The USWNT’s generational transition is behind schedule, for a wide range of reasons: the pandemic, the 2019 World Cup-winning squad having unfinished business in the 2020 (i.e. 2021) Olympics after not medaling in the 2016 Games, plus the reframing of a post-Olympics victory tour into a farewell tour. Therefore, for the 2022 SheBelieves Tournament to be a total success, it was important to not only cement Catarina Macario as the future, they needed other young talents to burst into stardom as well.
Ashley Sanchez obliged.
With Rose Lavelle picking up an ankle injury against Czech Republic, Sanchez was handed back-to-back starts against New Zealand and Iceland. In both matches she shared midfield duties alongside Kristie Mewis and Washington Spirit teammate Andi Sullivan. Against the Czechs, the USWNT started to look like their most fluid selves when Kristie Mewis, an attack-minded midfielder, subbed on at halftime for the more defensively solid Morgan Gautrat. With Sanchez effectively taking over the Lavelle role, her tasks were well-defined.
Though Sanchez’s professional career just had its second birthday, the former UCLA standout has already earned a reputation for the audacious. However, her move from slick dribbling impossible-to-defend winger to attacking midfielder requires a pinch more discernment and awareness in the deployment of her many skills.
In the her first start against New Zealand, it didn’t take her teammates long to recognize that her technique, touch and control made her a trusted option for offloading the ball. Over the course of the two matches, Andi Sullivan, Emily Fox, Becky Sauerbrunn, Alana Cook, Tierna Davidson and Catarina Macario all fired the ball into Sanchez’s feet with confidence. Nearly every time she was able to quickly control the ball and cause the opposition problems with clever passes and dribbles.
Let us GIF:
Ashley Sanchez doing necessary work to split New Zealand's high press and move the ball into the attacking half.— SpiritGIFs (@SpiritGIFs) March 15, 2022
USWNT vs. New Zealand | February 20 | 2022 SheBelieves Cup pic.twitter.com/Ka4Zx0J580
The start of the match saw New Zealand take the young Americans by surprise, as the Football Ferns stationed their central midfielders high to limit buildup play rather than setting up in a low block like the Czechs. In the first few minutes it was working well, as USWNT defenders couldn’t find passing lanes to the midfielders that weren’t high risk. This caused the American midfielders to drop deeper, and in the clip above you can see Sanchez time a run between midfielders perfectly and arrive in a pocket of space to receive a pass to feet. By instantly controlling the ball she was able to sense and turn away from opposition pressure, forcing a foul that pushed New Zealand back.
Not satisfied with alleviating the press, Sanchez opted for a quick restart and sent Kristie Mewis darting into New Zealand’s half where she too was fouled. Another quick restart sent the ball wide to Sophia Smith whose eventual cross became the first own goal of the day for the Ferns, but it all began with Sanchez making a string of smart, quick decisions.
Ashley Sanchez presses to regain possession before spinning through three defenders and playing a pass to switch flanks. (This setup Cook finding Huerta in loads of space for the cross that became the second OG.)— SpiritGIFs (@SpiritGIFs) March 15, 2022
USWNT vs. New Zealand | February 20 | 2022 SheBelieves Cup pic.twitter.com/VXytqKImmT
The second goal to go on the board began with more good work from Sanchez. New Zealand’s press again caused trouble, as they won possession with a pressing trap in the USWNT’s defensive half. A loose touch allowed Sanchez to close hard and immediately reclaim possession, but instead of continuing to dribble forward Sanchez noted the overload New Zealand established and instead spun around and between three players to lay the ball off to Alana Cook.
With New Zealand completely out of shape, Cook immediately switched play to Sofia Huerta charging up the right flank in oceans of space. Huerta had time to pick out a cross to further test an already panicked defense, and sent in a perfect cross toward Midge Purce that deflected off a defender for an own goal. Again, it was Sanchez’s awareness and quick decision-making that sparked another dangerous sequence.
Against Iceland it was more of the same.
Ashley Sanchez's completely absurd assist— SpiritGIFs (@SpiritGIFs) March 15, 2022
USWNT vs. Iceland | February 23 | 2022 SheBelieves Cup pic.twitter.com/EUjMVSwtEc
Even though Sanchez technically recorded an assist for Macario’s first golazo against Iceland, this was a more direct goal involvement. Macario picks up the ball wide right and is closed down by two players, forcing her backward. Instead of sending the ball further back (and this is the subtle genius of Macario), she spots Sanchez flips the ball into her path. Sanchez settles it with on touch and sends and outrageously placed and weighted through ball between the left back and center back. Within five second Iceland went from pressuring the USWNT’s 9 backwards to chasing Mallory Pugh, who was suddenly clean through on goal. Sanchez’s vision to spot the miniscule window for this pass and the technique to execute it is truly in the realm of the absurd.
Sanchez dribbling for pure funsies— SpiritGIFs (@SpiritGIFs) March 15, 2022
USWNT vs. Iceland | February 23 | 2022 SheBelieves Cup pic.twitter.com/3NGdHkzIEh
Honestly, I’m mostly including this dribble because it made me laugh out loud. Emily Fox dribbled up the line as far as she could before recognizing a potential trap and rolling the ball to Sanchez’s feet. Iceland do well to surround and block her from going forward, but Sanchez continued to dribble toward the only space that was there. After skipping past two stabs at the ball she noticed players returning to their marks instead of continuing to press, so she (hilariously, IMO) simply turned and dribbled at them again.
Iceland players likely assumed she was going to lay the ball back to a defender or the keeper as most players would, but the surprise turn flipped the tables and allowed her to breeze by three players who were pressuring her just seconds earlier, ultimately forcing a foul to stop her charging toward the backline unimpeded.
While rewatching both games and keying in on Sanchez, it was impressive to note how much she’d grown in a position that is still relatively new. Just over two years ago she was a left winger starting her first professional match, and now she’s starring in midfield for the USWNT in the 2022 SheBelieves Cup — and being integral to results that led to the lifting of the trophy.
It was expected that Macario only needed time and opportunity to shift from the future of the USWNT to its present; that happened and she was rightly named MVP of the tournament. But this international competition needed to, finally and also, be about identifying other talents primed to burst into the USWNT’s next galaxy of stars, and Sanchez shone bright.
(Oh, and if you’re like me and hoping that Ashley Sanchez continues to visit the outer edges of her audacity, don’t worry, she did this too.)