When a door opens in the soccer world, the pathway it presents can take you anywhere. And when someone you trust holds the doorknob, the odds that the pathway leads to success improve.
That’s how Maya Raghunandanan, a 14-year-old freshman at Council Rock North High School, came to play for Jamaica’s national team last month at the Concacaf women’s under-17 championship in the Dominican Republic.
Raghunandanan is a midfielder on a youth team of the Ukrainian Nationals, one of the Philadelphia area’s most famous amateur soccer clubs. One of her former coaches, Joe Nemzer, spent 2018 as an assistant coach for the NWSL team then called Sky Blue FC, now Gotham FC.
Upon learning that Raghunandanan’s mother, Keisha, grew up in Jamaica, Nemzer saw an opportunity. Maya soon traveled to Florida to train with former U.S. men’s national team star striker Eddie Johnson, then went to a youth club in suburban Orlando run by Hue Menzies — the coach who took Jamaica to its first women’s World Cup in 2019.
As more scouts started paying attention, Maya traveled to more camps and showcase events. Then, in February, a big door opened: an invitation to Jamaica in February to show off her skills to Jamaica’s U-17 coaching staff.
Two months after that, Maya was playing in Jamaica’s tournament opener against Bermuda. And eight minutes after kickoff, she scored the game’s opening goal.
‘Out of my comfort zone’
“I was just, like, in shock,” she said. “I didn’t even realize what I actually did until after the game. I was like, ‘I really just scored my first goal in my first international cap — like, that’s pretty crazy.’”
In the stands, Keisha and her husband, Manoj, were over the moon.
“It’s not like I ever imagined or thought this would even happen that she would play for Jamaica,” Keisha said. “It was just kind of crazy to see her in your country’s color, practicing with these girls, having a full-blown different experience from what she’s used to. … She adapted really well. She got along with the girls. The coaches spoke very highly of her.”
Maya didn’t know any of her teammates when this all started, and some players she befriended during training camps didn’t make the final cut. But in the end, she formed bonds the way teenagers do: with TikTok dance videos and long conversations after leaving the field.
“As soon as I stepped out of my comfort zone, just talked to them, it was so easy because they’re all such nice, loving, caring girls,” she said.
Jamaica ended up beating Bermuda, 7-0, with Raghunandanan scoring the game’s fourth tally as well. Keisha and her husband also went to the next game, a 3-1 win over the tournament host, Dominican Republic.
Back home on that day, the Ukrainian Nationals threw a viewing party at their clubhouse in North Wales. Maya’s teammates wore yellow T-shirts with her number 11 and Jamaica’s flag.
When word of that got to the family, they were floored.
“I could never thank them enough for all they’ve done helping me grow and learn,” Maya said.
“It’s just been a real community effort, and, as parents, we’re very grateful and thankful for all those folks that were supportive,” Manoj said.
The biggest game
Jamaica finished second in its group, behind Canada on goal difference, then beat Cuba, 4-0, in the round of 16.
And then came the ultimate matchup: the United States in the quarterfinals.
“My mind was going crazy,” Maya said. “This was probably the most I’ve ever prepared for like a game — not physically, but mentally and tactically. … Everyone was really, really nervous because we all knew what was on the line.”
The Americans, who had scored a whopping 49 goals over four games up to then, won this one, 4-0. They went on to win the tournament, beating Canada in the semis and Mexico in the final.
But the U.S. coaching staff noticed Raghunandanan across the field, and invited her to a national team scouting camp in northern Virginia later this month.
That will open another door. And for any American girl who plays soccer, it’s the biggest door of all.
“I’ve been watching all the U.S. players — Christen Press, Tobin Heath — my entire life. They’re incredible players, and that’s an incredible team,” Maya said. “But I love playing on Jamaica as well, too. So I’m kind of torn because I’m just so proud to represent Jamaica — represent my mom, my family, everybody there.”
It’s a lot for a 14-year-old to think about, and fortunately, she doesn’t have to make a decision yet. But she has thought about it, and what it would mean to just be able to make that decision.
“If I was ever presented the opportunity, that would just be a very difficult challenge,” she said, “but I’d be very privileged and blessed to be on either team.”
Coming back home
There’s plenty to do right now, anyway, from catching up on schoolwork after being away for three weeks to rejoining her Ukrainian Nationals youth team.
“I tried my best to do all the work that I could, but to be honest, I definitely could have done a better job — my mind was just not there at school,” Maya said. “A lot of my teachers have been supportive by helping me get back into the groove.”
And her parents are still beaming.
“She wants to play in college at a D-I, Power 5” school, Keisha said. “That’s her dream, and she’s worked really hard. So we plan to support her with whatever training and extra whatever she’s needing to get to that next level.”
Manoj is just as supportive.
“She sacrifices quite a bit … and she does it of her own accord,” he said. “We don’t ever want to force her to do these things. So as long as she wants it, and she’s willing to do the work, and she’s willing to work hard, I think as parents, I feel like it’s [our] responsibility to do everything we can to support her in that endeavor.”