I was alone. And that was ok, though it was not by choice. But life happens. Sometimes one just has to get out and appreciate the city streets.
It was a First Friday in Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District. Vivid personalities wafting by, vendors casting their from-the-soul wares, joyous dancers playfully goading each other to new heights. Though it lifted me, I was still removed.
As I strode across an intersection consumed by the crowd, I glanced up to see Ilie striding right for me. In one moment, a warm greeting and a sincere smile put me in a better place.
For weeks, family man, and Sporting Kansas City midfield linchpin, Ilie Sanchez, was elsewhere. Officially, he was away from the team dealing with “family issues”. But it was more.
“I see it as an injury of me. Mentally, I would not have been able to be here knowing at home the situation was like that,” he stated. After Sporting’s July 30 match in Orlando, Ilie headed home to Barcelona, Spain.
Barcelona. A mecca of the world’s sport. The center of FC Barcelona. Though he was home for much deeper reasons, football literally flows in Ilie’s veins: his grandfather was once the director of Barcelona’s famed La Masia Academy.
Yet, Ilie was different when growing up. He did not dream of playing for his hometown Barcelona first team; he did not even dream of becoming a professional soccer player.
“I had no dreams. In soccer, I did not even have goals.”
Admiration. Emulation. Wonder. Those are why he began. Ilie started playing soccer because his brother (two years his senior) did. “When I saw it, I wanted to do the same, from then until now.”
One just knows. Love may be mysterious, but it is also undeniable, totally clear.
“When I was 14, because I really loved what I was doing, I started to become a better player every day,” Ilie said. “Until one day, some of the academies of the teams in La Liga (Spain’s top division) started calling.”
One of them was FC Barcelona, Barca. Barca was from birth; Barca was family. “Once Barcelona called me, I stopped listening to all the others and signed immediately.”
The dream that wasn’t a dream for Ilie because it was “Too big, too far” was ironically close, because he valued family, because he admired his brother, and because he loved playing soccer.
Ilie’s soccer journey from Barca to Germany to Sporting Kansas City, his decision to extend his stay in Kansas City (at least through next season), and his mutual love affair with Sporting and its fans are well detailed some here by the Kansas City STAR and some here by Sporting Kansas City.
If unrequited love empties one’s soul, love that cannot be expressed robs one of a soul.
Ilie described it as a left heel “issue,” not an injury. During his third year after making Barcelona B (the second team) a 20-year-old Ilie – playing the best soccer of his life – was experiencing the biggest struggle of his career.
The fix was surgery. But the period of recovery was too short and the heel became infected. A second surgery, a third, four in six months. All in the same area. The initial layoff was to be 15-20 days. Ilie was unable to play for 11 months straight.
“If you are on the field, you can win the game, lose the game, tie the game. You can play well or you can play poor. It depends on you,” Ilie said. “If you are off the field, there is no way you can fight for anything. You cannot own what you are doing.”
After the struggle, the dedicated, driven Ilie captained Barca B for two seasons, helping raise them to third place in the 2nd Division.
Coaches like to have team meetings and dole out wisdom. Well, good coaches. All players must be on the same page. All players must earnestly feel part of raising the side to new levels.
As Ilie sits in meetings led by Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes and his staff, he always learns, even after more than three seasons. He says each team or individual discussion is “a master class.”
“[The coaching staff] read[s] very well what is going on, what happened in the game or in trainings, and we always get to a conclusion together of how to improve or how to move forward,” he revealed. “It doesn’t mean that it is going to work, but that means that we are doing everything we can from those meetings to move forward to get where we want to be.”
Together. A second family. A family with individuals with one thing at the heart of each… Yes, we strive to understand. But we long to be understood and to be treated fairly.
“[Peter] always tries to find the mistakes. And that is good because he does it when we lose and when we win. He is fair with the situation, with his team, and with his players,” Ilie said. “As players, the first quality we look for is if the coach is fair with the team. No matter if we play or don’t play regularly, I am pretty sure that all my teammates would say that he is a fair coach and a fair person.”
To Ilie, Luis Enrique, who is Spain’s current national team coach and was one of Ilie’s coaches at Barcelona, is the best coach in the world. For his knowledge, teaching something new every day. For his skill in pushing players, getting them to be the best they can be.
Ilie did not always find coaches with such drive, such ability, such willingness to take responsibility for their jobs after Barca. When asked if he did, he answers emphatically, “No. No. No. That’s why I left.”
“After Barca, I had good coaches, but until I found Peter in my career, I could not feel the same that I felt when I was with Luis Enrique,” Ilie intimated. “[The Sporting KC coaching staff] is why I stayed here and why I want to be here for a long time.”
In his Luis Enriques, in his blood, in the game he loves, Ilie has found his dream. Past is indeed prologue.
TBT: Do you have any ambitions of coaching when you are done playing?
Ilie: “That’s the best question. I just told you that I never dreamed about becoming a soccer player. But ever since I left to go to Germany, I started dreaming about one day becoming a coach, a really good coach.”
“I know that it is more difficult than being a player and that I will have to prepare myself very well. But I will study (He has already started.), and when I retire, I will start turning that dream into a real goal.”
In coaching, Ilie can have another family, be the dedicated, responsible patriarch of his players. He can create a love for the game and bring joy. He can inspire his players’ best, can impart knowledge while understanding and treating them fairly. He can bring them together.
In coaching Ilie can put his values into practice.
Ilie has an inner passion and a love that drives and informs his outer self that his teammates and the Kansas City fans see every day, every match, every time they encounter Ilie. No matter where.
Furthermore, he was named the Neal and Jeanne Patterson Humanitarian of the Year alongside for his philanthropic impact on the Kansas City community in 2019.
Sometime after he arrived back in Kansas City from Barcelona, Ilie returned my scheduled call apologizing for being late. He had been walking a dog he is dog sitting for a friend. “Perfect weather, right?” he said.
He had just returned from a storm. In degrees, it was a much more significant struggle than the heel issue. However, the feeling of “If you are off the field, there is no way you can fight for anything. You cannot own what you are doing” was similar. Yet, he had been calmed. Mentally, he stated, he was “in a way better place.” Like the place he has always put others. Myself included.
Despite the immensity of the “family issues,” Ilie realizes he has been fortunate.
“I love to play soccer. I will always love to play this game,” he said. “That put me into a position where I made my hobby my job. And I still enjoy what I’m doing. I will be doing it until I can.”
While away, Ilie and his father and his brother stayed awake to watch the Sporting Kansas City matches he was missing. After a while, his father kept asking him why he was not in Kansas City with his team. But Ilie knew the team had his back.
“I am very grateful to the coach to the staff and to my teammates because you cannot imagine how good they dealt with the situation. The messages they sent me. The feedback. Everything was what I needed at that time,” he stated.
“Being with my family was definitely the worst but the best time of my life at the same time… The team understood that I had to be there.”
A few hours after we finished the interview, Ilie sent me a text.
“This is what I want people to know: I’ve been away due to a family illness. They and I are proud to belong to an organization run by incredible human beings who respect and support all our decisions. Sporting Kansas City leads by example.”
As do you, Ilie. As do you.