With the third pick in the 2020 NWSL draft, the Washington Spirit selected star UCLA attacker Ashley Sanchez, who exploded onto the scene in the inaugural Challenge Cup, winning the competition’s Future Legend award. In the 2021 draft, the Spirit used their second and eighth picks overall to bring in teenage phenom Trinity Rodman and USC forward Tara McKeown respectively.
Ahead of the first full regular season in over a year due to the pandemic, this trio joins 25-year-old center forward Ashley Hatch and Japanese international Kumi Yokoyama as the bunch tasked with figuring out how to do the one thing that has plagued the Spirit for years: putting the ball in the back of the net.
If the reality of that job wasn’t obvious on paper, head coach Richie Burke put it in neon lights when he informed Ashley Sanchez – the most “veteran” of the drafted three – that she would be the club’s new #10. “I played college with this number [referring to her old number, 2] and I kind of feel like that’s my number, and then Richie texted me like ‘Hey you’re gonna be the #10.’ I was like ‘alllllright!’,” says Sanchez. “But I mean that’s a compliment to the trust Richie has in me so I was flattered obviously.”
Sanchez has not only had to adjust to a new number, she’s also in the unique position of being a second-year player who, because the pandemic heavily altered her debut season, is also eager to experience her first NWSL regular season.
“Because last year was so crazy and I didn’t really get like a full preseason and kind of get ready and comfortable with the style and speed of play, so going into those games it was a little bit more challenging because I was kind of thrown in and it was like ‘Ok we’re gonna play a game every couple days and then we’re done and then we’ll see if we have more games after,’” explained Sanchez. “But I think as much as I feel like this is gonna be like my first real season, I do obviously think that getting those games under my belt last year makes me more confident and have a better understanding of each team and how they play.”
While Sanchez may not feel all that experienced, to Trinity Rodman there might not be a person more qualified to offer tips on starting your NWSL career with a bang. Sanchez was in the starting eleven against the Chicago Red Stars in what was the first professional match in which she was available for selection. Sanchez’s fearlessness made her one of the most fun players to watch during the inaugural Challenge Cup.
Ahead of this year’s Challenge Cup, Rodman sought tips from Sanchez on adjusting to the professional level. “I remember this one time after training, she [Rodman] was like ‘How long did it take you to just like get comfortable playing with speed or with these girls?‘,” Sanchez said, telling Rodman that ”’It doesn’t happen overnight, it took me a couple weeks, as it’s gonna take everyone.’”
A couple weeks.
But Sanchez was right, and Rodman burst onto the scene in the Challenge Cup in much the same way Sanchez had a year prior – so much so that Rodman even received MVP votes in this year’s version of the tournament. The secondary lesson for the rest of us mere mortals is that advice isn’t universal.
So much fun to watch. pic.twitter.com/2oxX8vz3aa— Our Game Magazine (@OurGameMagazine) April 21, 2021
In fact, as much as we laud Sanchez’s debut performances, a year’s worth of hindsight has yet to convince Sanchez herself that she played all that near her potential. “I’m my biggest critic, so I didn’t even think I did that well,” Sanchez says with a pensive disappointment. “I think that was not even touching what I think I can do, and I think with more confidence, more experience and more games I can hopefully get better and more comfortable and really show myself.”
While Rodman and Sanchez seem to have already formed a bond on and off the pitch — evident from their matching pre-match arrival fits to their match-winning connection versus Racing Louisville — Sanchez has a relationship over a decade-in-the-making with incoming draftee Tara McKeown.
“I’m so excited! I’ve known her since I was like a tiny baby that just started club. We used to play against each other and then ODP [Olympic Development Program], we’ve been like best friends for a really long time,” declared an enthusiastic Sanchez. “I’m just super proud of her to come, so I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun and I think she’ll be a great addition.”
Though McKeown will have missed the Spirit’s preseason and Challenge Cup while she played with USC during the NCAAW College Cup tournament, she’s recently signed a two-year deal and moved to the east coast begin her professional career.
McKeown has the potential to be an intriguing piece for the Spirit. While Rodman and Sanchez operate best from wide forward spaces, McKeown can play centrally, and also likes linking with other forwards in the box – something the Sprit attack could desperately use. At the very least, if McKeown can hit the pitch with a similar fearlessness shown by Sanchez and Rodman (admittedly, no small feat), she’ll be an instant set of fresh problems for defenses to figure out.
The Spirit’s gamble of bolstering an already stout defensive unit in Sam Staab and Paige Nielsen with USWNT’ers Emily Sonnett and Kelley O’Hara, and leaving the attack largely to young and unproven players in the infancy of their professional careers is indeed quite bold. Still, Sanchez believes this year’s team is better prepared to finally become the Washington Spirit fans thought they’d see years ago.
“I think that our team definitely feels more complete. Obviously we were hopeful last year – ‘maybe we’ll win’ – you know, but I think that this year we actually truly believe we have a shot to win, and it’s up to us.”