As he walks from Sporting Kansas City’s training facility up to the front desk for the interview, the first thing one notices is how respectful he is as he kindly greets. And then, as he draws out two chairs and creates a comfortable conference, one learns of his giving nature. And once the conversation that surmounts any language or cultural differences – not some impersonal interview – begins, one starts to learn of the real person and personality Ilie Sanchez is.
Ilie, as he prefers to go by, is a product of the La Masia Academy run by world-renowned FC Barcelona. At age 19, he joined Barca’s B team, where he featured through 2014. After being loaned out, as is the fate of many who do not crack the first team at perhaps Europe’s biggest club, Ilie played in both Spain and Germany. Ilie was acquired by Sporting Kansas City in January as a Discovery player and signed to a two-year contract with a club option for a third year before the 2017 season began.
But a ghost followed Ilie here to the great Midwest.
The 26-year-old Barcelona native’s career trajectory is very similar to that phantom, former Sporting Kansas City standout midfielder Oriol Rosell, who joined Peter Vermes’ side in August of 2012. It seems that Ilie can’t be discussed without a Rosell mention – Barcelona upbringing, both holding midfielders, playing on the Barcelona B team together, then making the journey to MLS. But that comparison is dismissive, and certainly underserves Ilie and what he brings to Sporting Kansas City.
In a few months, Ilie has integrated into Sporting Kansas City as smoothly as he would into a pick-up game on a Barcelona street. That’s a rare feat, especially for a coaching staff and a system of play that demand so much.
“From day one you can tell that he is an experienced professional,” said Sporting Kansas City veteran Matt Besler. “He’s played at different clubs around the world, so he’s able to go somewhere and adapt quickly.”
Even Rosell took a while to adapt, making five appearances (scoring a game-winning goal in his 2nd appearance) during August-October in 2012 before becoming the midfield lynchpin in Sporting’s MLS Cup winning 2013 campaign. Likewise, Ilie is now revered as the final piece in what is perhaps MLS’s top all-around three-man midfield. A 3-1-3 record with only three goals against and a huge win against conference and MLS leaders Portland Timbers last week, in which Ilie just missed scoring his first MLS goal, speak volumes to what Ilie has helped achieve. Not that his teammates and coaches are quiet about his impact and the professionalism with which he goes about his job.
“[His seamless transition] says a lot about his character, his mentality and how he has integrated with the players in the locker room,” stated Assistant Coach Kerry Zavagnin. “They all respect him; they value his contribution to the team. He’s been really, really good for us.”
“He’s a true professional,” said Besler. “He handles himself the way that he should: he takes care of his body; he’s interested in asking questions at the right time. He’s been a pleasure and a great teammate so far.”
Clearly, the Sporting Kansas City brass and coaching staff had high hopes, and expectations, for Ilie. To come into a new side, a new country, and a league that differs in a variety of ways from those in Europe and adapt in two months before the season began is challenge enough. But to be ask to fill the holding midfielder role – who defends in front of the two center backs who are often 1v1 with opposing forwards while their flank backs support the attack and who often checks back into space to receive balls while under pressure from hounding opposing midfielders, not to mention being the key link in transitioning quickly from defending to attacking for the entire side – is almost too much. But soccer is soccer no matter. What is key is who the player is at the heart and in the mind. This is where we find out who Ilie is.
“He was captain in Barcelona, so he understands the demands for being a leader by example. He hasn’t come in and overstepped his boundaries in terms of trying to take over the team. He respects the veteran players that have been here,” said Zavagnin. “But he also understands that the obligation and the position he plays in the spine of the team requires a certain amount of communication and know-how in how you deal-with and how you communicate with your teammates.”
Ilie in Ilie’s words
(All communicated with an authentic, sincere love of life and for what he is doing as a profession.)
A New Home
It is not news that Vermes and his staff like heady and skilled players from a Barcelona pedigree because of the familiarity with Sporting’s system of play, which is loosely based on Barca’s 4-1-2-2-1 formation, high defending, intelligent movement, and disciplined choices. And Ilie welcomes it after his time on loan with 1860 Munich, where he often felt he was not in the game.
“The most important thing that I can see is that I like this kind of futbol … That’s why I’m here. I was looking for an outfit like that, where the coach and his team work and give me the opportunity to show my qualities in this kind of futbol. I like to play with my teammates, associate with them to go forward and make chances.”
An Amazed Affection within a Coach-to-Be
Ilie’s comfort level has enabled his midfield teammates – box-to-box hound dog Roger Espinoza and playmaker Benny Feilhaber – to focus on what they do best. And Ilie had some wonderful words for his mates.
“They show every game how they are two of the best midfielders in the league. It’s very easy for me to play behind them because they make my job easy.”
“Roger, he never stops. When I go to stop this guy, Roger is there. When this guy passes to another guy, and it’s my guy, Roger is there. For me, I just need to coach him – right, left, go, stay. And he speaks Spanish, so it’s easy job to play behind Roger.”
“Benny, for me, is a pure #10. I love these kinds of players.”
And here Ilie pauses to reveal his child-like love of the game and his futbol mind, an insight that includes laughter that is at once aware of the absurdness of his statement but revealing of his appetite for the beautiful in the beautiful game. “When I become a coach, in my team, we will play with 10 number 10s. It’s the way I think about futbol.”
Clearly, he would want Sporting’s #10 on his team. “Benny has a pure quality, so you can give him the ball in any situation, and he can find a solution.”
A Surprise … and A Job
Players in Europe and throughout the world are no longer in the dark about Major League Soccer, but like a new job, one does not really know what it will be like until experience tells the tale.
“This league surprised me because it’s really [balanced]. You can win or lose in every game. You have motivation in every game because you have to be ready. It’s for me, outside of Spain, Italy, England, and Germany, one of the best, or the best league.”
And Ilie realizes that he and all players across the globe must help the game of futbol, or soccer, grow.
“It’s our job to make the game spectacular and bring people to the stadium so they can enjoy with us.”
Whither the Future?
In the distant future, if Ilie has his way, he will be a coach. But where does his much nearer future as a player lie?
“It’s early, but with the two or three months that I have been here, all that Peter and Kerry told me about Sporting is true. If things continue like that, I’m happy.”