Marcos Sanchez winces as he playfully pretends to punch himself on the right cheek.
“Futbol, solamente,” the D.C. United midfielder says with a shy smile. Soccer only.
He was explaining how his father, also named Marcos, was a professional boxer in Panama, a bantamweight who won national and regional championship belts in the 1990s.
The son, now 23, was too young to remember most of the bouts, staged primarily in municipal gyms and small arenas in Panama City and Colon – bayside gateways on either end of the famed canal. The elder also fought in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Thailand.
“He was a fighter, but he loves soccer,” Sanchez said through an interpreter. “He would take me to play and watch. I was proud of him, but I wanted to play soccer.”
Comparing the son’s physical features to his father in a photographed boxing pose while in his twenties, the pair bears a striking resemblance: lean, almost scrawny. The elder, a 43-year-old electrician, fought at around 118 pounds; his son is generously listed at 155.
While his father chose a brutal craft, Marcos opted for the beautiful game. He is now a regular with the Panamanian national team, and after accompanying United to Saturday afternoon’s away match against the New York Red Bulls, he’ll report to training camp in Panama City ahead of World Cup qualifiers against Jamaica and Honduras. (While on assignment, he’ll miss one MLS match.)
From Mariano Rivera to Roberto Duran, Panama breeds baseball players and boxers. Infectious throughout Latin America, soccer has made slower headway in Panama. The sport, though, has gained popularity for a decade, and with the World Cup within reach, Los Canaleros (the Canal Men) are riding a wave of national pride.
“We have a good chance,” Sanchez said. “It’s a great opportunity. We have the whole country behind us. It’s the most realistic chance to make the World Cup ever.”
Three of the six finalists from the region will secure passage to Brazil next summer, while a fourth team will enter a playoff against the Oceania region champion. Panama is the wild card in the CONCACAF group, stocked with skill but perhaps lacking big-game wherewithal, as demonstrated in the first of 10 final-round qualifiers last month when an early two-goal lead at home dissolved into a 2-2 draw against Costa Rica.
Sanchez is from the rough Pedregal neighborhood of Panama City. At 15, he was enrolled in the youth academy at Navy Bay Colon before joining first-division Sporting San Miguelito and then Tauro, the domestic league’s most decorated program. His 10-year-old brother is in Tauro’s youth system.
Sanchez caught the eye of United scouting coordinator Kurt Morsink last summer during Panama’s friendly against European titan Portugal. Through the fall, the club monitored him with Tauro in league play and the CONCACAF Champions League, which brings together the top clubs from North and Central America and the Caribbean.
This winter, Morsink was on site in Costa Rica for the Copa Centroamericana tournament, where Sanchez scored for Panama against Honduras. He had notched his first international goal 12 days earlier in a friendly against Guatemala.
In early February, just before joining United for formal tryout, he produced a dazzling assist in a World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica, spinning in the penalty area and crossing to Roman Torres.
“He knows how to play,” Morsink said. “He’s small but strong on the ball. I thought he would be a good fit. He is something different.”
After a few weeks in United’s training camp, the club acquired him on a loan from Tauro, with an option to purchase his contract at the end of the year. He played the last 17 minutes of the opener at Houston, then started against Real Salt Lake last weekend at RFK Stadium, shifting from the midfield to an advanced position in the second half.
“It was good to get him in [the Real] game, so he can feel the pace and the physicality and the speed in which he has to play,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “You can see his technical ability is very good and he understands how to play.”
With Dwayne De Rosario returning from a league suspension, Sanchez is likely to return to a reserve role against the Red Bulls.
The gradual acclimation to the team and league mirrors the adjustment to a new country and culture. He is living at a hotel for now and getting used to a northern climate. “I am used to warm weather all the time,” he said.
In time, United believes he will become a valuable attacking resource.
“I like he is playing on the international stage, I like his technical ability, I like his ability to hold the ball,” Olsen said. “But he’s young and he’s slight, and the speed and physical nature of the league is, at times, a bit much for him. He gives us possession, and as we move forward, he will figure this all out.”