On September 6, Portland Thorns midfielder Sam Coffey realized her dream. The Sleepy Hollow, NY native earned her first start and first appearance with the U.S. Women’s National Team, and it was a poignant moment. During the playing of the National Anthem, Coffey could be seen on the broadcast, hand over her heart, eyes closed, and head tilted upwards, taking it all in.
“That is something I do before every game. When the National Anthem plays, I close my eyes,” Coffey told AllForXI. “It’s a moment to be still, to maybe say a prayer, and really come back to what all of this is about and what all of this is for. I use that time to breathe it all in and remind myself of what a gift it is to play, and in that moment, it was the ultimate gift, a dream come true in every way, shape, and form.”
Coffey would play all 90 minutes in the match against Nigeria, and the USWNT went on to win 2-1.
Soccer in Sleepy Hollow
The 23-year-old rookie cherished growing up in Westchester. “I love where I’m from, I love Sleepy Hollow, I love Westchester - other than the traffic,” she joked. “But it is not by any means a soccer mecca. Growing up where I did, at the time I was growing up, New Jersey was the place to be for young female aspiring soccer players.”
Despite the challenges of growing up in an area that lacked the same development programs as nearby New Jersey, Coffey is grateful for her unique experiences. “I’m really grateful for where I’m from because I believe being overlooked, not having as much exposure, not being on the radar of big colleges or national teams until I was 17 or 18, just really instilled a drive in me - a desire to just work no matter what the circumstances were, to stay humble, and to work for the opportunity I knew would one day come.”
Coffey’s youth journey would take her through a number of clubs and academies in New York and New Jersey, including Patriots FC in Westchester, and Bergen Essex Celtics in New Jersey. It was there in New Jersey that she played with Gotham FC defender Kelly Ann Livingstone. “We were a scrappy, rag-tag group, no one knew about us, we had no resources or money, but we could play,” Coffey reminisced. “We would beat high-end teams who had all those resources! I loved that team. I still keep in touch with those girls and coaches, and I played with them until I got to high school.”
Eventually, Coffey ended up at the prestigious Match Fit Academy in New Jersey where she again played with Livingstone and got to compete in the ECNL. “I loved Match Fit. They have great coaches and great development,” Coffey said. “I feel grateful to have been all over the map! Each club, coach, and teammate offered something unique and invaluable to me.”
Drafted and Deferred
The 2021 NWSL Draft presented unique challenges for both the league and draftees. The league had determined that all Division I athletes that featured in three seasons were eligible for selection in that NWSL Draft. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA had determined that athletes could elect to play an additional year of college eligibility and defer a draft to the following year. Coffey did not register for the draft that year, but was drafted 12th overall by the Portland Thorns.
“That was a crazy time. I had no idea I was even eligible until the week of the draft,” Coffey recalled. Her coach at Penn State, Erica Dambach, reached out and told her she might hear her name called in the draft.
Initially, Coffey’s plan was to start her pro career overseas. “That was a desire of mine in college when I didn’t know enough about the NWSL,” Coffey recalled. “When I heard from my now-agent that the Thorns were very interested, I perked up. That could change everything.”
For Coffey, the opportunity to play in Portland opened up her eyes to a new possibility. She saw the city as a mecca for soccer, and as setting the standard for soccer in the United States at a club level. She had watched the Thorns play at times during college, and she loved their style of play and what the club represented.
When Coffey heard her name called in the draft, she knew she had a number of decisions to make. Would she take her extra year of college eligibility? Would she start her career abroad as she had previously dreamed? Or would she move across the country to Portland, the team that drafted her?
Ultimately, after many conversations with her coaches, Coffey decided to take her extra year of NCAA eligibility. She saw her 5th year as an opportunity to refine her skills, focus on the details, and truly prepare to be the best professional she could be, and so that’s what she did.
“It ended up being the best decision I could have possibly made, even though it was really scary in the moment because it felt like I was putting my dream aside,” Coffey said. “But it gave me everything I needed that summer and fall to be as ready as I could possibly be [to play pro].”
It seems that Coffey’s diligence and hard work have paid off in a big way. In addition to Portland’s secured playoff berth, Coffey herself earned the NWSL Rookie of the Month accolade and a spot on the NWSL Best XI for the month of June. Coffey credits this accomplishment to her teammates around her who constantly set her up for success. While she is incredibly honored, she can’t let herself get caught up in it.
“It’s easy to get distracted by external awards, but I try to make my focus on being the best player and teammate I can be for this club and continuing this process of growth and development and learning all about what it is to be a pro,” Coffey said.
This season, Coffey’s impact has been paramount to the success of the Thorns. In fact, on Wednesday night, she scored her first NWSL goal helping the Portland team be the first to clinch a playoff spot this season.
A National Team Debut
The recognition of Coffey’s hard work and skill isn’t limited to the club level. In addition to her first cap on September 6, the rookie received two other call-ups to the USWNT earlier this year. The midfielder was grateful she had a few call-ups to just observe and soak it all in before earning her first appearance.
“It was so exciting,” Coffey said. “As a competitor, I always want to play, but I can’t say how valuable that time was to just watch. Of course, I had to really be on myself to just stay focused, trust the process, and not be distracted by that desire to want to get out there.”
When Coffey learned she was earning her start, she immediately got to work. “I had lots of meetings that night, it felt like I was studying for an exam! I take notes in meetings and I write down scouting reports, so I’m watching the set pieces and writing everything down. They think it’s funny!” Coffey recalled with a laugh. “I had so many notes accumulated from watching different games and studying different presentations, and I feel like the culmination of all those things really led me to be prepared for that game.”
Although Coffey did not expect to earn her first cap so soon, and especially as a start, she believed that the way it happened felt right. “It was a surprising way for it to all go down, but it’s on brand of this whole journey, of things not going the way I expected, but I couldn’t be more grateful for how it happened,” she said. Now, she is looking at ways she can improve her game, and she’s excited to get to work.
Returning in Portland, it is back to business for Coffey as the team is competing in a tight race for the NWSL Shield and looking forward to the post-season. Even with all the work ahead of the Thorns, her team did not miss the opportunity to put together a special video congratulating their rookie on her accomplishment.
Friends and family who have gotten her through the ups and downs all her life recorded short videos commending Coffey on this important milestone in her career, and Coffey felt unbelievably blessed that her team put so much thought into creating this memory for her.
“When I got drafted, I knew this was a special place, but I did not realize how special it was until I got here. I’m still discovering how special it is every day,” Coffey said. “The staff putting together this video for me was just incredible, and I am so grateful to be in a place where I’m supported.”