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Rising star Ashley Sanchez on USWNT Camp and her rookie NWSL season

Soccer player Ashley Sanchez on field/ JWS

Ashley Sanchez is a forward for the Washington Spirit. Drafted 4th overall in the 2020 NWSL Draft, she was recently called up to the USWNT for their October training up. She sat down with JWS to talk about her decision to leave UCLA early, her experience with the national team, and a rookie season like no other.

A few weeks ago, you were called into the USWNT October camp. Can you talk a bit about what that experience was like? 

I would say it was a little bit of a different experience than any other camp I’ve been to. We weren’t really allowed to leave our rooms or the hotel. And unlike the Challenge Cup, we weren’t able to order any delivery, except on two off-days when they sanitized all of the food coming in.

We also got tested three times a day. During the first couple of days, we were all quarantining in our rooms until we got two or three negative test results back. We couldn’t leave the hotel at all and we were pretty much only able to walk around the two floors that we had to ourselves. So, all in all, it was a little strange.

But really, I was just happy to even have this opportunity to participate at a camp during these weird times. And even though it was a bit intense, I learned a lot.

Aside from very strict safety protocols, were there any other surprises that stood out?

Definitely the intensity and competitiveness. Every training, you had to be on your game and just compete. Everything was just so fast-paced. It took me a day or two to adjust to the speed of everything because you’re just like, “Holy crap, what is going on?” And then eventually you kind of get used to it and get in your own flow.

Overall, how would you judge your performance?

I thought I did well. My coaches talked to Vlatko [Andonovski] and they discussed how I did, but from my perspective, I think I did well. Coming out of this, there are always areas to improve on. So with this experience, I now know what I need to do and I’m going to work on that and just continue working to get better.

This was your second call-up to the senior roster, right? How did this camp compare to your first?

So technically it’s my second call-up, but my first one I was like 16. Back then I was just so young. This was the first camp where I felt mature enough to compete and play at a high enough level to stick with everyone.

I would say I learned a bit more this time around because I felt like I was actually able to do what they were asking. Whereas when I was younger, I was little. I knew I couldn’t really hang and it wasn’t much of a learning experience from a hands-on perspective. It was more like, “Okay, every training you just have to try to do your best.” Whereas now I’m like, “Okay, I can do this. I belong here.”

Onto some more technical stuff, how was Vlatko’s coaching style? Did anything stand out to you from a coaching perspective? 

He’s incredibly smart. He knows the game really well. There are these moments when we’re training where he’s pretty quiet, which can feel pretty intense. But then he’ll step in, stop play, and tell you exactly what you could be doing better. So in a lot of ways, he’s very observational and just analyzing every little detail as we’re playing.

And in terms of next steps, where do you see yourself in regards to this USWNT program? 

I have no idea. Obviously, I hope to be continuously called in. I’m just going to keep working on what Vlatko told me to work on, and hopefully I just keep getting invited to camps.

This year has been pretty crazy on a bunch of different levels, especially for you. In January you were drafted 4th overall after leaving UCLA early. Can you talk about that decision to leave school and enter the NWSL?

I had a really good experience at UCLA, but I felt like it was time for me to take that next step. It just seemed like the right move to try and improve my game even more and put myself in an uncomfortable situation. At that time, I just felt like that was the best thing for me. And now looking back, I do not regret that decision whatsoever.

Your rookie season started with the NWSL Challenge Cup. What was this first taste of the pro life like for you? 

Honestly, it was just weird. Thankfully, our team was able to bond throughout that entire experience. We have a really young group of players, so I’m glad we were able to build such strong relationships.

But it just felt like the longest month of my life. It was just so strange. On one hand, I’m glad it happened, because if I were at school, I wouldn’t have been able to play at all. So, I’m just grateful for the opportunity to play, but it was definitely just the weirdest situation I’ve ever been through.

Thinking back to that Cup, I don’t really remember what my mind was thinking at the time. It was just like, “I guess this is the new normal.” It felt like I blacked out throughout the whole thing.

Despite it being weird, you were able to grind it out and win the Future Legend Award for the tournament. What was that like, and did it feel like validation giving your decision to go pro early?

I definitely wanted to come in and make my mark, but I wasn’t looking for any type of award or anything. I came into this year and was like, “Okay, I need to get better.” I just wanted to improve as much as I could and adapt to this playing style in fast games, as quickly as possible.

I knew going into Utah that we only had a couple of games, so I had to really take advantage of this situation of being able to play. But obviously, winning that award was great. So, I’m definitely happy about that!

A few weeks later, you got right back into the swing of things for the NWSL Fall Series. The Washington Spirit had a pretty great run, and you ended up placing third. How was everyone’s mindset compared to during the Challenge Cup?

After the Challenge Cup, we weren’t even sure if there were going to be more games. But then once the Fall Series was announced, our competitive mindset turned back on.

We had a couple of starters that were injured for these games. I think that put a little bit more pressure on me. I was like, “I need to come out even more, and try to be somewhat of a bigger presence on the field because we were missing our two captains, Andi [Sullivan] and Tori [Huster].”

But I think the girls really stepped up. We had a strong game plan going in, and everyone chipped in. Our bench was incredibly strong and the girls that came in each game did a great job. I think third place was a great step forward for us.

So after a unique and successful rookie season, what are your goals moving forward as we look toward 2021?

My goals for next year are to get called into national team camp regularly and to also have more of an impact for the Spirit. Going into next season, I definitely want to focus on scoring more goals and creating more goals for my teammates.

Lastly, any plans during this offseason?

I’m just enjoying my time back home. In California, there isn’t much that you can do during this quarantine, and because everything is closed right now, I will probably head back to DC at some point to train with some of my coaches and my teammates who are still there. But right now, I’m just going to rest up and focus on my training so that I can be ready for next season.