The United States is currently experiencing a wave of enthusiasm for the beautiful game that’s different from previous attempts to increase its popularity. Three professional men’s divisions, the women’s professional NWSL, a new pro futsal league, and the recent surge in street football are all adding to a new momentum and clear excitement. This new landscape has resulted in a special category of players who are moving from street football to the pro level and everything in between.
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No one epitomizes this new crossover dynamic better than Miguel Sanchez, LA Wolves Forward, from Inglewood, CA. If he looks familiar, it may be from winning Nike tournaments or appearing in their street football ads. Or you might have caught him last week scoring a brilliant header to help his fourth division team upset the pro club Orange County Blues in the U.S. Open Cup. Sanchez’s expansive professional playing career includes local stints with indoor teams Anaheim Bolts and Ontario Fury.
@miikell9 draws first blood for the @lawolvesfc scoring the opening goal against the OC Blues in Rnd 2 of the @usopencup! The match would eventually draw even and be settled by PKs! #lawolves #lawolvesfc #path2pro #upsl #usoc2016 #lamarhunt #lamarhuntopencup #usoc
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We spoke with Sanchez during his preparation for the upcoming June 1, third-round Open Cup match, of which the winner will face off against the L.A. Galaxy. In an exclusive interview with Urban Pitch, the powerful forward discussed his love for street ball, his equivalent “hate” for referees, and the differences in style between U.S. and Mexican soccer.
Urban Pitch: You’re a pretty big, solid guy. What’s your size and weight?
Miguel Sanchez: 6 feet, 200 pounds.
Is that why they call you Monster?
I think it’s the guys in my street soccer crew that call me “Monster”. I think it has to do a lot with my style of play, the way I train and my size. I tend to use my strength in combination with technical skills I’ve developed over time. I think it came up after a few times we played together and they just said to me, “You’re a monster” and it stuck a bit. I have always gotten nicknames by different people I play with or coaches. I’ve heard “The Train,” “The Beast.” It is always fun to hear the similarities in the nicknames.
Right. First time I met you, I was telling the other guys from Brazuca Ballers that you’re a beast! I know you’re currently playing with the LA Wolves in the UPSL. Tell us about that.
Overall the coaches and everyone have treated me very well. I have been able to be a part of the two consecutive conference championships. I play as a striker and I’ve been able to contribute to the score sheet [12 goals and 8 assists]. But most importantly I feel like I’ve been able to contribute to the positive and close relationship we’ve developed as teammates that I believe reflects on the field.
It has been a fun experience. I think one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed playing here so much is because of the freedom I have to be able to play the way I love to … I simply have fun. I try crazy moves, I love to take people on, I meg people every time I can and my teammates and coaches know that’s my style and we have been successful together so far.
I definitely noticed the freedom that you have out there during the U.S. Open Cup match against the OC Blues. It seemed like you were the one doing a lot of fancy moves by far on both teams. Okay, tell us about you and the Brazuca Ballers.
Brazuca Ballers started as a group of friends and ballers that was started by Tiago, one of my friends and ex-teammate from the Anaheim Bolts, a professional arena soccer team. He was the guy that put all of us together. In the street soccer scene you either know the guys that can play, you’ve heard about them, or played against them. It was like a mix of friendships. Some of us didn’t know each other but we knew about each other or met informally sometime. We clicked really well and we won the Dia de los Muertos Nike Tournament and a couple others [Copa Urbana] back to back. The guys in the crew are one of the best street soccer players in L.A. It’s a real pleasure playing with these guys.
The comments I’ve gotten are, “You are crazy,” or “I’ve never seen anyone train as hard.” And that’s coming from other players that have trained all their lives.
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Yeah, I’ll be rooting for you guys in some of the upcoming street football tournaments happening later this year. How’s your training coming along?
I train twice a day, every day that is possible. I train everywhere … the beach, gym, grass, turf, and street. When I don’t have time to train I at least go for a run from my house to the beach and back. I can’t be away from the ball for more than two days. There are days that I spend time in my driveway juggling, dribbling or even visualizing game situations and trying to improve and come up with new ideas. My family and close friends know about my training habits and many times they’ve either watched me train or trained with me. The comments I’ve gotten are, “You are crazy,” or “I’ve never seen anyone train as hard.” And that’s coming from other players that have trained all their lives.
I’ve had many goals and promises, but the two greatest ones were to play in a first division and to play for my dad’s favorite team. I’ve been able to keep my two promises.
Man, now I’m really curious to train with you one day soon. So growing up how were you involved in soccer and what were your hopes and goals?
Growing up I played all day every day. Literally, even inside my house, I used to practice bicycle kicks in my bed and dribble the ball around my house. My mom would sometimes get annoyed and tell me to leave the ball alone. I knew when I was about 9 years old that I wanted to be a professional soccer player. If I wasn’t playing soccer then my action figures were. When I told my family and even some of my coaches that I would play professionally in the future I could see how much no one really believed what I was saying that seriously. It always seemed to be something everyone says when they get asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” When I said it, I really meant it. Somehow I knew I would, not because I thought I was incredibly good, I said it like a promise. I knew I wouldn’t give up until I made it. I stuck to that goal and never forgot or put it aside. I’ve had many goals and promises, but the two greatest ones were to play in a first division and to play for my dad’s favorite team. I’ve been able to keep my two promises.
There were days where I slept in an abandoned house … days waking up at 6 a.m. to shower with cold water to be at practice on time.
Can you tell us about your professional playing experience in Mexico?
It was a great experience and it was very difficult at times. There were many obstacles I had to overcome but I feel my desire to become a professional led me past those obstacles. There were days where I slept in an abandoned house waiting for a trial … days waking up at 6 a.m. to shower with cold water to be at practice on time. Some days I would be completely broke because I didn’t want to call home and ask for money because my team wouldn’t pay us. I was young when I left. I feel like being away at a young age made me grow up a little faster, I had to. I personally negotiated my first professional contract at 17. I’m sure I didn’t do too well but I was happy to accomplish my lifelong dream.
What level were you playing at in the Mexican league?
When I signed for the first time I signed for the third division team of Jaguares de Chiapas. Within two weeks of playing for the third division team I was moved up to the first team. I was able to stay in the first division for four years and appear on the bench and eventually play for the first team. I enjoyed everything about it. At the moment the hardships seem difficult and painful but I’ve learned from each experience. I truly believe it made me a better person and I know those hard times helped shape who I am today. I also got the opportunity to be a part of my favorite team Cruz Azul. My dad is a lifetime fan and to be representing his team was pretty cool.
… there is so much talent in the U.S. and I’ve met some players here with great qualities. The difference is there is no clear pathway for those talented players to fully develop their potential futures.
It seems like MLS is starting to catch up to Liga MX somewhat with the higher level of talent and higher salaries. What are some of the differences between playing in the U.S. and Mexico?
The passion is a bit greater in Mexico coming from the players, coaches, staff and even the fans. The athleticism in the U.S. is very distinctive which reflects on the style of play. The Mexican teams are more creative and technical and organized. In the U.S. I’ve felt there is a lack of strategy and tactical training but never a lack of a great workout. I do think there’s a very high level here as well. I think the main difference is not the players but more the management and mindset sought out to the team. I think there is so much talent in the U.S. and I’ve met some players here with great qualities. The difference is there is no clear pathway for those talented players to fully develop their potential futures. There is a big mixture of people in the U.S. with roots from other places like Europe, Mexico, and South America. I think when those cultures combine and come together it is going to be powerful. I think the U.S. will have one of the strongest leagues and national teams in the future.
I know you really enjoy playing street football as well. What are some of the main differences between street ball and regular soccer?
Street soccer for me is where you can be free. You can do just about anything you want and try to do the impossible. And two out of three times it might just work out and it could be as rewarding as scoring a goal. I think it is important for any real player to have street soccer fundamentals. You can learn so much from playing with street ballers even just by being around them. In the street you can play to have fun with just about anyone and sometimes it can be just to fool around. But it is hard for me to play just to play, I’m competitive and I hate losing.
The best players I believe are the ones that understand the game better. I think outdoor and street go hand in hand …
Yeah, no kidding man. I saw that competitive side at the LAFC Supporters Cup when you guys were upset in the semi-final match. What about when you play full field?
In outdoor soccer it’s more organized, there are many more rules and referees. I hate referees. I think the freedom is somewhat limited in what you can do. I do believe that those limits are just a challenge for you as a player to come up with new creative ways to play the game. The best players I believe are the ones that understand the game better. I think outdoor and street go hand in hand, at least for me they both work with one another. I like to play outdoor soccer like I play in the streets, freely and always trying new things.
I know you’ve previously mentioned your desire to go back up to the pro ranks. Is that still your plan?
My future plans are to play as much as I can for as long as I can at the highest level possible. It’s hard for me to think about a future without the ball on my feet. I’m still committed to this beautiful game that has given me so much, countless friendships, taken me to so many places and continues to bring joy to life every time we kick it.
We wish you the best in your future endeavors and good luck on your upcoming Open Cup matches!