Out since Sporting’s last match in Orlando at the MLS is Back Tournament on July 30 – a span in which the side struggled with only two victories in six matches (2-2-2) – Ilie was back from his hometown in Spain after dealing with a family issue. While he was gone, his father, his brother, and he stayed awake to watch all of Sporting’s games. They saw 18-year-old Gianluca Busio, normally an attacking midfielder/forward, grow into Ilie’s defensive midfielder position.
“Busio and the team did a really good job during the games, and that made it easier for me to not get too anxious or too worried about having to come back immediately,” Ilie stated in a phone interview on Monday.
To the Barcelona La Masia Academy trained 29-year-old, the most challenging aspects of the critical “#6” in a 4-3-3 are the exact reason many are shrewd veterans, not teens. “It’s more about the mental aspect than the tactical or the physical,” he said.
“You have to be aware of every situation on the field. Not just when you have the ball, but when you do not. And when your team has the ball or when your team does not,” began the Barcelona native. “Being involved 90 minutes for every single action on the field is what makes our job difficult. If you make a mistake, the team is affected more than if you play outside back or winger…”
Surely, Busio was burdened with the responsibility. It can be overwhelming. But Ilie has long recognized the impressive tools Busio brings.
“One of the best things about him as a player is how he positions himself on the field in relation to the ball, his teammates, and the opponents. That gives him an advantage when you have to move him to a different position on the field because he can already read and decide what to do in a different position,” Ilie said.
“He did not surprise me; he did a really good job. He is 18 years old, so he has a lot to improve and keep learning. He is already an important player for this squad.”
The play of Busio (a possible replacement for Ilie) likely increased chatter in forums, in tweets, and on sites that has been critical of Ilie’s play as Sporting Kansas City has not been the strong defensive side they once were since last season. ‘He’s not fast enough.’ ‘He’s not good in stopping the counter.’ ‘He’s not a strong enough tackler.’
Ilie stated he was unaware of any outside criticism. After all, does it matter?
“It is part of the job that you are going to get good reviews about your performance, and also negative things that can be true…,” he said. “[However,] we are focused on what the coach wants us to do and whether our teammates trust us or not… I respect everyone that has an opinion. We should all have an opinion. But don’t expect me to be listening to anyone who is not on my team.”
Ilie arrived in Kansas City in 2017 and played to a choir of plaudits while helping win the US Open Cup title. The next season he was a de facto leader on a side that catapulted to the top of the Western Conference regular season standings and third overall in MLS.
Ilie will turn 30 in November. It’s an age where an athlete’s abilities, unfairly it must be said, often began to be questioned.
“I’ve never felt about the age, and I am not going to start doing it now. All I am thinking about is my team and if they need me and go game-by-game,” he stated. “It’s very difficult to think further than this season, especially during these crazy times.”
Now that Ilie has returned (and leading scorer Alan Pulido will return Wednesday after missing four matches), he implies Sporting knows its 2020 identity as the COVID-19 shortened season heads into its final 11 games of the regular season.
“Even though the results sometimes did not go our way, we are now in a place where we all know what we have to do on the field and how to do it,” said Ilie. “If we win or we lose, we always know why that happened. That is key for a successful long run.”
Ilie returned to Kansas City on Wednesday, September 9 (training individually, then with the group after gaining clearance). And, after witnessing the last two home matches, including the 1-0 win over Minnesota United FC on September 13), he knows the fans are ready to see their team takeoff.
Making his first gameday roster since returning, Ilie entered the game in the second half of the loss to FC Dallas Saturday.
“The fans were amazing! Not just with me, with the team… It’s unbelievable how 18% of capacity can be so helpful to the team,” he awed. “This is something that is Kansas City’s nature. I am so proud to experience it every game.”