The greatest Mexican soccer player of the 20th century, and a pivotal figure in the conversation for the greatest of all, credits his time in the United States for his success with Real Madrid.
Hugo Sanchez, LaLiga's No. 4 all-time goalscorer, told Soccer America that his time with the North American Soccer League's San Diego Sockers as a young striker on loan from Pumas UNAM, set him up for his success in Spain and with Mexico's national team.
“I loved San Diego,” Sanchez, who scored 26 goals in 32 games with the Sockers as a 21- to 23-year-old standout in 1979 and 1980, said in Spanish after an ESPN-sponsored event at L.A. Live accompanying Sunday's Barcelona-Real Madrid Clasico. “San Diego was an opportunity to springboard my career to Europe, because the big names — like Pelé and [Franz] Beckenbauer — were playing in the NASL. The eyes of Europe were looking here because of the big names that were playing here.”
So many world superstars featured in the NASL, and if Pelé was gone before Sanchez arrived — the late Brazilian great retired after the 1977 season -- he had the opportunity to go up against the likes of Johan Cruyff, George Best, Carlos Alberto, Gerd Müller, Eusebio, Teofilo Cubillas, Giorgio Chinaglia, Johan Neeskens, Wim Suurbier, Trevor Francis and Rodney Marsh, among many more.
Sanchez also was a Major League Soccer original, playing in 1996 for the Dallas Burn. He and former U.S. standout Roy Wegerle were the only players to compete in the NASL and MLS.
“I came back to play in the U.S., for Dallas in MLS, because I was grateful,” he said. “Part of the reason I was successful in Europe was the U.S. helped springboard me to play in Europe. Coming back was me giving back to help grow soccer in the U.S., because the U.S. played a big role in getting me to Europe.”
Sanchez, who played in three World Cups and scored 29 goals in 58 international appearances with El Tri, spent the summers in the U.S. while toiling for Pumas during the fall-to-spring Mexican campaigns. He went to Spain in 1981, spending four seasons with Atletico de Madrid and seven more with Real Madrid, with which he won five LaLiga championships and led the league in scoring four successive seasons.
He spent another season in Spain, with Rayo Vallecano, in the 1990s and tallied 234 goals in 347 games — 164 in 207 with Real — a total bested only by Lionel Messi (474), Cristiano Ronaldo (311) and Telmo Zarra (250), who played in the 1940s and 1950s with Athletic Bilbao. Real striker Karim Benzema needs four more goals to equal Sanchez's total.
Sanchez, now 64, also played at home for Club America, Atlante and Atletico Celaya and with Linz in Austria before embarking on a coaching career that included stints in charge of Mexico's national team and with Pumas, Necaxa and Pachuca. He also was in charge for a spell at Almeria in Spain.
Sanchez is a studio analyst for ESPN Deportes, which telecast Sunday's Clasico, won by Barcelona, 2-1.
He has watched MLS's growth, and the evolution of the game north of the border, with great pride.
“I'm thrilled the game has been able to progress in the U.S.,” he said. “Probably not as fast as I would have wished. If there hadn't been that rupture [between the NASL's demise in 1984 and MLS's kickoff a dozen years later], I think the evolution of the game in the U.S. would have happened faster.”
He said MLS is “almost” Liga MX's equal, in terms of on-field quality.
“On the economic side, because the U.S. is an economic powerhouse, they are [an equal],” he said. “But on the players side, the quality of play is not there yet.”
Top photo: Eddie Perlas/ESPN Images
Good article. Great player.
Hugo's first game with the Sockers in 1979 was a home game against Dynamo Moscow. San Diego won 5-2. I believe Hugo had a hat trick.
He was well past his prime when with the Dallas Burn. but, yes, a great player who just knew how to "put the ball in the back of the net" throughout his career.
Great memories of the Sockers finest years in the outdoor NASL.
Excellent player So fun to watch!
This is the kind of broadcaster with his experience, backround and ability to be used for the American audience.
Agreed Frank. Wonder if he's interested in coaching as the other Hugo (that we ran off, USSF) is already coaching. Development Sanchez is referring is largely technical skills.
I was wondering the same thing.
Ships, Yes, which leads me to say why hasn't he ever been approached by the USSF to teach ,coach, or advice 'consult promising American strikers. Sanchez is probably the best and most experience striker we have living in the North American continent and we don't use him....The USSF is a joke...where is Cone on this and obviously probably doesn't even know who he is....What does that take to bring some creative thinking to this organization...
Watched Hugo, a dynamic goal scorer, when he played for Real Madrid. After every goal he would do a somersault celebration. He constantly brought energy unto the pitch.
Been there.... Seen It.!!! Hala Madrid and HuGOL.!!!!