Yewande Balogun received a call she never expected in June 2021, two months after she relaunched her playing career. She’d been outside the white lines for a decade, getting knee surgery, working in finance, earning her MBA and coaching at multiple NCAA Division I women’s soccer programs.
And yet, in the beginning of summer, Nigeria’s national team head coach, Randy Waldrum, was on the other end of the line, extending an invitation to try out for the squad because the team needed a goalkeeper during a U.S. tour that saw some of its players unable to compete due to Covid-19 related travel restrictions.
“Even getting that call in a lot of ways was crazy for me,” Balogun, 33, said. “I had finally taken that jump to chase that dream again, and it was all unfolding for me.”
Balogun had four weeks to train before joining the Super Falcons’ training camp. The Bowie native has taken a circuitous route to Friday, the most important day of her career. She’ll start for Nigeria in goal when it opens World Cup play against Canada at 10:30 p.m. Thursday Eastern time in Melbourne, Australia.
That journey included training sessions in Baltimore, where she latched on with a Coppermine team that gave her a home and bolstered her confidence. Though she was ultimately offered a chance to play professionally in France and left the club, she returned this year to prep for the biggest tournament of her career.
“I’d always imagined it as a kid,” Balogun said about the World Cup. “It’s crazy that I let that dream go and now I’m getting a second chance.”
As a Nigerian American, Balogun always wanted to play for the Super Falcons. She has family in Nigeria, but she never made contact with anyone from the national team there. And, before Waldrum took over, it was uncommon for foreign players of Nigerian descent to play for the team.
So, for most of her life, Balogun played on the United States youth national circuit, stopping once she reached the U-20 level. Her skills in goal at Eleanor Roosevelt High School made her the top recruit in Maryland and one of the best at her position in the country. Brian Pensky’s main mission as Maryland’s head coach in 2007 was to keep Balogun in state.
“She was very mature back then at the age of 16,” Pensky said. “It was obviously very fortunate to get her to stay at home … and she helped lead Maryland to one of its most successful time periods.”
Like most goalies, Balogun had experience playing in the field as a child. At Maryland, those skills sometimes came to the forefront.
The Terrapins had never beaten North Carolina — one of college sports’ most dominant dynasties, in any sport — and had a record of 0-30-1 before the teams played in 2010. Maryland trailed 1-0 in the 78th minute when Balogun launched a counterattack with a perfectly placed punt following a defensive stop. Sade Ayinde collected Balogun’s pass and scored. Ayinde scored the game-winning goal off a free kick a few minutes later.
Balogun finished her career as the program’s all-time leader in goals against average (0.93), a record that still holds. Pensky said she wasn’t just a great shot stopper but also a preventer, organizing Maryland’s back line constantly.
But, after she graduated, there were no professional avenues for Balogun to explore. The Women’s United Soccer Association had been disbanded for eight years and another effort at a professional league, Women’s Professional Soccer, failed. She also needed knee surgery.
“I thought I was done playing before I was ready to be done playing,” Balogun said. “It was too painful to be around the game at all.”
Balogun removed herself from the sport that had consumed her life, not even watching or talking about it. She focused on working in finance for three years.
Soccer kept nagging at her to return. Balogun had coached a youth player while she played at Maryland, and the client’s dad was adamant that Balogun continue training her daughter. Begrudgingly, Balogun agreed. But, when she returned to College Park for her MBA, she stopped the one-on-one sessions.
“That’s when I realized I missed soccer,” Balogun said.
Balogun circled back on some of the coaching opportunities she had turned down, joining the Terrapins staff as a goalie coach in 2017. She started earning her coaching certifications, thinking if she couldn’t play in a World Cup she could coach in one.
UC Davis head coach Tracy Hamm called to offer her an assistant job in 2019. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Aggies hosted a “play day,” scrimmaging against the University of Santa Barbara and the California Storm, a Women’s Premier Soccer League team. But the Storm didn’t have a goalie.
Hamm, a longtime veteran of the club, knew about the team’s missing piece and Balogun’s talent from the few times she joined UC Davis’ goalies in training. So Hamm called her friend, the Storm’s head coach, and suggested Balogun for the role.
“I was playing against my own college team with the Cal Storm,” Balogun said. “Then, the coach from the California Storm asked if I could play [that] summer and I said, ‘You know what, why not?’ That was the beginning of that.”
Naturally, Balogun was a different player compared to her collegiate career. But being a coach allowed her to study the game from a different perspective.
“It’s kind of like having to relearn a lot of different things and having this wealth of knowledge which I didn’t have while I was playing as a youth player,” Balogun said.
When the call from Nigeria came a few months into her career with the Storm, Balogun was concerned it was a one-time offer. If she wanted to continue playing professionally, she’d have to commit fully.
“I knew that if I wanted to get back, I knew I couldn’t train part time,” Balogun said. “So I made the decision to leave coaching in 2021 after that fall season.”
Balogun quickly found an agent and moved back to Maryland. Val Teixeira, the head coach for United Women’s Soccer side Coppermine United, based in Baltimore, had stayed in touch with Balogun from when they both coached at a youth summer camp in Annapolis. He’d tried to convince her to join his team before. In 2022, it was finally the right time.
“We were looking for a top goalkeeper to help us get to that division title,” Teixeira said about Coppermine, which had just moved up to the UWS’ top division. “She was able to read the game, play the game as a player but also with a coach mentality.”
Balogun had a successful year with Coppermine, playing alongside Sofia Harrison, a Montgomery native who is representing the Philippines in their World Cup debut this year. She gained interest from other clubs internationally, eventually joining French side AS Saint-Étienne. And she traveled to Mexico in February to represent Nigeria in the Revelations Cup.
The entire week, Waldrum kept asking Balogun to stay ready. She did, not knowing if she’d play in the second or third game. The night before the third matchup, Waldrum told Balogun she’d start against Costa Rica.
“I wanted to go and just play and enjoy the game. I felt so confident stepping on the field and playing,” Balogun said. She didn’t give up any goals in a 1-0 Nigeria win.
Teixeira told Balogun, if she ever wanted to come back and train with Coppermine, the door was open. After her season with Saint-Étienne ended in June, Balogun took him up on that offer.
For most of the month, Balogun joined Coppermine at its training sessions two to three times a week. She’d arrive 30-40 minutes before the rest of the team, warming up with the goalie coach. Then she’d join the rest of the goalies for 40 minutes of individual training before live play.
Teixeira said Balogun’s presence recently gave the team — which went 7-1 to finish third in the UWS’ East Division — a boost of confidence, putting the players alongside someone who’s moments away from the world stage. Back in Davis, California, Balogun’s story is repeated too.
“I talk about Yewande a lot with my team just from the perspective that she had this dream to be a professional soccer player and to play in the World Cup, even at her age and having stopped playing at some point,” Hamm said. “It shows how far passion and dedication can take you when you really believe in yourself.”