Sitting between Christine Sinclair and Crystal Dunn on her first day with the Portland Thorns, Sam Coffey was slightly intimidated.
What rookie wouldn't be nervous on her first day of work, knowing she is sandwiched between two of the most accomplished women's soccer players in the world?
But, Coffey also was ready. In the year between being drafted by the Thorns and arriving in Portland, Coffey thrived in her final two seasons at Penn State. And it didn't take long for the 23-year-old to find her voice — and a spot in the Thorns' lineup as the defensive pivot in the midfield.
"Sam is one of those rare rookies who has been able to just step in and she looks like she's been here for 10 years," Sinclair said. "She's a leader on the field."
The Thorns play home games at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 18 against Washington and at 3 p.m. Saturday, May 21 against Houston.
Selected by the Thorns with the 12th pick in the January 2021 National Women's Soccer League Draft, with the blessing of Thorns coach Mark Parsons, Coffey stayed at Penn State to play both spring and fall seasons in 2021. The coaching change in Portland added some uncertainty to her delayed arrival in Portland, but Coffey is grateful the Thorns supported her choice to complete college before coming to Portland.
"There were so many things that I was seeing that that final year of college soccer taught me either tactically, technically or emotionally," Coffey said.
One experience that didn't thrill her was shifting into a defensive midfield role for a stretch of matches when Penn State was managing injuries.
"The six (position) was the last place I wanted to play on the field," she said. Her attacking instincts would kick in, forcing coaches to admonish Coffey for dribbling too much.
An attacking player most of her soccer career — Coffey scored 17 goals in two seasons at Boston College and 25 in three at Penn State and was the 50th Division I women's soccer player to post at least 40 goals and 40 assists in a career — she has transitioned to playing the holding midfield role for Portland and feels more at home there by the day.
"I feel like it's a position that I can kind of quarterback in, that I can help set the tempo, that I can clean up some messes, that I can really try and give the team some rhythm and to be a presence of calm back there," Coffey said. "And so it's new, but it's really exciting."
First-year Thorns coach Rhian Wilkinson praises all three rookies — including 2022 draft picks Natalie Beckman and Gabby Provenzano — for their work. Wilkinson said Coffey's natural leadership ability and her skills with the ball have fit well as the club adjusts to the new coach's tactics.
"She's just quietly kept doing what she does so well and getting on the ball," Wilkinson said. "And it's been very clear how well she's done for us and how much she can influence how we want to play with where she gets on the ball and what she does with it. "
From a soccer standpoint, Coffey said the transition has been challenging and rewarding. She credits the communication from behind her — particularly from centerback Emily Menges and left back Meghan Klingenberg —for giving her confidence.
She laughs about how resistant she was to coaches' pleas for two-touch soccer at Penn State. In the NWSL, she said, she rarely has time to take more than a touch or two.
"My time on the ball is so short, but I feel like I can do so much with it," Coffey said. "That's been such a cool development, improving my awareness on the field, seeing plays before they develop. Being able to just be an outlet for the team. Being able to switch the point, but doing it as quickly and efficiently and cleanly as possible."
Quick, efficient and clean might also describe Coffey's transition to life in Portland. Growing up just north of Manhattan, Coffey hadn't visited the Pacific Northwest.
"I've already fallen in love with the city. I love the people here, and it is so much more hospitable than New York — as much as I love New York, it's got its own beauty," Coffey said. "But there's something really cool about this whole new adventure and being someplace that's completely foreign to me."
A self-described people person, Coffey said her faith and getting to know Thorns team chaplain Christina Garber and her family have helped with the adjustment to living across the country from family and friends.
Coffey played baseball and other sports growing up, but was drawn to soccer.
"I've just always loved it. And I feel very grateful that I've never lost that love," even through the pressures of proving herself at the highest levels, or the expectations that come with being a captain for U.S. national teams at the under-19 and under-20 levels. "It is really a gift that I'm at the most professional level of soccer that I've ever played and I love it more than I ever have."
Like many girls of her generation, she was inspired by the players on the U.S. Women's National Team. Unlike most, she met many of her heroes. Her father, Wayne Coffey, is a journalist and author who worked with Carli Lloyd on her biography, "When Nobody was Watching."
Sam Coffey has degrees in journalism and sociology and enjoys writing. But, she doesn't anticipate following her father or her sister Alex (who covers the Phillies for the Philadelphia Inquirer) into sports journalism. She's surprised how much Portland already feels like home and can see herself building a life here beyond soccer.
She's used free time to explore coffee shops and taken drives to Mount Hood and to the coast.
"I want to continue to grow, of course, on this team. But, also, off the field I want to continue to build my life in the city and really plant myself here."
Wilkinson likes what Coffey the player brings to the field, but the coach is more impressed with Coffey's ability to quickly make friends and have a voice with the Thorns. "She is a very mature young woman who is confident in a very humble way. It's quite lovely to see," Wilkinson said.
Sinclair describes Coffey as "a boss" who isn't shy about directing teammates during a match.
"Excited to see what she's capable of this season and moving forward," Sinclair said. "Because it's just starting for her. She's a rare find, and I'm glad she's a Thorn."