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Ashley Sanchez has found her freedom on the soccer field and UCLA is all the better for it

Ashley Sanchez has found her freedom on the soccer field and UCLA is all the better for it
UCLA's Ashley Sanchez avoids a defender. (Percy Anderson/ UCLA Athletics)

As the rest of the UCLA women’s soccer team blares music in the locker room, sophomore forward Ashley Sanchez prepares for games in solitude, headphones drowning the noise.

She starts with four gospel songs, to reflect on the blessings that brought her this far, then switches to rap to focus on her goals. She eats avocado toast with eggs for breakfast at a local cafe and wears two small braids at the top of her high ponytail. The blaring beat frees her head from distractions in a pregame routine she has done for four years.

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“I try to be as free as I can,” Sanchez said.

When Sanchez steps on the field there is no visible trace of stress. She plays with intensity and brings a calming presence. Sanchez leads the team with eight goals and seven assists this season.

“She’s crafty, she’s smart, she’s fast, you never know what she’s gonna do,” sophomore defender Karina Rodriguez said.

Said coach Amanda Cromwell: “The things she does on the ball, no one in the country does.”

Sanchez has contributed a goal or assist in each game of the Bruins’ eight-game win streak, propelling UCLA (13-3-1) to third place in the Pac-12 Conference and a No. 6 ranking in the nation. The Bruins battle for the second spot in the conference and an improved NCAA tournament seeding against No. 2 USC (15-1-2) on Friday night at StubHub Center. It’s the final regular-season game for both teams.

Sanchez scored the winning goal for UCLA in overtime against USC last season. The game set an NCAA record for attendance at a women’s soccer game, with 11,925 people filling Drake Stadium.

“That was probably my favorite moment,” Sanchez said.

The bright spot came in a difficult first season for Sanchez. She earned first-team All-West Region and All-Pac-12 honors, along with a spot on the All-Pac-12 freshman team. Her 12 assists were the most ever by a UCLA freshman.

But for Sanchez, selected as the 2016 U.S. Soccer young female player of the year, the season fell short of her expectations.

UCLA's Ashley Sanchez leads the team in goals scored.
UCLA's Ashley Sanchez leads the team in goals scored. (Scott Chandler/ UCLA Athletics)

As a youngster, she grew up as one of the best players on her various teams. She was talented enough to make up for any errors and fast enough to beat out opponents, putting up multi-goal games with ease.

“Everyone in the country was going after Ash,” Cromwell said.

Sanchez, who is from Monrovia, considered only USC and UCLA. She wanted her family to be able to come to games, because they couldn’t when she played on the national team. Her parents are USC football season-ticket holders, but Sanchez was sold on UCLA immediately. She committed when she was in eighth grade.

She arrived at UCLA in August 2017, delayed by an under-20 national team camp and tasked with fulfilling her reputation as the top recruit.

“I just didn’t want to mess up when I got here,” Sanchez said, “and I wanted to prove that I was good enough to start.”

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Sanchez had never second-guessed decisions on the field.

On the national team, the goal was simple — perform well enough to return next year. But if she took a shot and missed on a play where a UCLA teammate was in better position, she would erode trust. Fear made her too selfless. Cromwell said Sanchez was less vocal and avoided asking for the ball at first.

UCLA’s game against Virginia, when Sanchez scored her first goal, was a turning point. As the season went on, she learned how to adjust to the faster pace of play, minimizing touches and maintaining awareness of her teammates’ field position. She worked to capitalize on rare chances to shoot and work with teammates to create opportunities.

“Each game, it got easier to play comfortably,” she said.

But she was still inconsistent, Cromwell said. Sanchez had never been injured before but played with tendinitis in her knee for the second half of the season, and was distracted by the adjustment to college classes.

She and Cromwell spoke often, as Sanchez shared her frustrations.

“This is hard,” Cromwell said. “This isn’t easy. You’re not gonna show up and be the best player every day. You have to work.”

As UCLA reached the national championship game against Stanford, Sanchez struggled to juggle studying for final exams. She earned four assists in the NCAA tournament, tied for third-most in UCLA history, but she could not clear her head, dissatisfied with her performance in the 3-2 defeat.

“It was kind of like the beginning of the season again,” Sanchez said. “I was trying too hard to be perfect.”

Sanchez wished she could have appreciated the moment, instead of being frozen on the field by stress. But that disappointment became motivation.

This season, Sanchez learned to balance school with soccer by finishing work and studying for tests well in advance, fueled by her hunger to return to the national championship game. She practices with consistent intensity that makes her dependable in games.

She does not fear expectations, because she knows her role on the team.

“I think my confidence from last year to this year is better,” she said. “I feel like I’m playing more free.”

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