Sports

Idaho State soccer star creates surprising path to Women’s World Cup

Maria Sanchez hit the road to Sandy, Utah, in September to watch the U.S. women’s national soccer team take on Mexico.

The game ended in an 8-0 blowout for the U.S. That didn’t stop Sanchez from tracking down U.S. star Alex Morgan after the game to get a picture and an autograph on Sanchez’s Mexican jersey.

Then, after a dizzying nine months that included an open tryout for Mexico’s U-20 team and a call up to the national team, the American Falls native took the same field as Morgan on May 17 in an international friendly wearing a Mexican jersey bearing her own name.

Starting Tuesday, the Idaho State forward will suit up for Mexico on the world’s largest stage — the Women’s World Cup in Canada.

“Everything went by really fast,” Sanchez, 19, said Tuesday from Moncton, New Brunswick, where Mexico takes on Colombia on Tuesday (2 p.m., Fox) in a group stage game. “I’m just trying to catch up with everything that’s going on right now. It’s been only a couple months since I went with the U-20s, and now I’m in Canada with the World Cup squad.

“I don’t know if I’m dreaming still, but that’s what it seems like.”

Living in American Falls (population: 4,457), Sanchez couldn’t get further from the radar of international soccer if she tried.

Her parents, Roberto and Irene Sanchez, hail from the state of Michoacán in southern Mexico, allowing Sanchez to play for “Las Tri,” as the women’s national team is known. They immigrated to the United States 30 years ago while in their 20s, and both work at the Driscoll Potatoes processing plant in American Falls.

They couldn’t afford to place their daughter on a club team. And even if they could, the closest club team is in Pocatello, about 25 miles away, and they couldn’t drive Sanchez there every day.

So Sanchez never received the elite training that players throughout the United States grow up with. Instead, she honed her skills the old-fashioned way.

She lived across the street from the middle school, where every night her brother, Samual, played pick-up games with friends. Six years younger than Samual, Sanchez had one choice — get better or get left behind.

“We talk a lot about how she didn’t have club soccer, she didn’t have (the Olympic Development Program), she didn’t have six-figure coaches in club and high school,” Idaho State coach Allison Gibson said. “Without those resources, she was driven on her own with her brother, her family and pick-up games.

“I think now it was to her benefit to not have all those resources. You can take that for granted. Not that it’s not important — it’s my profession — but she loves the game so much and got to grow up with it in the purest form. It wasn’t here’s a penny and some cones.”

But not having those resources placed her in obscurity, even for a state well down the list on producing soccer talent. Sanchez rewrote the record books at American Falls High, scoring 178 career goals, including 13 straight hat tricks and 68 goals her senior season. The school retired her No. 17 before she even graduated.

Idaho State was the only school to offer a scholarship.

Gibson first heard about Sanchez from a former player, Karissa Fisher, then the head coach at American Falls. Gibson trusted Fisher, but she admits she held reservations driving to a 3A high school girls soccer game in a potato processing town.

Sanchez quickly laid those reservations to rest.

“I knew she scored a lot of goals, but I wasn’t sure of the level,” Gibson said. “When I finally went out there, I think she scored a couple goals before I sat down from walking from my car in the parking lot.

“She was box-to-box, dribbling though everyone. I thought, ‘This kid is unbelievable.’ She does that now. Imagine what she was doing against Malad High School.”

The freshman striker led the Big Sky Conference with eight assists last fall and ranked fourth in the league with seven goals. But Mexico didn’t come calling.

An incoming recruit from Mexico tipped off Gibson in February about a tryout for Mexico’s U-20 team in Los Angeles. The only catch? It was in three days.

Sanchez hesitated to go. She didn’t think she could compete at that level. She said she imagined trying her hand at the international stage after she finished her college career. But Gibson insisted she get in her car and drive to Los Angeles.

Three weeks passed before Sanchez received an email that she made the U-20 team. She impressed the right people while taking on Michigan and Notre Dame with the U-20 squad, leading yet another set of coaches — this time from the Mexican national team — to ask, “Where did this girl come from?”

Sanchez played 30 minutes off the bench in a 1-0 loss to Canada on May 14. Mexican coaches originally told her she wouldn’t make the World Cup roster, then after a 5-1 loss to the U.S. three days later, Mexico placed her on its World Cup team.

She has come off the bench in two World Cup tuneups against Costa Rica, serving as a left winger and the second youngest player on the roster. Sanchez said Mexico’s coaches love her speed and want her to deploy her as a substitute to take on tired defenders one-on-one and either attack the net or supply a cross.

But after donning a Mexico jersey she wore as a fan nine months ago, Sanchez isn’t taking anything for granted. She said she’s learning new skills each day in training, including the work level required to play at international level.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted, and to see my last name on the back of a Mexican jersey is just a privilege. Not everybody gets that same opportunity. So I try to make the most out of it and play with my heart, not only for the people that support me, but for Mexico.”

Gibson can only laugh when she considers Sanchez’s path the past nine months — from a fan in the stands, to an open tryout she had to convince her to attend to, finally, the World Cup.

“What’s next?” Gibson joked. “Presidente?”

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