Sporting KC

After falling short of his Barcelona dream, Ilie Sanchez is fueling Sporting KC

Sporting Kansas City midfielder Ilie Sanchez controlled the ball against the San Jose Earthquakes during a game on March 18, 2017, at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan. Sporting KC won 2-1.
Sporting Kansas City midfielder Ilie Sanchez controlled the ball against the San Jose Earthquakes during a game on March 18, 2017, at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan. Sporting KC won 2-1. deulitt@kcstar.com

Ilie Sanchez was born a few miles from the FC Barcelona training complex. Naturally, his childhood aspiration was to don the burgundy and blue jersey.

In the summer of 2012, he was within a week of making it reality. He spent the preseason practicing with the club, one of only two defensive midfielders in line to make the opening-day roster.

Things changed. A week before the transfer deadline, Barcelona acquired a third defensive midfielder. Sanchez was re-assigned to the B team.

“I never think about it anymore,” Sanchez said, sitting inside the Sporting Kansas City practice facility, 5,000 miles from home. “It’s just something that happened. It really doesn’t bother me. And if that never happened, I might not be here.”

As it turns out, Sanchez’s dismissal from the Barcelona senior team has keyed Sporting Kansas City’s run to the top of the Western Conference standings.

How? Some cause and effect...

A year after Sanchez was dropped from Barcelona’s senior roster to its reserve team, Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes and assistant Kerry Zavagnin took a tour of the Barcelona B team. The trip was equal parts educational and scouting in nature, but it quickly turned into more of the latter. Vermes and Zavagnin were enthralled with what they saw from Sanchez — his calmness, his decision-making, his positioning — and asked about his availability.

“The problem was that he seemed to be on the rise, so we still thought he was going to the first team or another team would buy him,” Vermes said. “And that’s exactly what happened. He gets bought by (German side) 1860 Munich.

“We thought we’d never see him again.”

Except the stint with 1860 Munich wasn’t built to last. The club fired three coaches in Sanchez’s first year.

In September 2016, he successfully terminated his contract after a year of requesting it. The word circulated back to Vermes as Sporting KC was nearing a decision on three other defensive midfielders this offseason.

“Those are three guys are out,” Vermes told his staff. “We’re going with Ilie.”

Sporting KC was the only MLS team to contact Sanchez in the offseason. A multitude of factors have validated that decision.

Sanchez, 26, is the catalyst of a Sporting KC team determined to play with the ball more this season. As the link between the defense and offense, he leads all of MLS in passes.

Sporting KC threads its possession-oriented soccer through Sanchez. He’s third in MLS in touches, fifth in recoveries and 10th in duels won. In 17 matches, he is the only Sporting KC player yet to leave the field.

“When I decided to come here, I didn’t care about the economic side or the city or the lifestyle,” Sanchez said. “I just cared about the sports things — the way they want to play, the way they (see) me as a player, the teammates. That is the reason why I’m here. That is why I like it here.”

In that sense, the sell was easy. Vermes stressed his stability with the club, an especially important factor for a player who had followed five coaches in parts of two seasons.

For good measure, Sanchez spoke with former Sporting KC midfielder Oriol Rosell. The two played together in Barcelona from 2011-12. Rosell sent his blessing.

Only one day into Sporting KC’s preseason, Sanchez felt he had made the right decision. He listened as Vermes harped on goalkeeper Tim Melia to pass the ball to his back line rather than boom it directly down the field.

“I received offers from Spain and outside of Spain in Europe, but I felt like it was not the right fit,” Sanchez said. “I was waiting for a place like here — where I know they’re going to try to play with the ball. When they called me, I was ready.”

The feeling was almost immediately mutual. As the team concluded its preseason camp, midfielder Benny Feilhaber remarked, “He’s going to change our team and how we play. He brings a calmness to that defensive midfield role. He’s going to change the quality of our buildup.”

That credit has endured. And in the ensuing months, the players have equally praised Sanchez’s professionalism. He is a player with captain-like qualities, Vermes added. Sanchez served as the captain for the Barcelona B team but says, “I understand my role here. We have a captain, and we have other leaders. I’m very good with my role here.”

After pausing for a moment, Sanchez cleared up those remarks. That adaptation — from his captaincy in his native Spain to an MLS rookie — applies only to the locker room, he said.

On the field, he’s the same player he always has been. He’s not particularly flashy, but he’s decisive. He’s not the offseason designated player tasked with infusing the offense, but he’s effective. The game-changer, as Feilhaber put it.

“When we were trying to get him here, I told him that whatever I’m telling you, it will be five times better than what I’m telling you,” Vermes said. “Well that goes both ways. He’s five times better than we could’ve asked for.”

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