Manolo Sanchez was almost always a soccer star. The Philadelphia native was an Inquirer first-team midfielder for Germantown Friends in 2009, and he went on to play in college for Louisville and Clemson. After that, he played three games for Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls, for two teams in the United Soccer League and for the Puerto Rican national team.
Playing pro soccer “was always a dream of mine,” said the 27-year-old Sanchez. “It is a unique profession. It is six days a week, nights, and weekends with an intense eight-to-10-month season.”
However, after scoring five goals in 38 USL appearances for New York and San Antonio — and no goals in three games for the Red Bulls — injuries cut short his playing career. So Sanchez looked around for another challenge.
Since he still loved the fitness, attention to nutrition, and interaction with fans that accompany soccer teams, he latched on to coaching.
This season, he was an assistant coach at Germantown Friends under head coach Sam McIlvain, and the Tigers won their first Friends League title in 11 years.
“I knew it would be tough to be watching from the sidelines,” said Sanchez, who finished his high school career at Germantown Friends with a school-record 59 goals and 38 assists. “But I thought I would give coaching a try and reached out to the GFS coaches to see if they needed help.”
McIlvain, in his seventh year as head coach at Germantown Friends, accepted him right away, knowing that Sanchez would be a great addition to the program.
“The kids can really relate to him,” McIllvain said. “He’s a GFS kid. He’s young, and he has a similar style of coaching. He … really cares about teaching people, even helping beginners learn the basics.”
Sanchez, who also starred as a youth in the prestigious Yardley-Makefield soccer program, said he gravitated to coaching high school players instead of pros or college players because he likes to watch developing players improve.
“I love seeing the light bulb go off in their heads,” he said.
Sanchez saw plenty of wattage this season as the Tigers beat Westtown School in November for the Friends Schools League title. One of the main directives to his players, he said, was for them to stick with the program and their routines even when things go wrong.
“So much of sport is mental, and hardships can be overcome with mentality, which needs to be better communicated in U.S. soccer,” Sanchez said. “I try to teach the importance of professionalism and showing up every day.”
That attitude connected immediately with McIlvain.
“We always talk about maximizing your effort and focusing on things you can control, such as effort and hard work versus uncontrollable things like outcome,” McIlvain said. “It’s the player’s game. They ultimately make the decisions.”
As for Sanchez’s first foray into coaching, McIlvain said that the new coach showed the Germantown Friends players that anything — even playing pro soccer — is possible.
“Helping develop and grow the game in the U.S. is the most rewarding part of my career, and GFS has helped me find my passion,” said Sanchez, whose parents were born in New York but met and had him when they lived in Puerto Rico.