PORTLAND, Ore. — Six years ago, Sam Coffey was blessed with a little bit of the stardust that gets bestowed upon top prospects in American women’s soccer.

But it didn’t come from the usual places, such as a ticket to a FIFA youth World Cup or Stanford or North Carolina.

When she was a junior in high school, Coffey’s father, Wayne, was ghostwriting Carli Lloyd’s autobiography after the 2015 World Cup. When Wayne traveled down to South Jersey for interviews and research, he brought Sam with him to train with Lloyd.

“It could have been easy for her to kind of say, ‘Who’s this scrawny kid who’s coming to my session?’” Sam recalled to The Inquirer, “but she was so welcoming.”

Coffey went on to Boston College, where she was a first-team All-American midfielder as a sophomore, then transferred to Penn State after two years. By the time she was done, she was the 50th player in NCAA Division I history to tally 40 career goals and 40 assists. She also played on some U.S. youth national teams, with the biggest stage being the 2018 Concacaf under-20 women’s championship.

Last year, the NWSL’s Portland Thorns made Coffey the No. 12 overall draft pick, early in the second round. She went back to State College after choosing to take the extra season the NCAA offered players because of the pandemic, so she didn’t get to Portland until this year. But when she finally arrived, she fit right in.

In just over two months as a pro, Coffey has started all eight of the games she’s played in, at times doing so ahead of veteran stars Raquel Rodríguez, another Penn State alum, and Canadian legend Christine Sinclair. And in the preseason, Coffey scored a goal that looked Lloyd-esque.

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Add all this up, and Coffey is a leading Rookie of the Year candidate in a class with two established U.S. national team players in San Diego’s Naomi Girma and Louisville’s Jaelin Howell.

“It’s been surreal,” Coffey said. “I love my new life here. I think it’s going as well as it possibly could be going, which is really exciting.”

Big adjustments

Coffey admitted that deciding to stay at Penn State for another season instead of turning pro when she first could wasn’t easy. When she made the decision, she didn’t know longtime Thorns manager Mark Parsons would leave at the end of 2022 to take charge of the Dutch women’s national team.

But she still believed staying was the right move.

“One hundred percent it was the right decision,” Coffey said. “I think it just gave me extra time to grow and to really fine-tune nuances of my game that needed fine-tuning. … It’s ultimately the coaches at Penn State that gave me all the tools I needed in that last semester to help prepare me for the success that I’m having here so far.”

New Thorns manager Rhian Wilkinson has been impressed by what she’s seen from Coffey. That includes willingly changing positions from attacking midfield to a deeper two-way role Coffey played only briefly at Penn State.

“She’s pretty much friends with everyone, as far as I can tell — really connected, really open, always light and bright energy,” Wilkinson said. “I changed her position, and you lose a lot of players sometimes when you do that because they see it as an insult or they feel like they should be somewhere else. She just gets her head down and gets to work.”

Wilkinson cited Coffey’s time in the film room midweek as an example of her dedication.

“She shows up with clips she wants to watch; she asks really specific questions,” she said. “She’s got pages of notes, and part of me is just sort of like, ‘Just enjoy it as well.’”

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Family support

Wilkinson can rest assured that Coffey is indeed enjoying it.

“I think it’s really special that we’re both coming in at the same time,” Coffey said. “We’re both new. We’re both learning, which is a really interesting experience and a cool experience. And I’m loving it. I’m loving every second of it.”

So is the Coffey family. Wayne and his wife, Denise Willi, have gone to as many of Sam’s games in person as possible despite living on the other side of the country in suburban New York.

Their other children, eldest child Sean and middle child Alex, haven’t had the chance to see Sam play. But that’s in part because they both decided to follow Wayne’s career path. Sean is a local TV news reporter in Scranton, and Alex is one of The Inquirer’s Phillies beat reporters.

“The meter keeps running, but as a parent, the greatest gift you can have is when your kids love what they do, and we’re three-for-three,” Wayne said while in the Providence Park stands for last Saturday’s game against Houston. He and Denise wore Coffey jerseys, which drew compliments from fans around them.

Sam is a mix of happy, floored, and, like any youngest sibling, she occasionally raises an eyebrow.

“It means everything and more, but they’re crazy,” she said with a laugh. “I’m so blessed to have family that’s that supportive and that loving. My teammates are definitely a little bit like, ‘How are they here all the time?’”

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