Sam Coffey’s path to her first senior national team call-up was never a straight line.
The 23-year-old midfielder from Sleepy Hollow, New York, has already experienced her fair share of peaks and valleys before embarking on her rookie season. She has missed out on youth teams, been asked to learn a completely new position after transferring colleges and was never called up to the United States Under-20 Women's National Team for the 2018 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup despite helping the team qualify.
Through the ups and downs, Coffey has remained true to herself, which led to her standing outside a popular fast-food chain in the Portland International Airport where she received a call she had been planning and waiting her entire life for.
First came a text out of the blue from U.S. Women’s National Team head coach, Vlatko Andonovski. Minutes later, she stood in shock with her phone pressed against her ear, still processing what she was hearing: an official call-up to the upcoming senior USWNT camp as a member of the 26-player roster.
“I was standing outside of a McDonald’s,” Sam Coffey said, “I took a photo just because I needed to remember how it went down.”
Despite trying to bring as little attention to herself as possible, Coffey has received her fair share of congratulations from both teammates and coaches. Now in Denver to participate in her first senior national team camp and take part in friendlies against Colombia in Commerce City, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah, reality is beginning to set in.
“Ever since I was a little kid, this is what I would write on my wall in a list of goals,” Sam Coffey said. “It’s what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be, so I feel like everything is coming full circle.”
Alex Coffey says that each conversation with her sister is like a “Soccer 101” of sorts. A Philadelphia Phillies beat reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and fully immersed in baseball, she knows how the sport works, but didn’t catch the same soccer bug her sister did growing up.
While she didn’t exactly grasp the true magnitude of a call-up at first, she knew it had to be a big deal when the message popped up in a family group text on June 8. With her a working journalist, their brother, Sean Coffey, a TV reporter and Sam Coffey a full-time professional soccer player multiple time zones away, it has been difficult to stay in touch. The text, however, provided immediate perspective.
“We all have crazy schedules and there are time differences involved,” Alex Coffey said. “I don’t have time to watch all her games and she doesn’t have time to read all my articles. Our brother is a news anchor and has to wake up early, so we all just check in one another broadly.”
When the sisters do talk, their conversations mostly center around life outside their professions, but Alex Coffey does recall another soccer-related moment in which she could barely see her sister contain her excitement. Still in high school, Sam Coffey had the opportunity to train with longtime U.S. Women’s National Team striker Carli Lloyd.
“[Sam] was always watching [the USWNT] growing up and because my dad was a sportswriter, she actually got to meet a few of them,” Alex Coffey said.
In a session that involved a lot of technical work, such as one-touch passes and how to put the perfect amount of weight on a through ball, the biggest thing Sam Coffey took away was Lloyd’s approach and attention to detail. She took those lessons with her to college as well as training sessions with the Thorns; now she’ll have the opportunity to display those traits at the national team level.
“I was in awe of [Lloyd], her journey and her resilience,” Sam Coffey said. “She was an idol for me growing up and it’s cool to think that as in awe as I was in that moment, I’m now going to play with some of her teammates, which is so cool.”
Sam Coffey heard both a hearty congratulations mixed with light laughter on the other line when she informed Erica Dambach, her college coach at Penn State, of her call-up to the national team as a defensive midfielder.
“If I told you I was going to get called in as a six would you believe me?” Sam Coffey asked her college coach.
“No,” Dambach responded. “I don’t think anybody would have.”
Fresh off scoring 17 goals across two seasons, Sam Coffey arrived in State College, Pennsylvania, as an attacking-minded No. 10 who pulled the strings in midfield for two seasons at Boston College. When Dambach first reached out to Sam Coffey – the same night the young midfielder entered the transfer portal – she saw a talented college attacking midfielder, but also a young player with the potential to play at an even higher level if she added defending to her arsenal. Soon after her first meeting with Dambach, Sam Coffey began her transition to defensive midfield.
The Thorns rookie is quick to admit that the transition from attacking to defensive midfield is still a work in progress. At Penn State, she could no longer focus on just the ball or what was in front of her; instead, she had to screen the ball, be observant of action behind her and run into passing lanes in transition.
“There were moments where you’d see her and she’s not close enough to actually effect the play,” Dambach said. “She would go running toward the ball and opponents would play right past her.”
Comfortable in her own skin, Sam Coffey’s unique blend of humility and self-confidence helped speed up the learning process. During film sessions, she often pointed out her own mistakes in front of teammates.
“She would watch herself in front of the team and ask ‘What am I doing up there? Why am I defending that way?’” Dambach said. “She wasn’t afraid to point out her deficiencies, but really embraced them and didn’t shy away from them.”
Four years later, it’s easy for Sam Coffey to look back and point out how her time in college prepared her for where she is now. While most of her growth as a player came in Happy Valley, she knows she wouldn’t be where she is today without her two seasons as an offensive fulcrum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
Now, not even 10 games into her professional career in Portland, Sam Coffey is thriving as a six. A day-in-day-out starter in head coach Rhian Wilkinson’s lineup, her defense has been solid and she shows flashes of her attacking instincts every game. She notched her first professional assist against the San Diego Wave on June 8 and nearly had a second days later when a perfectly curled free kick found the feet of Rocky Rodriguez in front of goal. In a 2-2 draw against the Chicago Red Stars on May 28, both Portland goals started with corner kicks served in by Sam Coffey.
And it’s not just NWSL fans who have picked up on the early-season performances from Sam Coffey in the middle of the park. They also piqued the interest of Andonovski and his staff, who reside over 1,500 miles away.
“What we see with her is consistency and continuity,” Andonovski said. “It is very interesting for Sam Coffey to catch the coaches eye; it actually takes a little bit of time because she’s not a flashy player, she’s not going to do these incredible things like score upper-90 or dribble through two or three players, but she makes the players around her click and makes everyone else’s job a bit easier.”
While ecstatic for the upcoming opportunity, Sam Coffey realizes there’s a chance she might not see the field in either game against Colombia. As one of 26 players fighting for a spot in FIFA’s No. 1-ranked women’s national team in the world, minutes are never a guarantee. Still, that doesn’t mean she can’t make a good first impression.
Dambach, who has been an assistant coach for the national team in the past – including under Andonovski – knows what catches the eyes of the coaching staff when it comes to young players participating in their first camps. Creativity is important and natural talent plays a key role, but the most important thing is understanding the system and elevating other players.
“They’re not trying to take [your creativity] away from you, but in that environment, you have to make Rose Lavelle and Lindsay Horan better,” Dambach said. “As a six, you’ve got a job to allow those creative players to do what they need to do for the team to be successful.”
Sam Coffey has already sat down with Andonovski over Zoom to go over film from her matches with the Thorns and observe tape of the other sixes in the pool to see what they’re doing. They also went over team principles, defining principals, attacking principals and other things she needs to know heading into camp.
“I think her positioning is tremendous, especially in possession of the ball,” Andonovski said. “She really helps with ball circulation and is able to establish a rhythm for the team, and that’s where we see her values.”
Andonovski compared Sam Coffey to Catarina Macario and even Thorns FC teammate Sophia Smith, who both played limited minutes when they first arrived in the national team setup, but now play key roles. He said there’s still plenty of areas for growth, but feels now is a good opportunity for her to enter the system and learn the team as well as style of play.
“Hopefully in the future as she’s growing, she’s not just thrown into the team without knowing anything,” Andonovski said. “There are players who have gone through games, sometimes getting very little minutes or no minutes at all, but eventually they become important players for us.”
Personally, Sam Coffey hopes to use the camp to continue to grow as a six, still a relatively new position for her, and plans to absorb everything she can. She has already sat down with teammate Becky Sauerbrunn to learn more about what to expect, excited about what’s to come.
“I think it’s a perfect situation for my first camp,” Sam Coffey said. “Going in with the 26 and then being an alternate for qualifying. It’s such an exciting opportunity and I’m just continuing to look to pick the brain of anyone I can.”
Growing up in a family of journalists, Sam Coffey knew the question was coming.
“Do you have any specific memories watching the U.S. Women’s National Team growing up?”
Without skipping a beat, she set the scene of what she remembers as her first ever USWNT game. Then a braces-wearing tween girl sporting an Alex Morgan jersey with the American flag painted on her face, Sam Coffey watched as the United States played at Red Bull Arena.
On June 25, Sam Coffey will attend her first USWNT game since she traveled to Winnipeg, Canada, to watch the United States compete in group play at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. This time, though, she’ll be watching the game from field level and, if things go right, she might even hear Andonovski call her name.
Living out a childhood dream, Sam Coffey knows she has plenty to prove over the next few weeks as she looks to take advantage of a hard-fought opportunity. Then again, often overlooked growing up, it’s something she’s more than accustomed to.
“I don’t want to let [this moment] get too big,” Sam Coffey said. "I’m confident that I’ve earned it and I want to go in there, do the best that I can and just savor it, taking a second to acknowledge how amazing it is that this dream is coming true."