It’s no secret that the Washington Spirit did not end the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup the way they wanted. After being everyone’s sleeper pick to get to the final, then pick to win it all once North Carolina crashed out, a defeat to Sky Blue via penalties after a scoreless ninety-plus minutes was an all too sad and thudding exit. Despite that, and looking back on the whole of the tournament, there were still plenty of highlights and performances to build on. The most exciting of which was Ashley Sanchez, who impressed enough to claim the Future Legend award after the cup.
Sanchez’s dribbling technique, vision and pace make her a good player, but it’s her confidence and directness that make her dangerous. It’s also why she had immediate success in her first professional minutes. It’s also why, up against the Chicago Red Stars and 46 minutes into her professional career, she nutmegged Julie Ertz.
“Honestly I didn’t even know I pulled it off until I saw it later. I remember I did it and I was like ‘Oh shite!,’ Sanchez recalled in a recent interview with Black and Red United. She laments that she was closed down and pushed to the ground afterward, but with a sheepish laugh admits, “it was still cool that I did it. I was not mad about it at all.”
While at UCLA, Sanchez was able to rack up impressive stats and fun highlight reels while going up against other supremely talented PAC-10 teams and players. That success, and how hard she worked to obtain it, gave her the confidence to believe she was skilled enough to have immediate success in the NWSL. “I kind of thought I would be able to still [dribble opponents],” she explained, “like maybe I won’t get away with as much as I did, but I definitely felt like what I did in college is still being able to work at this level — which is nice.”
Knowing she possessed skills that would translate was one thing, but going through the process to identify them was another. “With such a short amount of games I feel like it was important to adapt as quickly as possible, starting with game one,” recalled Sanchez. “I feel like it was a lot of trial and error. I’d try stuff and it just didn’t work because the games were too high speed.”
Her solution? Try more stuff. “My approach to the games was to continue to get better every game, and I feel like I continued to get more comfortable and play better each game.” By the end of the preliminary round, Sanchez had tried enough stuff to lead all players in total dribble attempts.
Sanchez played in all of the Spirit’s preliminary round matches and started three of four, in part because manager Richie Burke wanted to give her as much experience as possible, but also because she was multitasking her baptism by fire with instant learning, quality wide play and reliable chance creation. As absurd as that sounds, it can be easily verified through the viewing of the tournament’s most memorable moments. The standout is of course Sanchez’s first professional assist, which happened to be a scorpion kick from a corner that was curling out of play before meeting the heel of her boot, then head of Sam Staab.
As Sanchez crafted and refined her game, the Spirit’s patient buildup play and off-the-ball movement began to work in concert to get her in the 1v1 matchups she loves. However, this also made her a target for other coaches’ gameplans, as multiple defenders were tasked with keeping her at bay. “I’m used to it [being double-teamed] from college,” she noted, “but honestly I was not even thinking that they would do that yet.” Yet.
When asked to recall what was going through her mind when she first noticed it was happening again, but this time in the NWSL, Sanchez was as direct as her play: “‘Ugh, that’s annoying.’” As frustrating as it was, her experiences at UCLA allowed her to shrug it off. “I mean, it is what it is I was just gonna keep playing and do what I could to make an impact regardless of if there were two players or not.”
A loftier adjustment was getting used to the physicality of the NWSL, which is a two-fold process for new players, whether rookies or players coming in from abroad. First, the NWSL is the most athletic league in the world. Knowing that your speed, strength and/or agility can be matched, and in some cases outmatched, can be difficult to adapt to, particularly if a player has relied too heavily on one skill. The second is the tough and/or seemingly nonexistent officiating in the NWSL. Sanchez coped with the former quite easily, the latter took some getting used to.
“It’s a lot different than college,” Sanchez noted with a hint of exasperation. “I’m not someone who goes down for no reason so it is a little different, but I feel like everyone feels that so it’s not a personal thing, I just need to be on my feet more, be stronger, and know that the hit’s coming.”
Overall, Sanchez seemed pleased with her performances in the tournament and accomplished her goal of getting better game by game, even though she wished the Spirit could have had more games. Still, though she got her first nutmeg and assist — both in memorable, remarkable fashion — her debut goal eluded her. I asked her to ignore match context (otherwise the answer would have been her diving header that would have defeated Sky Blue) and identify one chance she wishes she’d have buried most. Her response was an opportunity 79 minutes into her pro career that she talked about with a seemingly fresh disappointment: “I beat two players inside the box and I should have hit it but I took too long and went to beat a third player, and when I ended up hitting it they got a leg on it.”
Hopefully she can find comfort in having nutmegged one of the world’s best players, and with chances to claim a pro goal coming up with the NWSL’s fall series.