In The Journey to the Cup, The Athletic follows six players as they work towards a place in the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Follow along as we check in with them each month in the build-up to the tournament, tracking their progress as they prepare both mentally and physically for a chance to shine on the game’s biggest stage.
Sam Coffey’s back in Portland, ready to shift into NWSL mode as preseason camps get underway across the country. While many players on NWSL teams are just now easing out of offseason mode, Coffey has just returned from New Zealand with the rest of her USWNT teammates, where they picked up two wins in two friendlies against the Ferns. In the end, Coffey had to settle for using training sessions to make her case for the World Cup roster, though the two matches provided her an opportunity to serve the team in other ways.
Coffey checked in after an afternoon of meetings, ready to discuss her New Zealand experience. The Portland contingent of the team flew through Los Angeles on the return from Auckland, a long travel process of connecting north after the long 12 hour flight.
Despite the travel and the lack of playing time, Coffey was nothing but positive about the January camp experience as a whole.
“For us as a team, it was a really successful camp and trip,” she said. “It was amazing for us to just get a taste of what New Zealand is like, what the travel is going to be like, what their culture is like. It was really laying the groundwork for what’s to come.”
This was always the primary objective for the trip — though the two decisive wins over a less than full strength New Zealand didn’t hurt — and Coffey echoed the same points every player, as well as head coach Vlatko Andonovski, made through the camp and two friendlies: “From the standpoint of familiarizing ourselves with how things work there, what the climate is like, the people we encountered, the food — there’s so many little details that make up the experience of being in a place. Obviously, having a World Cup in a place is a whole different beast.”
And Coffey, like everyone else, enjoyed the trip beyond the training sessions and the two games. If there was one thing that she was struck by, and a topic she returned to multiple times, it was her introduction to the culture of New Zealand, which started early: The team received a traditional Māori welcome.
— U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (@USWNT) January 12, 2023
“The people of New Zealand have one of the most incredible relationships I’ve seen a country have with its indigenous peoples,” Coffey said. “Being able to experience that, the singing, the dancing, the traditional tattoos (tā moko), just to get a taste of that was incredible.”
Those connections have now been built between Coffey, the USWNT at large and the country that could host them for most of the tournament. Coffey wasn’t the only player to speak of their respect for New Zealand during the camp, but her perspective on it was very different compared to a veteran player like Becky Sauerbrunn who’s lived through plenty of major tournaments, for instance.
“I’ve never been to a World Cup, nothing close to it, but the cultural implications of it are just as cool as the soccer implications of it because you really get to experience a place, and you get to experience what our team attending this tournament means to them. Their warmth, their inclusivity of us — it was just such an amazing way to kick off the year and get started.”
The soccer went well too, though. Despite a rusty first half in Wellington — the first 45 minutes of game action for the team in 2023 — Coffey deemed the two wins as “great performances” that had real benefits for the team against what she deemed a good New Zealand side.
“I know they had some blips here and there with the FIFA window, and it was a younger roster, but they posed a lot of different issues for us to solve. Coming off a longer break where most of us haven’t played a game since November, it was really cool to work as a team to sift through some of those different challenges that New Zealand presented for us,” she said.
“Obviously, my role was different, in that I wasn’t able to play, but as a younger player on this team I’m just trying to learn as much as I can as I go. I feel like I got a ton from this camp, both on and off the field, both in learning about a new culture and a new place, but also experiencing these two wins as a team.”
Andonovski started Taylor Kornieck as the No. 6 in the first match in Wellington, as part of a midfield with Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle. Kornieck and Horan were both tasked to play lower, and Andonovski said post-game that both had to adjust to the new positioning and timing of this potential midfield configuration.
In the second match, Andonovski opted to have Lavelle sit deeper as the team’s box-to-box midfielder, and started Ashley Sanchez as the No. 10, with Andi Sullivan in the No. 6 role. So far, Sullivan has looked like the team’s leading candidate for replacing Julie Ertz as a defensive midfielder.
Coffey broke into the national team as another potential option in that same role thanks to her rookie season with the Thorns, though she does have the versatility to play a more attacking role, as well. Despite the options on the January roster and in the overall player pool, no one has yet been as convincing as Ertz. No player has the physicality Ertz brought to the role, but Coffey’s strengths even as a relative newcomer to the senior national team lie in essentially quarterbacking from that spot: distribution and vision.
When asked about tactical adjustments in the midfield — even the potential of a double pivot — considering the rotation planned for the second match (due to Horan’s departure for France), Andonovski answered: “I don’t think we’re going to see a big change, but if we see what we have in mind is not working, then we’re going to have to change. There was a little bit of a tweak in the way we were attacking in the previous game, and I think we still need a little bit of time to understand each other, for all the players to understand the distances, the timing, the angles, so this game is going to be perfect to continue building on it.”
The second match against the Ferns probably wasn’t the right one to test out a double pivot with dual sixes anyway; the combination of Lavelle and Sanchez proved successful in finding more space between the New Zealand midfielders and back line. Kornieck got a second shot in the holding midfielder role in Auckland, entering the match in the 62nd minute, leaving Coffey on the bench for both friendlies.
Even from the bench, though, there are things to learn and ways to contribute.
“For a lot of players not playing, you want nothing more than to be on the field, of course,” she said. “That will always be the case for me, as I’m a competitor. But I can learn so much, even from being in that position, so I try to view every game day — whether or not I play — as an opportunity to do that.”
When Coffey’s watching a game from the bench, she’s not watching it like someone from the press box or the stands, and certainly not like someone back at home tuning in. She’s looking for the spaces, the pockets, anything the players on the field might not be picking up from their viewpoint or struggling to solve.
“The relationships on the team are really cool in the way where Andi, for example, will come over for water and I’ll bring it, and she’ll ask if I’m seeing anything. Where the pockets are, how’s her timing popping into spaces,” Coffey said.
She’s not just watching and learning from Sullivan — she’s also doing her best to read the opposing team and provide whatever information she can to the players on the field.
“There’s so many amazing relationships like that on the team where we can all just help serve each other. At the end of the day, that’s my goal. I just want to serve this team the best that I can.”
She views this role as more than just a responsibility, but as a meaningful part of her growth as a player, especially in the months to come, and as July 20 creeps closer and closer.
“None of this is about me and none of it is about whether I play or not, it’s about this team preparing for and winning a World Cup. So whatever I can do as a player to make that happen, I’m going to do it to the absolute best of my ability.”
And while the team as a whole treated January camp as a business trip (with the caveat that, as always, they thoroughly explored the full range of coffee shops Auckland and Wellington had to offer), there was one last chance for exploration on their final day thanks to an 8:15 p.m. departure time back to the States.
“We’re not just going to waste the day in New Zealand,” Coffey said. “We don’t usually get to explore, we’re not tourists but we did get to be tourists for a day. Alyssa (Naeher), being the leader that she is, took initiative and asked Ryan (Dell), our coordinator, if they could set something up for us to go explore.”
Coffey and a few of her teammates were able to take a boat out to Waiheke Island, a little less than an hour out into the Hauraki Gulf.
“The ride was just so beautiful. We saw penguins in the water, the different islands along the coast,” she said. “I love the water; I grew up sailing quite a bit. Any time I’m on the water, I turn into a little kid. Crystal (Dunn) was laughing at me. She was like, ‘You’re like a dog with your head sticking out the window, you look so happy.’ The water was so blue. The land is so green. Just so naturally stunning.”
The group went for lunch, and even managed a quick swim. Coffey joked everyone was in spandex and sports bras anyway — an “athlete power move.”
They made it back on the boat in plenty of time to head to the airport for the long flight home, with one final taste of New Zealand sun to help power through the early cold of the NWSL preseason.
“It was really nice to have a non-soccer related experience there. Camp’s done. Business is done. We got the two wins. We’re feeling good about that. This was really an opportunity for us to take advantage of where we are and continue to make the most of this experience because we’re going to be in New Zealand in July for strictly business.”
“The Journey to the Cup” series is part of a partnership with Google.
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(Top photo: Erin Chang/ISI Photos/Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton)
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