Manolo Sanchez is right where he wants to be at the moment, playing professional soccer for New York Red Bulls II in USL. He was signed to an MLS contract this preseason after being drafted by New York Red Bulls in the fourth round of the 2015 SuperDraft, but the 23-year-old attacking midfielder is content to hone his craft in the lower division for the time being. He wants to prove his worth to the first team and live out a dream that began in middle school.
Sanchez credits a multicultural upbringing with sparking his initial interest in soccer. His parents moved from Puerto Rico to the northeastern United States so that his father could pursue a PhD. Manolo was raised in West Philadelphia with the help of an international community of family friends that hailed from a variety of points on the globe.
Soccer was a popular way to pass the time in the parks of West Philadelphia, especially with the large West African population. It was always easy to find a pickup game.
Sanchez began playing organized soccer at the age of six with an intramural team at Fairmount Park. The league initially thought he was too young to play, but they changed their minds after seeing practice a few times. Manolo was placed on a team with boys a couple of age groups ahead of him.
He decided in seventh or eighth grade that he would like to pursue a career as a professional soccer player. After graduating high school, however, Sanchez decided to head to college. It was a decision that he does not regret.
“I’m really happy I did that because you learn things about yourself in college, and you mature as a person just as much as you grow as a player,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez transferred from Louisville to Clemson after his freshman season and was an important piece in several successful seasons for the Tigers. He notched 10 goals and 15 assists in three seasons at Clemson, helping the Tigers achieve an ACC championship in his senior year.
With the work ethic and skill set that Sanchez demonstrated in college, it is little wonder that Red Bulls selected him in the SuperDraft.
“I was happy,” remarked Sanchez. “I just wanted a chance to prove myself and make a team.”
Manolo accomplished both of those feats in the preseason, inking an MLS contract with Red Bulls on March 2.
Proving himself, though, is something that Sanchez is not finished doing. He may have earned a contract with an MLS team, but there is work that remains before walking onto the pitch at Red Bull Arena with the first team. In the mean time, he his glad to have the opportunity to compete with Red Bulls II in USL.
When asked if he was disappointed to be loaned to the USL affiliate, Sanchez replied, “No, not at all. I’m still young and have a lot to learn. I’m actually lucky to be able to learn from the likes of Lloyd Sam and company. Not many young players in the league have that opportunity.”
It is not as if Sanchez has been relegated to playing with a minor league squad on the other side of the continent. One of the benefits of an MLS team operating a USL side is that the potential exists for substantial interaction between the first and second teams. Red Bulls has excelled in this area.
Sanchez explained, “All of the guys who are signed to the first team practice with them every day. Sometimes we do two-a-days with the USL just to continue to get better. We are very much integrated with the first team. Jesse [Marsch] has done a great job with that.”
Red Bulls II is 2-3-2 through seven matches in its first USL season. The eight points are good enough for fifth place in the current Eastern Conference standings, but the results may be less than some expected for the expansion side.
“It’s been a bit of roller coaster,” said Sanchez. “With it being the first season of the Red Bulls II, there is a lot to be learned for the players and coaches. We have an extremely young team and mostly rookies. We have to continue to learn and grow quickly.”
Sanchez concedes that it is difficult for Red Bulls II to develop team chemistry with many of the first team players getting limited opportunities to train with the second team.
“Yeah, it’s certainly not the easiest, but I think it’s getting better with each game and practice that passes. We are starting to understand each other and our tendencies more and more,” said Sanchez.
Some of that learning, growth, and understanding was on display when Red Bulls II hosted Pittsburgh Riverhounds last Sunday. New York held on to win 3-2 in an entertaining game with a dramatic finish. Sanchez was instrumental in the victory, heading in a go-ahead goal in the 66th minute.
Sanchez described what he was feeling as his first professional goal went into the net, “I was happy, of course, because it gave us the lead back, but my first thought was to go thank Shawn [McLaws] because the service was on point.”
“It’s certainly physical and intense,” he said about the play in USL, “It’s a good level, and I’m learning a lot about professional soccer quickly.”
When it comes time for Sanchez to make his debut in MLS, he and Red Bulls will have benefited from his time in USL.