Manolo Sanchez could just as easily have been a baseball player instead of a soccer player.
The University City native spent as much time on diamonds as rectangular fields while growing up. But once soccer really took hold of him, it never let go.
Over the years, the world's game has led Sanchez on a path through Germantown Friends School, the prestigious Yardley-Makefield Soccer program, and a college career that started at Louisville and ended at Clemson. Now Sanchez has the potential to turn pro, and he could hear his name called during Thursday's Major League Soccer SuperDraft at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Sanchez, a wing midfielder, is projected as a mid-to-late second-round pick by TopDrawerSoccer.com, whose mock drafts and scouting reports are among the most-respected in soccer circles. Coincidentally, that's when the Union currently have their only picks of the draft, at No. 31 and 41 overall. And it just so happens that they could use some depth at Sanchez's position.
When the obvious question came to Sanchez, his answer was clear: Yes, he'd be thrilled to come home.
"I love this city - I go to a couple of [Union] games every summer and I'm familiar with some of the players," he said. "It would really be a special kind of homecoming for me, it would mean a lot to me."
But he's not going to be too picky, of course.
"Honestly, I just want to play," he said. "I'll play for anybody. But it wouldn't be such a bad story and situation to go play for my home town."
Sanchez has earned plenty of opportunities to make his case. In addition to his college career, he spent three summers with Reading United, the Union's affiliate in the semi-pro Premier Development League.
While with Reading, he was reunited with two fellow Yardley-Makefield alums who were later drafted into MLS: New Hope native Steve Neumann (New England Revolution) and Yardley native Jimmy Ockford (Seattle Sounders).
Reading also has a long history as a breeding ground for the Union. The current squad includes five United products: Ray Gaddis, C.J. Sapong, Andrew Wenger, Leo Fernandes and Aaron Wheeler.
Sanchez's college career started at powerhouse Louisville. But playing for the Cardinals didn't quite work out as he hoped, so he decided to transfer. Clemson's coach had recruited him previously, so that's where he headed.
The Tigers have their own strong soccer history, having produced former U.S. national team stars such as Stuart Holden, Oguchi Oneywu, and even Bruce Murray in the 1980s. Add to that the ACC's perennial status as one of the nation's elite soccer conferences, and it was an easy fit.
"I was looking for a place where the standard would be the same, where the competition would be high, and really, where I could get a lot of exposure," Sanchez said. "It really kind of worked out perfectly... Clemson has an incredible tradition of players, and I hope to add to that."
One of Clemson's most recent products, D.C. United midfielder Thomas McNamara, has been something of a mentor for Sanchez during his move from the college ranks to the pros.
"It's just like anything else - it's a business," Sanchez said. "I've been able to speak with [McNamara] about all the things that can help me get a leg up."
The transition from college to pro soccer can be a whirlwind. So can transferring from one big-time college program to another.
But to hear Sanchez tell it, life these days is easy compared to his high school years. Dealing with the twin rigors of Germantown Friends' academic prestige and Yardley-Makefield's soccer prestige was a challenge, but Sanchez relished it.
"It was definitely trying on my parents before I could drive, but it taught me a lot of good life lessons," Sanchez said. "I really had to be on top of my stuff, and because of that, I didn't enjoy the normal social life of a high school student... Coming into college was almost easy because I had so much free time."
Sanchez's parents weren't just the ones who shuttled him from school to practice. They also instilled his love of the sport - especially his father, Esaul, who works in Penn's real estate and facilties department.
Esaul started following soccer while studying for his Ph. D. at Columbia University in the 1980's.
"Ever since then, he fell in love with the game, and that grew on me," Manolo said.
Esaul and Manolo's mother, Maria, were both born in New York but met while living in Puerto Rico. They moved to Philadelphia in 1988 and settled at 44th and Larchwood, where they - and Manolo, who was born in 1991 - still live.
At first, Manolo played baseball and soccer. But as he put it, baseball's pace "was too slow for me, and I obviously wasn't as good at it as I was at soccer."