Sporting KC

Ilie Sanchez, the ‘linchpin’ of Sporting KC, was nearly the one who got away

Sporting KC’s Ilie, Besler, Espinoza, Zusi on why they’re coming back

Sporting KC’s Ilie Sanchez, Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza and Graham Zusi signed contract extensions on Sept. 4, 2018.
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Sporting KC’s Ilie Sanchez, Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza and Graham Zusi signed contract extensions on Sept. 4, 2018.

Sporting Kansas City 2.0, it was dubbed.

Boasted about, really.

As he adopted a transformation in personnel and playing style, coach Peter Vermes sat in front of the media two years ago and pointed toward a possession-dominant style as the club’s path to the future.

Here’s what he didn’t say that day: It might have never happened if not for one key addition earlier that winter.

Ilie Sanchez.

And here’s what else he left out: “I swear; we almost never got him,” he admits now. “You don’t understand how close we were to going with somebody else.”

The winter before the 2017 season was defined by change within the Sporting KC blueprint. To further emphasize playing with the ball, Vermes needed an addition in the middle of the park, a player who could adequately link the back line and the attack.

The search was on.

Within a few weeks, he and Brian Bliss, Sporting’s director of player personnel, had identified several options. They trimmed the list to four, then to three and eventually just to two players, each of who had expressed a desire to come to Kansas City.

“I had been slow-playing it a little bit — I just wasn’t feeling it with the two guys we had to pull from,” Vermes said. “They were good. I just didn’t think they were the guy.”

The staff worried Vermes was dragging his feet to the point of losing out on both options. One more day, he told them.

When he walked into his office the following morning, Bliss was waiting. “All right, who is it?”

“After my meeting,” Vermes replied. “Then I’ll let you know.”

Upon the conclusion of his meeting, Vermes found Bliss is his office once more. Except this time he wasn’t awaiting an answer. Instead, Bliss had one more option.

“You won’t believe who came across my desk, and he’s available,” Bliss said.

“Ilie Sanchez.”

Vermes didn’t hesitate. “I think I jumped out of the chair and said, ‘That’s the guy.’ I mean we were on the fire at that moment. It was like, ‘Let’s go.’”

Vermes and Sporting assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin had identified Sanchez years earlier, when they were touring the FC Barcelona complex. Sanchez, who goes by “Ilie” (pronounced ILL-ee-ay) and wears his first name on his jersey, was a member of the Barcelona B team, and even then, the two Sporting KC coaches knew he would be an ideal fit. But he was content to stick it out with his hometown club after surging through the academy there. When he was finally ready for a move two years later, Sporting KC tried to sign him, but he was bought by German club 1860 Munich.

In late 2016, the opportunity returned. Literally hours from offering money to another defensive midfielder, Bliss learned Sanchez had broken his contract in Germany. He was sitting at home in Spain without a club, bypassing a handful of offers because the compatibility just didn’t feel right.

Within the hour, Vermes texted Sanchez via WhatsApp and set up a phone interview. They talked the following day. Ten minutes into their conversation, Sanchez interrupted the sales pitch.

“I’m coming,” he said.

Earlier this week in an interview with The Star, Sanchez explained his decision: “It was what I was waiting for. When I had signed in Germany, I looked at everything — the team, the country, the money, the years (in the) contract, the plan around the club. But this time, I only cared about what they wanted me to do for the team. And here, that was really clear. I had other offers, but it didn’t feel right. When Peter called, as I said, it was exactly what I needed to hear.”

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To fully understand his point requires a brief look into his background. Sanchez dreamed of playing for Barcelona. He nearly got his shot in 2012, but the club signed a player one week before the transfer deadline and re-assigned Sanchez to the B-team in a corresponding move.

The move to 1860 Munich was supposed to a fresh start, a way to revitalize the career of a motivated player. And the money wasn’t too bad, either. But the team fired three coaches in Sanchez’s first season there. The fourth, in his first act as manager, told all three Spanish players — Sanchez included — to take a vacation for the rest of the season.

“It’s a jungle,” Sanchez said. “I’m not saying I was not ready for it, but that jungle made me just love the (actual) sport and actually playing. I was just looking for something where all I had to worry about was what I was going to do on the field. Here, I’m feeling like myself. I don’t need to be another kind of player. I can be myself.”

Kansas City has provided a return to his roots as a player, he says.

It’s a way to the future for his new club.

Vermes calls Sanchez the linchpin of the possession-dominant style, the man who makes it all tick. He led all of MLS in successful passes in the attacking half of the field. He was recognized as an MLS All-Star this season, his second year in the league. He and Graham Zusi became the first two players in franchise history to play every minute of a 34-game season. Only four players in the league accomplished that feat this year.

“I remember coming off the field after his first preseason training, and we (coaches) all looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah, this is the guy,’” Vermes said. “You could just tell he was going to fit, and obviously he has. It’s been great.”

He plans to stick around awhile, too. Early last season, when speaking with The Star, Sanchez mentioned the possibility of one day returning to Europe to fulfill the childhood aspirations.

At some point after arriving, he changed his mind. Or at least put those plans on hold. Sanchez signed a three-year contract extension earlier this summer, keeping him in Kansas City through his age-30 season.

“In the end, I have fun every day,” Sanchez said. “It’s difficult to say you have fun every day in a club — I know this. So when they called me to see how I was feeling, I told them I’d decided I’m going to give my best years of my career to the club. It’s a way for me to give them back what they did for me — betting on me as a player.”

Sam McDowell

Sam McDowell covers Sporting Kansas City, the Royals, Chiefs and sports enterprise for The Star

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