Richard Sanchez’s long and winding road, which includes playing for 10 different teams in two countries and winning a youth World Cup, has come full circle. And he’s only 27 years old.
The goalkeeper, who grew up in Mission Hills in the San Fernando Valley, signed a one-year deal with the LA Galaxy in January bringing him back to his roots.
The sights, the sounds, the smells, it’s all so familiar for Sanchez.
“There'll be times where I'm just walking down the street and there's like a certain scent, a certain smell of a plant or a tree that I get a whiff of and all my senses and everything just comes together and I feel calm,” Sanchez said. “That just brings me back to my childhood, riding my bike and cruising around. Being here in California, it does feel like home and it does feel right. And I'm certainly glad to be back here in LA and representing a great club like the Galaxy, really happy.”
Sanchez attended Galaxy games when he was a kid, watching Kevin Hartman between the posts, envisioning one day he too would be a professional goalkeeper.
He met Hartman, as luck would have it, when his aunt, Maria Sanchez, told him that an LA Galaxy player was making an appearance at the car dealership she worked at in Van Nuys. That player was Hartman, who Sanchez took a picture with that day. Now Hartman is his goalkeeping coach with the Galaxy.
Sanchez’s father, Gustavo, is a staunch fan of Mexican club Cruz Azul and, of course, the Mexican National Team. He played a bit in his day, but when a knee injury limited his ability to be a defender, Gustavo stepped into the net for some Sunday League games, with a young Richard watching intently from behind the netting.
Gustavo showed his sons tapes of Jorge Campos, a legendary Mexican goalkeeper who like Sanchez, played for the LA Galaxy and Chicago Fire in addition to a lengthy career in Mexico, and Sanchez was amazed. There was also ConejoPerez from Cruz Azul, but the goalkeeper who truly inspired Sanchez’s future path was Oswaldo Sanchez, one of Mexico’s greatest goalkeepers of all-time.
“It was his flare, his dives, his bravery on 1-v-1s, the confidence he would exude that inspired me,” Sanchez said.
Although he was born in America and grew up in California before the family moved to Dallas when he was 11 years old, Sanchez identifies more as Mexican. He loved the jersey with the Aztec calendar on it. To him, it symbolized power. And when he finally got a chance to see Mexico play in person, in front of 90,000 strong at the Rose Bowl, Sanchez was hooked.
It was Nov. 10, 2004, an international friendly that also doubled as a testimonial for Jorge Campos and Brazilian legend Romario.
“My dad got tickets for us to watch that game in person and just being in that environment was mind blowing,” Sanchez said. “I’m seeing all these guys like Cafu and Luis Hernandez, all these big names where I was like, wow this is awesome. This is amazing. It was definitely inspirational for me and one thing that I wanted to accomplish was play for the Mexican national team.”
Gustavo also gave Richard his first chance at playing goalkeeper. Seeing that his son seemed to enjoy kicking a ball around at ages 3 and 4, he tried to sign him up to play for a few local teams. But they were turned away because of how small Richard was. Fed up, Gustavo formed his own team and, after a few games of playing forward, he asked Richard if he’d play in the net.
“He saw something in me that I had like an innate ability to actually play in front of the ball and I kind of just stuck there,” Sanchez said.
The father also sat his son down a few years later and asked him about his goals in the sport. Richard laid out three clear ones: become a professional soccer player, represent Mexico and play at Estadio Azteca.
Remarkably, he checked all those boxes in 2011.
Sanchez signed a homegrown contract with FC Dallas that February and then was the starting goalkeeper for Mexico at the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup, played in Mexico, that July.
He started all seven matches, including the epic come-from-behind 3-2 semifinal win over a Germany side that featured Borussia Dortmund midfielder Emre Can, who gave Germany a 2-1 lead in the 60th minute.
Jonathan Espericueta leveled the match with a remarkable Olympico, scoring directly off a corner kick in the 76th minute and then Julio Gomez, who was badly bloodied on that goal, came back in to score the stoppage time winner, the bicycle kick was his second goal of the game.
The final was played at Estadio Azteca, in front of 98,943 fans. The opponent was Uruguay, which crushed Mexico in a pair of friendlies in South America ahead of the World Cup.
Sanchez kept the clean sheet in the 2-0 win. It was Mexico’s second time winning that title and it came during a time of widespread Cartel violence in the country.
“I feel like that for me was the fondest memory, just being able to liven up a nation during the time of turmoil,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez also represented Mexico at the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey, a tournament that also featured the likes of Paul Pogba and Harry Kane.
“I really do feel blessed,” Sanchez said. "I feel honored and privileged and just lucky to play in two World Cups with Mexico.”
He returned from that World Cup to go on loan from FC Dallas to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League, where he started all 14 games of the fall season, keeping three clean sheets.
Sanchez was sold to Tigres UANL in Liga MX in June, 2014, but never played for the first team outside of a substitute appearance in a friendly. He was quickly loaned back to FC Dallas and subsequently sent to Mexican second division side Tampico Madero on loan.
Though disappointed in not breaking into the first team, Sanchez looks back at that experience, learning under legendary coach Tuca Ferretti, playing with Andre-Pierre Gignac and Herculez Gomez, who he looked up to when he played for the Galaxy, as a positive one in his career.
“I'm gonna be honest. There were times where I was getting down and I was just really second guessing the decisions that I was making in terms of moving the way that I did,” he said. "But then I look in hindsight and I look in retrospect and it's just really a positive experience.”
The same is true of his time with the Chicago Fire, where he made the most appearances (27) for one team in his career, Sporting Kansas City, who he played for just twice and North Texas SC last year.
Sanchez knows the deal with the Galaxy, where English-born Jonathan Bond is the clear No. 1 goalkeeper. Sanchez said he was brought in to add depth and competition to the position.
But Sanchez, who said he plans to play until he's 45, like Italian legend Gianluigi Buffon or former USMNT standout Brad Friedel, knows better than most during his well-traveled career. The next opportunity could be right around the corner and he’s ready to seize it.
“I'm a firm believer that things happen for a reason. And at some point, maybe you make those decisions or calculated risks to get you to where you're at,” Sanchez said. “It was a no-brainer for me to come here and develop my skills further where I do believe that I can continue to grow. I’m enjoying every minute of it.”