Tournaments are typically intense affairs. The careful navigation of group stages lead to knockout rounds where away goals make a mockery of math, all culminating in a winner-take-all final. At most points in a tournament, particularly the longer a team is in one, mistakes are amplified, and a well-timed spark of cleverness or ill-timed thud of calamity can be the difference between crashing out or spraying champagne. In other words, they’re typically no place for first-year players to go messing about.
However, the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup Tournament is different. Due to the Orlando Pride having to pull out days before the first kickoff over presumed positive COVID-19 tests, every remaining team advances to the knockout rounds. Given that the pandemic made it impossible to schedule preseason or warm-up matches in advance of the tournament, many managers have elected to use the circumstances to their advantage. Some are taking the time to insist on new styles of play (to varying degrees of success), others are getting their second XIs typically hard-to-find experience, or, as is the case with Richie Burke and the Washington Spirit, letting their star draft pick run amok.
Ashley Sanchez, who the Washington Spirit moved up in the 2020 NWSL Draft to select with 4th pick, tormented collegiate defenses on behalf of UCLA. Her speed and dribbling technique made her impossible to cope with at that level. Simple counting stats — 23 goals and 42 assists in 69 appearances — reveal a player in need of a new challenge, and Sanchez’s ambition agreed. She decided to forego her senior year to turn pro, and get that money.
Refining and growth processes — especially for rookies — usually occur on training pitches, far away from broadcast cameras. Soccer can be a brutal, mind-wrecking sport, particularly when a player leaps to a new echelon. Bringing young talents along slowly to protect their egos until the professional game slows down for them is generally the right path to take, as it can take seasons (sometimes a move to a new club altogether) to undo the weight of public failures.
But this Challenge Cup — with matches being no less intense than regular season meetings, and with the first round of results only mattering insofar as seeding in the rounds to come — has provided the dream scenario for Sanchez to test herself against top quality competition without the hefty burden of potentially table-shifting consequences. In short, she can be her on-pitch uber-talented and intensely wicked self from the first whistle.
Spirit coach Richie Burke allowed her to do just that by naming her in the XI for Washington’s debut match of the tournament against last season’s championship finalists, the Chicago Red Stars. It didn’t take too many game minutes for Sanchez to discover that her athleticism and dribbling ability belong in the NWSL, In fact, after 49 of them she nutmegged Julie Ertz.
Her overall match was a mixed bag, but that was to be expected. Outside of the box she registered just one successful dribble out of seven attempted, however inside the area she was two of three. The speed and athleticism of NWSL midfields made it difficult for Sanchez to find the space to maneuver, but when she gets defenders on their heels, well, she can be downright mean to them.
Though both of Sanchez’s successful dribbles in the box eschewed quick shot opportunities for clearer looks that never came, she, we, and NWSL defenders now know that she already possesses the requisite confidence, technical prowess and wingers’ desire to humiliate.
There’s something uniquely exhilarating — and if we’re honest with our non-elite selves, vicarious — about a player in a position to publicly uncover the reaches of their talent. You don’t know what they might do next, because sometimes neither do they. Sanchez being tasked with outlining her own capabilities on the pitch and in real-time injects a dimension within soccer matches that is extremely rare, and extremely fun.
None of this is to suggest that Sanchez is a kid running about the pitch clanging pots and pans. No, she’s learning how dangerous she can be and building off of skills that have worked, then deploying them in new ways. Already she’s taken note of how her speed, dribbling ability and directness forces defenders to prematurely prepare to engage her in a 1v1 battle, and how to exploit that presumption.
We saw this development in Sanchez’s second start when the Spirit matched up against 2019’s semifinalists, the Portland Thorns. Whereas against the Red Stars she over-dribbled and took shots that never reached the keeper, against the Thorns she twice used the threat of her dribble to force the keeper into two difficult saves: one via a powerful shot at goal, the other a silky outside of the boot pass to setup a direct shot on goal.
Soccer is far from scripted or routine, but most established players are self-aware enough to know their limits, or at least their hierarchies of duties. Keeping the ball safe may be more important than attempting a nutmeg and recycling possession may be more important than a thirty-yard hit-and-hope, but the alertness to collect the highlight of the match — a scorpion-kicked backheel assist from a short corner (you read that right) — required a slightly freer mind.
Experience is not the best teacher; freedom is. There will be plenty of time for learning the minutiae of soccer at this level, but now is a time to delight in the rare occasion of an exciting player allowing us to tag along on the ride to the outer edges of their talents. It’s exactly this combination of the freedom to hone and adapt skills against live action that’s turning Sanchez into a one-woman highlight reel despite her NWSL career being just over a couple hours old. And the pure fun of it is that none of us know what she might do next — including her.
When asked how she pulled off her ridiculous scorpion backheel assist, she replied “I honestly have no idea.” And that’s perfect, we’re all learning together.