soccer field for USF this season.
The senior forward has notched six goals in eight matches this season, helping lead the Bulls to an undefeated record. Coach John Hackworth listed some of the reasons for Cudjoe’s success.
“First of all he’s got incredible quickness,” Hackworth said. “And when he gets a ball and stands a player up, he’s very creative and he’ll do something that nobody can coach. And I certainly didn’t teach him some of the things that he’s done this year. He uses his creativity (in a) very good (way) and kind of explodes into the space behind.
“The key to any move is having a change of direction and change of pace. Jason does that as good as anybody in the game. He also does it with a lot of flair so it’s not just the same move.”Hackworth added Cudjoe is not simply a one-dimensional goalscorer.
“He’s keeping the ball, he knows how to read the game, his speed of play is excellent,” Hackworth said. “He’s not just a forward. If we’re out there playing possession in a tight space, Cudjoe’s one of the best guys at doing that right now.
“I would not have said that when he first arrived but his willingness to always work and improve on the little parts of his game has been the key to his success here.”
Hackworth has been Cudjoe’s only college coach, though he did not recruit him to USF – at least not directly. During Cudjoe’s senior season at Fort Lauderdale’s Nova High in 1997-98, Hackworth was an assistant at Wake Forest and tried to sign Cudjoe.
But when it became clear Cudjoe would not be going to Wake, Hackworth advised USF assistant coach Kevin Johnson – brother of Hackworth’s college teammate and roommate, C.J. – to sign him, which Johnson did. One year later, Hackworth left the Demon Deacons to become head coach of the Bulls.
Though Cudjoe is enjoying great success now, evidenced by his Conference USA Player of the Week award and spot on Soccer America’s team of the week this season, life at USF was not always roses. Like most other freshmen, Cudjoe saw limited playing time in his first year and also had to deal with the egos and shabby treatment by the older players on a star-studded squad.
“It definitely made me more determined to play to the best of my ability and just try and reach for my goals,” Cudjoe said. “Coming in, seeing those guys, you have to look up to them. I mean, they’re seniors and juniors and I admired their skill and their ability, but I just wanted to be a step above them, both soccer and personally, because the way they treated us wasn’t too good. “So I try to treat these guys (current teammates) with as much respect as possible and just try and keep our team together and flowing.”
Defender Joe Valencia was in the same freshman class as Cudjoe, and recalls another problem – fitness – that Cudjoe had to battle with.
“He was never really fit. That’s what always affected him and that’s why he would never become a good player,” Valencia said.
“But now he’s fit, now he can do whatever he wants.” Valencia said Cudjoe took matters into his own hands when it came to gaining fitness.
“Some days after practice he would do the extra things, like train on his own, go run on his own,” Valencia said.
“An example was, he never made the Cooper test, and that’s where you do two miles and then a mile under 18 minutes. Never did it in his life, and this spring he made it for the first time because he would go out every day and train. And now he can do it.”
Born in Washington, D.C., in 1980, Cudjoe’s family moved to Florida when he was 3, and three years later he began soccer.”My mom (Nikki) really wanted me to play something other than American football because I wasn’t the biggest guy,” said the 5-foot-9, 141-pound Cudjoe. “And my dad (Fred) had some experience, because he was from Trinidad, so he kinda showed me some of the ropes.”
Though he split time as a sprinter, Cudjoe’s focus remained soccer in high school. At 16, Cudjoe earned a call-up to the Under-17 national team, visiting Bermuda and South American countries.
“The one place that I remember is Chile and that was a great experience,” Cudjoe said. “At the age of 16, you’re going out of the country, just seeing different things, meeting different people. It just opened my eyes to a lot of new things.”Even with national team credentials, Cudjoe remains humble, according to the coaching staff.
“He’s a quiet leader … he leads by example and not by words,” Hackworth said. “He’s a soft-spoken individual but he’s a lot of fun.”
“One of the reasons I love being around Jason is because I think he loves being around the guys, whether it’s just hanging out, trading stories. He’s got a good presence about him in that way.”For assistant coach Mike Duncan, the word that stands out is determination.
“The real change that I first saw in Cudjoe was last spring,” Duncan said. “Cudjoe turned into a player that was very determined, and his determination has carried over into this year to make him a player that’s, obviously, one that needs to be stopped (by) other teams.”
Cudjoe needed that determination this past spring when he suffered a possible career-ending injury to his retina after being struck in the face by a ball. Forced to stay away from the field for two months, Cudjoe was even barred from doing fitness work, but he recovered in time for preseason training.
Away from the field, Cudjoe enjoys playing with his Labrador retriever, Sierra, and his Sega Dreamcast video game system. A sociology major, Cudjoe plans to work with underprivileged children if and when he is not in professional soccer. But according to Hackworth, Cudjoe has real pro prospects – he likens his size and game to Chicago Fire midfielder DaMarcus Beasley of the U.S. national team.
“Athletically, that’s not a problem for him. Technically, he’s still going to have to get better, work on his touch. He’ll have to increase his speed of play to go to the next level, just like he has while he’s here,” Hackworth said. “But the fact that he’s a good soccer player, not just a goalscorer, not just a forward, is going to allow him some opportunities at the next level.”
Cudjoe’s parents occasionally come up from Fort Lauderdale to watch him play, such as Sept. 22, when they saw him score two goals against Cincinnati in the Bulls’ 4-2 win. However, Cudjoe joked that he doesn’t expect to see them this weekend, when the Bulls take on C-USA foe UAB Friday night at 7 at the USF Soccer Stadium and travel to East Carolina two days later.
“They’ve got Carnival going on down there, so (it’s) a kind of conflict of interest,” Cudjoe said with a laugh.
Although a carnival can be exciting, the real show this weekend could be on the soccer field.
“Cudjoe finally has his chance now as a senior. He’s not in anyone’s shadows. Everyone is kind of in his shadow right now, and that’s the way he likes it,” said Duncan. “He quietly did his job – very humble, working along – and now he’s where he needs to be and deserves to be.”
The Bulls don’t like to look too far ahead, but Cudjoe has one goal he would like to reach in his final season at USF.
“Hopefully at the end of this year I can look back at our record, and hopefully a (championship) ring, and that will be good enough for me,” Cudjoe said.