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

Soccer player Sam Coffey of the Portland Thorns
Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports
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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.

2022 NWSL Playoffs: Schedule, how to watch, results


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Diana Flores looks to break down gender barriers with turn as AFC offensive coordinator in 2023 Pro Bowl

Courtesy Diana Flores
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Diana Flores admits she was surprised when she became a viral sensation last spring, courtesy of a 15-second slow-motion clip showcasing her evasive maneuvers and fancy footwork while leaving at least three defenders in the dirt during Mexico’s 2022 national collegiate flag football championship.

“I never expected someone to record that moment,” said Mexico City native Flores, who led her team – the Monterrey Tech Borregos – to their third consecutive national title as a senior last May. “I was just having fun. I was just playing the game I love and then days later to see that it was viral on the internet — it was crazy. But at the same time, it was exciting because I remember when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of flag football role models to follow. So now, for me to be a role model for many boys and girls that play my sport is something that really makes me happy and proud and also motivates me to keep getting better.”

Flores, who led the Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team to a gold medal at the 2022 World Games, will have the chance to promote her sport on one of the world’s biggest stages this weekend when she serves as the AFC offensive coordinator for the NFL’s 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday in Las Vegas.

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Flores will be joined by Peyton Manning as the AFC head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator. On the NFC side, U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback Vanita Krouch will serve as offensive coordinator, with Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as defensive coordinator.

“I think that this has been one of the best things in my life,” she recently told On Her Turf about her Pro Bowl appointment. “It is like a dream. I mean, I grew up watching football, watching the NFL, playing flag football. And now to be able to be part of all of this — it is bigger than my biggest dreams.”

Flores’ football dreams began as when she was just 8 years old. Her father — who played quarterback for the perennial football powerhouse Monterrey Tech program — took her to a practice and she fell in love with the sport. But as the time there were no teams for girls her age, so she played with girls twice her age and used it to her advantage, focusing on her own abilities and sharpening her skills. By age 14 she was playing NFL Flag in Mexico, where she was the only girl in the league, and at 15 she started playing NFL Flag in the U.S, where she finally played on an all-girls team.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: U.S. flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

“I remember when I started playing, I used to receive a lot of like comments, directly and indirectly from other people, like, ‘Why do you play that sport? That’s not a girls’ sport, that sport is for boys, you’re get injured, you’re going to get hurt, don’t play with boys, that’s too rude.’ And the list keeps going. But my mom and dad were so supportive. They always encouraged me not to listen to anybody, to just follow my passion.

“And I think thanks to them, I’ve always had this mentality that gender doesn’t matter. It just matters how passionate you are about your dreams, how hard you work for what you want to achieve. And that you will always demonstrate what you’re made for, depending on the hard work you do. So, I’ve lived through that [negativity], I have experienced that. And I think that it has been one of my biggest blessings to be able to experience — for myself — what sport can do and how gender barriers get broken when you follow your dreams and you connect with other people through your passion.”

At just 16 years old, Flores made Mexico’s national team, playing in the first of four Flag Football World Championships – so far. Last summer at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the 24-year-old Flores led Mexico to a 6-0 record, which included two wins over the U.S. women, who took silver. In the gold medal game against the United States, she completed 20 of 28 pass attempts for 210 yards and four touchdowns in Mexico’s 39-6 victory. She finished the tournament with 23 touchdown passes, the third-most among women’s teams, and she was the only starting quarterback to beat USA’s star QB, Krouch, who is 19-1 in international tournament play.

All that international experience so early in her career has given Flores a wise-beyond-her-years approach to playing flag football, a sport where she was frequently the only female player on the field and often the only Latin American as well.

“When I first came to the U.S., it was a little shocking to notice that I was probably the only Latin American girl playing,” she recalls. “But I think that it was easy for me because I got all the support from my coaches and my teammates. And since a young age, I think that I started to realize that sometimes what you do is for something bigger than yourself. That’s why you have to always give your best, in any situation. Even at that young age, I understood that I was representing more than myself on the field, I was representing Latin American people, Latin American girls in a sport that [many people thought] was meant to be for boys.”

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

One door Flores hopes to help open is the one leading to the Olympics. Flag football is on the short list being considered for inclusion in Los Angeles in 2028 Los Angeles. As an ambassador for flag football for the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), she’s participated in talks with the International Olympic Committee, and just last month she was joined by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in Mexico City where they joined forced to promote women’s empowerment and inclusion.

“I think for me, that experience is one of my top three,” she said of spending time with Biden. “I call them gifts from life, something that you didn’t expect it to happen, and somehow, one day, you’re right there in front of the First Lady. I admire her for what she does for boys and girls, for empowering woman and giving opportunities for everybody to achieve their dreams. So it was truly an honor to meet her, and also to be able to keep impacting my sport, not only on the field, but [off] the field, and have the opportunity keep inspiring others and keep impacting the world.”

As for what she hopes fans at the Pro Bowl and viewers at home take away from Sunday’s flag football showcase, Flores hopes they’ll see the characteristics that made her fall in love with flag in the first place: creativity, speed, agility, teamwork, passion and a lot of heart.

“I hope to show to all little girls and women that dreams come true, that nothing is impossible, to keep inspiring and opening opportunities and doors for women in sports, especially in the world of the NFL and football and flag football,” she says. “We’re going to make history, and I am so proud and happy for that. I’m really hoping that it is just the first step, not only for me, but for all the women that are coming after me.”

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Flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

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When Vanita Krouch got the news that she was named NFC offensive coordinator for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback admits her jaw nearly hit the ground.

And then she realized something even more profound.

“For the longest time, thinking about the moment, everything, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a dream come true. Is this really happening?’” said the 42-year-old Krouch, known as the “Tom Brady of flag football” with a 19-1 record as USA’s starting quarterback in international tournaments since 2018.

“But then I started thinking to myself: You know what? None of us grew up thinking of this as a dream to obtain. So really, it’s kind of reversed where I’m living a dream. I get to be a pioneer in this growth of flag football for all and inclusion for all, youth and adults, [women and men]. It’s such an inclusive sport, and I get to be a part of this growth and still actively play. It’s exciting. I’m literally living the dream. I’m very much like, ‘Guys, don’t pinch me. Let me keep sleeping.’”

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Krouch will be joined by Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as NFC defensive coordinator. On the AFC side, Mexico Women’s National Flag Football quarterback Diana Flores will serve as offensive coordinator, with Peyton Manning as head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator.

But Krouch’s journey to the Pro Bowl stage began under the unlikeliest of circumstances and was inspired by her own family odyssey, which began in Cambodia during the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Krouch’s mother, Phonnary Krouch, fled the country with three young sons in tow, running by night and hiding by day to escape, finding safety initially at a refugee camp in the Philippines. That’s where she welcomed Vanita, in September 1980, and two months later the family made its way to the United States. Krouch’s father exited the picture upon their arrival in America, leaving Phonnary to raise four children alone.

“In a nutshell, my mom is an amazing woman,” said Krouch, who first found sports via an elementary school flyer advertising youth soccer in Carrollton, Texas. “On the journey, she had a lot of trials, tribulations, … and after our dad left us, it was just mom and four kids in this little one-bedroom apartment. So, it was a challenge. I’m just so amazed by her strength and will to never give up.”

She also credits her mom for standing up to then-stereotypical notions that Asian girls should not play sports.

“I’m just thankful, honestly, that my mom allowed me to break the Asian culture barriers of a woman playing sports because that’s not easy,” she said. “She faced a lot of backlash from the community. But she said, ‘Hey, my child’s making good grades. She’s healthy, she’s good. She’s staying off the streets. I don’t see a problem.’ And she just let me do it. I was just lucky to have a mom that let me spread my wings.”

Krouch also had a few mentors along the way. Her elementary school PE teacher, Toni Neibes, stepped in to pay for those initial soccer fees and continued her support as Krouch transitioned to basketball in the fourth grade. She fell in love with the sport and excelled at it as well, eventually earning a full scholarship to play college basketball at Southern Methodist University. She wears the No. 4 to this day in honor of Niebes, who wore the same number as a young athlete. She also credits her fourth-grade teacher, Judy Ward, as having a lasting impact after the teacher made a habit out of showing up for her youth basketball games.

She pays tribute to them both through her clothing line, 4Ward Apparel, which features ever-changing collections emblazoned with relevant slogans encouraging female empowerment, inclusion and her personal mantra of “paying it forward” – something she does with the line itself. Each month, Krouch donates a portion of the sales to individuals, families or organizations in need.

After graduating SMU in 2003, Krouch continued to play basketball in semi-pro and adult leagues, but she was still searching for something to satisfy her competitive drive. She and a former college teammate stumbled on flag football during a Google search for local Dallas-area activities, and the rest – as they say – is history.

“It was like I drank the Kool Aid and I never looked back,” she says of her start in flag in 2006. “It’s just like every game, every play is a new challenge, and it’s addictive for a competitor, so I just fell in love with flag. I actually think I’m way better at flag than I was at basketball.”

She moved into the quarterback position through some sly maneuvering by current USA Women’s Flag Football head coach Chris Lankford. They were playing together in a local tournament when he “tricked” her into the QB position, despite Krouch knowing “zero football language.”

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“One day I showed up for a tournament and I asked, ‘All right, guys, who’s our quarterback?’ And he says, ‘We’re looking at her,’” she remembers. They kept the plays simple, and her team made it to the playoffs that season. Krouch has been a QB ever since.

Krouch joined the national team in 2016 and was inducted into the National Flag and Touch Football Hall Fame that same year. Last year at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, a 41-year-old Krouch set a new mark as the oldest Flag football player, man or woman, in the games, and she ranked second among women with 25 touchdown passes at the tournament where USA won silver.

She aims to bring that expertise to the field at the Pro Bowl games, where she’s looking forward to seeing NFL players take on the flag football style type of plays. “Flag is a very finesse, quick game, a lot of footwork, and these guys can’t grab or hold, no downfield contact or downfield block or anything off the line,” she explains. “So it’s going to be exciting just to see skill for skill, footwork for footwork, defense to offense, and to see flag football language with those type of elite athletes.”

As for the biggest challenge, Krouch believes it will be crafting a concise playbook and language that puts everyone on the same page. “A challenge for me is getting a coach’s mindset,” she adds, “I have to actually come up with plays ahead of time and I don’t usually have premeditated plays in my head. I just read it so for me to tell Kirk Cousins or Geno Smith [what to do], it will be different, you know?”

But beyond the Pro Bowl, Krouch is excited that flag is being considered for inclusion as an exhibition sport in the 2028 Summer Olympics. While she’s keeping a hopeful eye on that development, she’s also working to shape the next generation of potential athletes as a physical education teacher at La Villita Elementary in Irving, Texas.

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

“It’s an honor to be a role model – for other youth flag football players, for my students, both boys and girls,” says Krouch. “Then at my campus and in my community, it’s amazing to be able to break the barrier of like, ‘Asian women can’t do this.’ And then to be at my age, still doing this, I feel very lucky and blessed. …I think I still got some years in me.”

As for what she hopes viewers and fans walk away with after watching the Pro Bowl flag games this weekend, Krouch feels confident folks will walk away enlightened by the show.

“I just hope that they have fun with it,” says Krouch. “And for those who don’t know flag to be like, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing. Maybe that’s something I really can get my son or daughter into at a young age.’ So I just hope that they see that the sport is real – it’s not just something we play at recess. It’s a real thing now. I think they’ll see that the world loves it, the world can play it and is playing it.”

Be sure to check back with On Her Turf later this week when we catch up with AFC coordinator and Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team quarterback Diana Flores.  

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