Thorns FC

Why It Matters | Sam Coffey brings high upside, new option to the Portland Thorns' midfield

Coffey_Sam (A-21-Umass-MS) 5911

PORTLAND, Ore. — One year after being drafted, Sam Coffey is officially a Portland Thorn.

As announced today, Coffey has signed her first professional contract, finally joining Portland after she was selected in the second round of the 2021 National Women’s Soccer League draft. After a college career that featured 42 goals and 54 assists in 101 games, Coffey is set to join the Thorns for February’s preseason, adding another talented midfielder to head coach Rhian Wilkinson’s roster.

"We knew we were getting a high caliber player when the club drafted Sam, but the development we've seen in her over the last year excites us even more for her future in Portland," Karina LeBlanc, Thorns FC general manager, said in the club's announcement. "We are confident her quality of play will integrate into the team easily and add competitive balance to the club."

What today's addition means for Portland's depth chart, Wilkinson’s decisions, and the Thorns’ plans will become clearer as preseason unfolds. For now, here’s Why It Matters that Coffey is now a Thorn.

How We Got Here

When the NCAA adjusted to our Covid-19 world, the NWSL’s 2021 draft became loaded. Players were allowed to declare for the draft but potentially preserve their college eligibility. We saw how this played out for Portland’s 2021 first-round draft pick, Yazmeen Ryan, who played out Texas Christian’s spring schedule before joining the Thorns. Similarly, Coffey chose to stay in State College through Penn State’s fall season.

As she shared last month, Coffey didn’t know she was eligible for last January’s draft until roughly a week before. In that way, both she and her future team got lucky. After being drafted, Coffey said Portland was, “by far my favorite club,” but given the skills that made her a two-time All-American in college, it’s unlikely she would have lasted to pick 12 in another draft. Thanks to the NCAA’s Covid adjustments, though, 2021’s class was loaded, allowing a first-round talent to fall into the second round.

Why It Matters … for 2022

To know how her talent fits in Portland, you have to know the player Coffey was in college. She proved most dangerous at the top of the Nittany Lions’ midfield, racking up high goal and assist totals while thriving in the space in front of opposition defenses. In addition to being a major threat on set pieces, Coffey developed the skills and style to be an option at the top of the Thorns’ midfield.

Sam Coffey NCAA stats (2017-2021)
Sam Coffey NCAA stats (2017-2021)
Boston College
Boston College
Penn State
Penn State
Penn State

Being the same player at the NWSL level is a big ask, especially for a player who has yet to play a professional minute. That type of impact might be a long-term goal. In terms of what her short-term value, though — what Coffey will bring to Portland on day one of the preseason — there's no doubt about her skill level. Her ability to see the game as Penn State’s primary creator shows she may be tactically advanced, while she also has the physical profile to compete in the NWSL. In that way, some of the obstacles collegiates usually face while leaping from college to pro seem less daunting for Coffey. Her ability to fight through with the Thorns’ depth of talent may be a bigger challenge than her ability to compete with the broader NWSL.

That’s because a 2021 Ballon d’Or nominee, Christine Sinclair, is the incumbent at her position in Portland. Later in the season, Crystal Dunn will return to the field. She’ll also be an option in the team’s number 10 role. Marissa Everett, Lindsey Horan, Olivia Moultrie, Rocky Rodríguez and Yazmeen Ryan have played attacking midfield for teams in the past, but because of the Thorns’ depth, they’ve had to find other places to contribute as well. Will Coffey be able to adjust if she’s fighting for time in another role?

Given preseason is still a month away, there’s no guarantee she’ll be asked to do so. And with a new coach coming in, the Thorns may not even play the same formation they have over the last two seasons. Since the beginning of 2020, Portland’s used a diamond midfield. Only Wilkinson knows whether the Thorns will change things up.

Coffey adds to Portland’s wealth of options. Starting next month, though, she'll be competing with wealth.

Why It Matters … into the future

Though you hope their transition goes smoothly, you don’t sign a college standout and define their future by one season. What Coffey does in 2022 will be interesting, important, and tell us how quickly she might reach her potential, but in terms of what her pro career will be, a longer view be just as important.

In that long view, the Thorns have signed someone that might eventually be a first-choice attacking midfielder. But given Portland’s other 2022 options, that future doesn't have to be now. Sinclair is chief among those options until she decides otherwise. Dunn is in Portland for the long haul. Moultrie may be a future star.

Though hopes are high, there’s no reason to rush Coffey’s evaluation. As the NWSL matures and the gap between it and the college game grows, it becomes tougher to go from one world to the other. Coffey needs to manage that change, first. Along the way, Portland can let Coffey evolve in a way that maximizes her potential.

What’s Next

The NWSL’s preseason starts in less than a month, and with it, so does Coffey’s new life. New city, new home, new locker room, new teammates. By February, Coffey’s world will be nothing but new. As with every player coming out of college, she may need significant time to adjust.

Eventually, and probably in March, we’ll see the newest Thorn on the field, in black and red, showing a new fanbase why she’s become so highly regarded. We’ll not only see how ready she is for the NWSL. We’ll see how ready she is to contribute to the 2022 Thorns.