Six big-screen TVs were positioned around the room of a light-filled restaurant in Monrovia, every screen tuned in to the U.S. women’s World Cup team’s preparations for a stern test against the Netherlands in preliminary-round play in New Zealand.
Julie Sanchez didn’t have to go far to find a spot to watch the team’s pregame routines and try to catch a glimpse of her daughter, Ashley, a former UCLA standout and NWSL rookie of the year who made the U.S. World Cup roster in a stacked midfield. But for most of the buildup and parts of the game itself, Julie Sanchez and her husband, Ralph, weren’t gazing up at those screens at all.
Instead, they were busy embracing and catching up with the friends, neighbors and family members they had invited to join them at a watch party Wednesday, their thanks for the many ways their guests had supported Ashley as she pursued her unlikely dreams. Ashley didn’t get into the Americans’ first game or their 1-1 tie against the Dutch, but she was in the minds and hearts of everyone at the joyful party.
“It’s incredible,” Julie Sanchez said, looking around a room filled with laughter, love and pride that a young woman from what feels like a charming small town had made it to the World Cup stage.
Texas-based Siete Foods, owned by a Mexican-American family, sponsored watch parties for the U.S. team’s three Mexican-American players — Sanchez; Naomi Girma, in San Jose and Sofia Huerta, in Seattle. Julie Sanchez drew up the list for the party at Basin 141 in Monrovia, where the Sanchez family is in its fourth generation of residence.
“I knew her when she was young and she was better than everyone, even then.”
— Michelle Palfrey on Ashley Sanchez
Included in the crowd — nearly all of them wearing replicas of Sanchez’s U.S. jersey with her No. 2 on the back or other U.S. team gear — was the manager of the first club soccer team Ashley had played for when she was 7. A counselor from the Boys and Girls club Ashley had played with when she was in grade school was there, too.
In every corner, at every table, was someone who had encouraged Ashley, had helped her refine her remarkable skills, had cheered her on while she climbed the soccer ladder of club teams, travel teams, youth teams, UCLA and the U.S. national team. Most knew each other and, if they didn’t, they quickly became friends.
Together, they cheered each good play by the U.S. women’s team, groaned when the Dutch scored in the first half, chanted “USA” when Lindsey Horan scored the tying goal, and gasped in one voice when a shot by Trinity Rodman rolled just wide of the goal.
“It’s people that their kids played with Ashley. Might be some people that played with Ashley. It’s full circle,” Ralph Sanchez said of the gathering. “It’s teachers. Coaches. Everything. It’s pretty cool.”
Michelle Palfrey, back home in Monrovia after spending seven years in Denver, played with Ashley in high school and for Legends FC. Palfrey’s soccer career was ended by an injury but she followed Ashley’s progress closely through college and beyond.
“I knew her when she was young and she was better than everyone, even then,” Palfrey said. “You knew she’d go far, but just to see this is amazing.”
Mary Wiesner, also of Monrovia, knows Ashley because her daughter, Kate, played with Ashley on the U-17 women’s national team.
“Seeing her play as a youngster and now reach this level, a local Monrovian, it’s totally awesome,” Wiesner said. “We were thrilled. We’ve been rooting her on probably ever since she was 16 years old.”
Ashley benefited from soccer genes from both parents. Her father coached the family’s two oldest kids, Evan and Sierra, in various sports. Her mother played the game as a kid through the American Youth Soccer Organization and in high school.
“That was really the only girls’ sport that was offered around here when I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” Julie said. “My dad at the time never knew soccer but my dad being a coach for football and stuff, he was like, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll try it out.’ He had a little bit of success. He’d watch and see what the other coaches were doing. He coached for a few years.
“I played in high school. I was pretty OK, I guess. I made CIF and stuff so we were doing OK, but nothing close to what Ashley does.”
Ashley benefited from watching her older siblings’ activities and by playing against them and other kids above her age group. Though small, she showed tenacity from the start, determined to find ways to influence the game. She’d practice her footwork on her own, working the left foot and the right, quickly building skills.
Ralph Sanchez had seen other kids display promise, so he was hesitant at first to believe what he saw in his youngest child or to put much stock in the constant praise he heard from other players’ parents.
“All kids are different. Sometimes they peak early. And then a couple years later they’re not even playing anymore,” he said. “Me and my wife have always been pretty realistic. “OK, she’s good right now, let’s see what happens in a few years.’ ”
She became even more skillful while she played for clubs in Arcadia and San Juan Capistrano. Soon, the junior national team came calling. So did UCLA.
“Then, I was like, ‘I guess she is good,’ ” Ralph said. “I’ve seen a lot of good, talented kids and you think, ‘Oh, maybe there’s a chance,’ but still the chance is very, very small. But thank God. She’s kind of there.”
The party kept going after the game ended. No one wanted to break the circle of friendship and family that Ashley had created, least of all Julie and Ralph, who said thanks and goodbye for now.
They’re planning to travel to the World Cup next Thursday in time for the knockout stage, and hope to see their daughter not only in person, but also on the field. “There’s going to be some tired legs, so hopefully she’ll get in next game and be able to do something,” Julie said.
The tenacious little kid already has done so much for her family and her community. That’s a World Cup-sized win in itself.