Q+A: Sam Coffey on NWSL rookie season, USWNT debut and Yates report takeaways

Soccer player Sam Coffey of the Portland Thorns
Soccer player Sam Coffey of the Portland Thorns

Portland Thorns midfielder Sam Coffey has enjoyed a stellar start to her pro soccer career, earning a nomination for NWSL rookie of the year. Coffey, who grew up in Sleepy Hollow, New York, had an early look at what it takes for elite soccer players to succeed thanks in part to her dad, Wayne, a sports journalist who co-wrote memoirs with Carli Lloyd and, more recently, Briana Scurry.

After beginning her collegiate soccer career at Boston College, Coffey transferred to Penn State. She was drafted by the Portland Thorns ahead of the 2021 NWSL season, but opted to take her extra year of NCAA eligibility before joining the Thorns earlier this year.  Coffey’s strong NWSL rookie season resulted in the 23-year-old earning her first international caps in USWNT friendlies vs. Nigeria, England, and Spain this summer and fall.

Coffey and her Thorns teammate have also navigated an especially challenging few weeks following the release of the Yates report on October 3. The report included damning evidence about how Portland failed to take action after former coach Paul Riley was accused of harassment and sexual coercion. Following the report’s release, President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson and President of Business Mike Golub, were fired. Merritt Paulson, the owner of the Timbers and Thorns, stepped down as CEO of both organizations. Fan groups and some players — as well as all three of Oregon’s gubernatorial candidates — have called for Paulson to sell both teams.

Ahead of Sunday’s NWSL semifinal at Providence Park, the Portland Thorns announced that a significant portion of ticket proceeds from the game will be donated to three charities chosen by the players.

With her rookie season coming to a close, On Her Turf spoke with Coffey earlier this month to discuss her transition to the NWSL, when pro soccer became her goal, and how she found out about her first USWNT invite. We caught up again after the Yates report was released to discuss her thoughts on the findings and how Portland Thorns fans can support the players moving forward.

This Q&A was conducted over two sessions (October 1 and October 20). The conversations have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. 

Saturday, October 1, 2022

On Her Turf: How would you summarize your first season playing with the Portland Thorns in the NWSL?

Sam Coffey: I could never have pictured this year going the way it has. It really couldn’t have gone better for me, personally, and I feel so blessed and fortunate to say that. It’s obviously just a testament to this wonderful organization that I was drafted into. I’ve been supported in every way that I could possibly be supported. I’ve been able to be around literally some of the greatest soccer players in the world, every day since January.

The impact that that’s had on me, I don’t think I could put it into words. It’s been a whirlwind. It’s been a journey. It hasn’t all been good and sunshine, but I feel like I’ve grown so much this year, I learned so much and it honestly just makes me so excited for a career in this league and a career as a professional footballer.

On Her Turf: I know you played with U.S. youth national teams when you were younger… but I’m curious, at what point did professional soccer become your goal?

Coffey: Professional soccer has been the goal since I was a pipsqueak. I can remember, even in grade school, we would have those questionnaire sheets about what you want to be when you grow up and the answer for me was always: I want to be a pro soccer player. I have (that goal) written on things that I still have today so it’s cool to look back and see that that dream has come true.

On Her Turf: Given how long it’s been your goal to be a pro soccer player, I’m guessing the NWSL wasn’t even in existence at the time… Was that back when the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league existed?

Coffey: Yeah, it was the WPS. I grew up going to Sky Blue games at Yurcak Field at Rutgers. I would go to those games as often as I could, watching Heather O’Reilly and Marta and Christie Rampone and players that are still playing in this league today… Seeing those women who came before me do what I ultimately wanted to do was so formative for me… It’s so cool to think about myself (as serving as that inspiration) to little girls in the crowd (today).

So yeah, the NWSL was not a thing yet, but (to see) the league going so strong now, that it’s the 10-year anniversary and has such a strong foundation, I feel really honored to be part of it.

On Her Turf: I covered the process behind the NWSL’s first ever collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and it strikes me that — for rookies like you — you never necessarily knew any different. Have you personally felt the impact of the CBA?

Coffey: The CBA is life altering for players in this league. And yeah, I don’t know any different. I know just from hearing (other players talk about it). I think it ultimately gives me gratitude for the players who came before me, the players who did have to endure those hardships. It makes me grateful and in awe of them, and their courage and resilience. And it makes me excited for what’s to come.

On Her Turf: You also made your USWNT debut this summer. How did you find out about your first call-up to the national team?

Coffey: I had heard some rumblings about it possibly being a thing, but I didn’t think of it as anything more than a rumor.

I was at the airport with the (Thorns) — we were about to go to San Diego for a game — and I got a call from (USWNT head coach) Vlatko (Andonovski). I was like, ‘Ok, I wasn’t expecting this,’ but obviously, I talked before about my dreams coming true and that (call) was the epitome of that goal.

It was such a surreal moment. I was like, ‘Did that just happen?’ I was standing outside of McDonald’s at the Portland airport and FaceTiming my family and loved ones to tell them the good news. I had literally been dreaming of that day for my whole life and my experience with the full team has been so incredible so far. I feel so grateful to be part of, what I believe, is the greatest team in the world.


Thursday, October 20, 2022

On Her Turf: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk again. Given all that has happened in the last few weeks following the release of the Yates report, I thought your feelings on some of the topics we spoke about earlier this month may have changed. No pressure, but I wanted to start by giving you the space if you have any initial thoughts on the Yates report that you want to share. I know so much of what was in the report happened before you joined the league.

Sam Coffey: I think we all have a lot of strong feelings about the report. What’s in it is horrifying and disgusting and dark on so many levels. I think reading that, as a player and especially being in the position that I’m in now (as a player on the Thorns), I think for all of us, it was extremely disturbing to read.

I actually posted something to my Instagram a couple days ago about how darkness has just plagued this league for so long. Yes, here in Portland. But it’s everywhere. It’s all around us. It’s in the NWSL. It’s in U.S. Soccer. It’s in youth soccer. The grassroots level is where so much of this — the abuse and mistreatment — is stemming from. There’s no room for it anymore. Obviously there should’ve never been (room for it) and I wish with everything in me that it didn’t have to happen.

But does that mean that I don’t love Portland or I don’t love this club? Of course not. I do love this club. But I think, with that love, comes a responsibility to criticize it and to want it to be better and to do better and to change for the better and I have full faith in the club to do that.

I just feel honored and lucky, honestly, to be with the women that I’m with here every day. We just help one another navigate this unchartered territory. I think we’re not accepting that this is what it is… It’s definitely been a dark period of time, but I am looking forward to the change and the progress that is going to take place as a result of this.

On Her Turf: Thank you for sharing that. Your teammate Bella (Bixby) posted on Twitter about what she hopes fans keep in mind if they’re struggling with how to support the players. I was wondering if you have any thoughts on that ahead of Sunday’s NWSL semifinal at Providence Park?

Coffey: Yeah, I echo everything that Bella said. I think she put it so beautifully and eloquently. We are not naive or ignorant to the fact that fans are struggling with this. I mean, we’re struggling with it as players, in a different way. And it’s now kind of a question of, how do I move forward?

None of us want to condone this… And I understand, from a fan level, you think you give your money to a club and that you’re supporting what it has done. But I think Bella’s statement was so spot on, in that, when you show up to a game, you’re showing up for us and showing that you love us and support us and that you’re in this fight with us and our desire for the club to be better.

Our supporters have been such a pivotal part of that happening since the club’s inception — before I ever showed up here — and that gives me a lot of hope. Thinking about all of us, collectively, in this fight to make Portland a better place, a safer place, and to ultimately grow from all that has transpired and ensure that it will never ever happen again.

On Her Turf: I’ve written before about the fragility narrative and how, for so long, NWSL players we’re scared to speak up because they were told, ‘This league is fragile and you don’t want to break it for your teammates.’ I think something that has given me hope in the last year is that players have spoken up and these truths have come out and fans have reacted by continuing to support them. It feels like a strong rebuttal to the fragility argument to say, ‘We spoke up and made this thing stronger.’ But at the same time, I know there are fans out there wrestling with that.

Coffey: And I don’t blame them. In fact, I applaud them for doing that. I think the fact that we have supporters (that) are going to hold the club accountable… It might be tough for ticket sales and sponsorships, but at the end of the day, I think that is why Portland is the place that it is because we do have supporters that are going to speak their mind.

This is kind of random, but there’s a James Baldwin quote about his love of country: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” I can’t stop thinking about that quote when I think about what’s going on here… Our supporters love this club so much. We love this club. (Portland) has been a pioneer for women’s soccer in so many ways, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to fight to do better or that we’re going to let any of this slide. We need to criticize her perpetually – I love the way that it’s phrased… I think we assume that because you’re demanding better or criticizing something that means you don’t love it or support it — and I think it’s the opposite.

I think we, as players, are fighting to do that and it’s something that we can all collectively do together. But I do think it’s a good reminder that, if the stands are empty, that ultimately hurts us the most. It’s gut wrenching but, when they’re there and cheering us on and fighting the battle with us — on and off the field — that changes everything for us.

On Her Turf: What are you most looking forward to this weekend with Portland hosting the San Diego Wave in the NWSL Semifinals?

Coffey: It sounds so simple, but I’m just so excited to play. Just to play, to have fun, to enjoy being in Providence Park for the last time, and just to be out there with our supporters and with my teammates. This time has been so dark and heavy for all of us — in different ways for (different people). Everybody’s been navigating it in their own way. But I think, at the end of the day, when I think about Sunday, I’m so excited for us to play with joy because it has been so heavy and dark… I think we’re in need of that and we deserve that. It’s been a lot for us as players.

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Q+A: Sam Coffey on NWSL rookie season, USWNT debut and Yates report takeaways originally appeared on NBCSports.com