From a nearby home and faraway fields, freshman Ashley Sanchez emerges as next UCLA star
The first day of classes at UCLA is still more than a month away, but freshman Ashley Sanchez is already immersed in something of a soccer dissertation on the practice field in Westwood.
Ranked the nation's best high school recruit by multiple evaluators and named U.S. Soccer's youth women's player of the year in 2016, Sanchez was deemed promising enough to train with the senior United States women's national team a few days after her 18th birthday. So it was that while watching video of a recent intrasquad preseason scrimmage, UCLA coaches lingered over one sequence in which the freshman all but disappeared amid three defenders, emerged with the ball still comfortably at her feet and set up a teammate's header with the ensuing pass.
Even by the standards of a program that in recent years produced Abby Dahlkemper, Lauren Holiday, Sydney Leroux and Sam Mewis, among other notable names, Sanchez turns heads.
"She has the dimension to her game of quickness and explosion ... it's technical speed on the ball, but there is a physical speed without the ball," UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell said. "And she makes the players around her better by some of her decision-making. ...
"You can tell she knows the game. She has a mind for the game."
There is a professional seriousness about Sanchez's play that belies her years. She is at UCLA to continue that training, to practice and play in one of college soccer's most competitive conferences. But for someone who for years raced headlong, and head down, toward the future, college might offer Sanchez the best opportunity to enjoy the present. To be an 18-year-old freshman. To let life catch up to her.
It is a short trek, traffic willing, from where Sanchez grew up in Southern California to the UCLA campus, but it is difficult to imagine that many freshmen ever traveled more miles en route to college, certainly literally and perhaps figuratively. Consider the past 12 months, in which Sanchez captained one U.S. youth national team in the U-17 Women's World Cup in Jordan, joined another youth team to compete in the U-20 Women's World Cup in Papua New Guinea and traveled with the U-20 team for games this summer in England and Germany. Sanchez's recent flight to Seattle to train with yet another age group, the U-23 team, barely registers on that itinerary.
That doesn't include the trip to Florida last spring to train with the senior national team.
"The wealth of experience is something that you can't train into a player," Cromwell said. "They play against different tactics, they see different formations and systems -- just the different personalities of the different countries. Her ability to have an impact on games is tremendous, and it's because of what she's done through the years with her youth national teams."
It also made difficult the normal routines of a teenager, all the more because Sanchez was also playing for the So Cal Blues, an elite youth club with its own busy schedule. She spent the final three years of high school as a student at Mountain Park School, an alternative school in her hometown of Monrovia, California. There she was able to arrange a schedule that allowed her to complete coursework during weeks away from the physical school and take lighter or heavier course loads, depending on the international soccer calendar in a given semester.
Sanchez found her own way to soccer, a sport with scant history in her immediate family. Other sports were too sedentary or boring. She enjoyed being better than most at something. She enjoyed the feeling when she was called into her first U-14 national team camp, the path to the top of the pyramid suddenly easier for a teenager to see. She wasn't steered toward those things. That the passion came from within didn't make Sanchez any less susceptible to hitting a wall as 2017 arrived.
"I guess it wasn't so much [not] enjoying it. It was more my body couldn't continue to do so much," she said.
The U-17 World Cup was in October, though the Americans missed the knockout round in an abbreviated stay. The U-20 World Cup followed little more than a month later, with Sanchez scoring the first goal for the United States in a run that ended in fourth place. She was the only member of both teams. When that tournament ended, Sanchez thought she would have some time off, but then came a call-up to be one of 30 players at the year's first U-23 camp in January.
"So I was like, 'Oh crap, I have to go,'" she said of the pressure to keep climbing the ladder. "I ended up feeling like it was something I needed to do, instead of taking time for myself."
That wasn't a good mental space to occupy while training with players several years older, most with college seasons to their names and many just weeks from reporting to professional teams. U.S. coach Jill Ellis, on hand to observe, told Sanchez to take a break, shut things down.
"I think it's really important you have some time to yourself without a ball, for as long as you can go without a ball, to decompress a little bit," Ellis recalled telling her. "The demand on her from youth national teams, from club, from her academics -- you can't lose sight of the fact that she's still a young person. I told her I thought that was the best thing for her."
Sanchez didn't divorce herself from the ball entirely, but she operated on her own time.
"It was fun being able to pick and choose when I did something and not feeling like I needed to because I was getting ready for some camp," Sanchez said. "Since taking that break, it has been more fun and enjoyable."
If that is truly so, it would be good news for UCLA, now weeks away from a do-over when it comes to adding the nation's most well-known freshman. It was just a year ago that Mallory Pugh sat out what would have been her freshman season for the Bruins to focus on the U-20 World Cup after a summer spent with the senior national team in the Olympics. Pugh never made it to the field for UCLA in an official game, electing this spring to forgo her remaining eligibility and sign with the NWSL's Washington Spirit.
"We didn't have those discussions," Cromwell said of Sanchez. "I think Mal was put under a lot more pressure than Ashley. Who knows, I don't know who is feeding her information and what's being said, but I know Ash was content to get here, and she feels like she wants to make her mark."
Yet a lack of discussion didn't preclude an internal dialogue. Fittingly for someone so immersed in soccer as a lifestyle, Sanchez's favorite player is not one of the current members of the U.S. national team but French standout Eugenie Le Sommer. It is the admiration of an apprentice for a master craftswoman rather than that of a fan; Le Sommer is the kind of player Sanchez aspires to be in the international game. If Sanchez had grown up in Montpellier instead of Monrovia, she might be among the young prospects for one of the French professional giants -- if not already a season or two into that career. Having seen a teammate and friend choose that path, after Lindsey Horan did the same just a few years earlier, she appreciated the appeal.
"Once I saw that it was able to be done," Sanchez said of Pugh's decision, "there were a couple of people that thought I would for sure be able to do that."
Ultimately, she insists, it came down to a feeling that UCLA, where her parents will be able to see her play every game, was the best choice. She would argue it's the best choice for her future. An equally compelling case could be made for her present.
The Bruins will play the first month of their season before classes begin, thanks to the school's quarter system. As such, it wasn't too much a dereliction of duty when Sanchez admitted that she still needs to meet with her academic advisor to plot out that part of college life.
"I should probably get on that," Sanchez mused. "But I'm not really sure what I'm interested in yet."
Besides soccer, that is. There is time to figure it out.