Ilie Sanchez - Sporting KC 2018 black kit launch - Full Smile DL

Ilie Sanchez feels loved.

The Sporting Kansas City midfielder saunters toward the midfield tunnel at Children’s Mercy Park, drenched in sweat just minutes after a frustrating 3-2 loss to FC Dallas. The defeat caps a forgettable month of July but precedes an excellent August during which the team rattles off four straight shutout wins.

As he reaches the tunnel, a dispirited Ilie spots a slew of supporters who have descended fieldside hoping to capture a quick selfie with the Spaniard. Their enthusiastic words resonate quickly in his mind, causing him to drift their way rather than head straight to the locker room.

“I love you, Ilie!”

“Keep doing your thing out there—we love to watch you play!”

“You’re the best, Ilie—can we get a quick photo?”

How could he say no?

Sporting KC is amidst its toughest run of results all season, and all Ilie can hear from the fans are genuine compliments and shouts of encouragement. It’s a drastic departure from his previous experiences playing in Barcelona and Munich, two of the most soccer-crazed cities In Europe.

So, as dejected as he may be, Ilie stops to sign a few T-shirts and pose for selfies with the very people who constantly remind him why he admires Kansas City so much.

“I feel so much love and support here,” Ilie says. “And it’s not just at Children’s Mercy Park or at the training facilities. I feel this around the city. Sometimes it’s hard for me to understand why they have good words, even when we are (struggling) as a team. I have been here for a year and a half, and I have never heard anyone say a bad thing to me or about the team. It is all love.”

Ilie’s run-ins with friendly fans come from everywhere: his downtown apartment, the Country Club Plaza, the Kansas City airport, at any of the youth clinics he has helped coach throughout the metro, even at Kauffman Stadium when he catches an occasional Royals game with his girlfriend Carissa. And each time he is showered with praise, it’s affirmation that he is in just the right place.

“I was the same guy and the same player in Barcelona and Munich, and I had very good times at those places,” Ilie says. “But the people here really make Kansas City special. Sporting KC has achieved a lot over the years, and none of that would be possible without the fans."

Ilie is a pivotal contributor for a Sporting KC side en route to an eighth straight playoff berth and more silverware in the form of an MLS Cup. He plays every minute of every match. He’s extremely close with his teammates, keeps strong ties with his family in Spain and has warmly embraced life in the Midwestern United States.

It’s the ideal situation for any professional soccer player, but every now and then, Ilie still has a hard time wrapping his head around it. He certainly wouldn’t have foreseen this scenario a decade ago, when he emerged as a youth product for one of the greatest and most recognizable clubs on the planet.

“Why Kansas City?” Ilie asks with a contemplative shake of the head, reflecting on his journey to the heartland.

The question is a rhetorical one, delivered with a tone of thankfulness from someone who is both surprised and delighted to have stumbled upon a city he knew nothing about just a few years ago.

An 18th-century stone farmstead sits in the shadows of one of the world’s most iconic soccer stadiums. Built in 1702, it was long used as a workshop for craftsmen and architects until 1957 when, some 150 yards away, the colossal Camp Nou — the home venue of perennial European juggernaut FC Barcelona — was inaugurated.

Soon thereafter, the quaint La Masia de Can Planes was remodeled into the Spanish club’s headquarters. Barcelona’s gradual rise in pedigree deemed La Masia too small for its job, and in 1979, it was repurposed to house players in its youth academy.

Over the next three decades, a bevy of future superstars passed through its halls. Pep Guardiola. Xavi Hernandez. Carles Puyol. Andres Iniesta. Sergio Busquets. Gerard Pique. Lionel Messi. Some resided there permanently, while others lived in additional dormitories nearby. La Masia has therefore become synonymous with Barcelona’s famed soccer school, lauded as one of the best in the sport.

Among La Masia’s notable alumni is Ilie, who represented FC Barcelona from ages 7-9 before rejoining the academy in 2007 at age 16. He kick-started his professional career with Barcelona B in 2009 and played more than 100 matches for the reserve team over the next five seasons, captaining the side from 2012-2014.

But before soccer became his full-time job, Ilie plied his craft at La Masia. As one of the only native Barcelonans in the academy, he lived with his parents and brother in the city center while most of his teammates stayed in dorms. The comfort that came with that helped Ilie navigate a demanding schedule every day.

Awake by 7 a.m. for breakfast before school starts at 8. Back home for lunch at 2 p.m., followed by an intense training session with the team from 4-6 and a gym workout until 7. Home again for dinner and studies, then lights out by 11. Rinse and repeat until Saturdays and Sundays presented themselves with either recovery days or competitive matches against other academies.

On weekend evenings, the Sanchez family frequently attended Barcelona matches at the 99,354-seat Camp Nou. Since the stadium opened in 1957, Barcelona season tickets for the exact same seats in Camp Nou have passed through three generations of Ilie’s family. His grandfather also served as director of La Masia before Ilie was old enough to play.

From a young age, soccer—and more specifically, FC Barcelona—was a central component to Ilie’s everyday life. As a technically sound and extremely intelligent player, his game was cultivated in one of the game’s best breeding grounds. Expectations were high. The pressure was palpable. But Ilie was among those who thrived in this environment, and to this day, he credits those closest to him for his early success in La Masia.

“My parents gave me and my brother everything in life and allowed us to choose our way,” Ilie says. “That’s what makes me the person I am today.”

Despite his credentials as a Barcelona academy product, Ilie is adamant that he isn’t even the best soccer player in his own family. He claims that title belongs to his brother Yuri, who is two years older than the 27-year-old Ilie.

Like Ilie, Yuri played for some of the best youth academies in Catalonia, the eastern Spanish state in which Barcelona is located. Yuri and Ilie both competed at the Cornella academy from 2005-2007. It was then that Ilie sealed his return to La Masia, and when Yuri’s ambitions as a professional soccer player began to fade.

“In my opinion, Yuri is still a better player than me (in terms of) pure quality,” Ilie says. But because Yuri played in a more advanced position as an attacking midfielder, Ilie believes he had a harder time sticking out in front of coaches and scouts. Whereas Ilie was a deep-lying midfield anchor, Yuri was more of a playmaker, and the competition for spots at that particular position was as high as anywhere else on the field.

“Clubs should have trusted him to be able to make that step, but that gave him the opportunity to follow another path,” Ilie says.

That path for Yuri was five years of studying economics at the University of Barcelona, widely regarded as one of the best universities in Spain. Yuri eventually parlayed that experience into his current employment as an economist in Barcelona.

Since transitioning from aspiring youth soccer player to full-time economist, Yuri has joined his parents—father Joan and mother Carmen—as Ilie’s biggest fans. The four members of the Sanchez family keep in touch every day, and it just so happens that Ilie isn’t the only one presently residing in Kansas City.

Carmen has been staying with her son at his two-bedroom apartment since the start of August. She lived with Ilie last summer as well, but returned to Barcelona in early October to be with Yuri and Joan during a time that was rife with political tension in Catalonia.

This fall, Ilie plans to bring his brother and father back to Kansas City—a place they also visited last summer for the first time and saw Sporting KC lift the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title at Children’s Mercy Park. The Sanchez family intends to stay in Kansas City until the 2018 season ends—hopefully in early December after the 2018 MLS Cup, Ilie says—at which point all four will venture back to Barcelona for the holidays.

“It’s not that I need my family living with me, I just need to know they are doing good,” Ilie says.

Indeed, the Sanchez family has stayed tight-knit despite the thousands of miles that divide them on a daily basis. Carmen, much like Ilie, has immersed herself in a new American culture and made a concentrated effort to soak up every bit of it.

While Ilie spends the first part of his day at Pinnacle from around 8:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., Carmen has dedicated her summer to learning the English language. Five days a week, she takes lessons from 9-11 a.m. at the downtown Kansas City Public Library, from 12-2:30 at Don Bosco ESL School, and then returns to the library for a final round of lessons from 6-8 at night. The library doesn’t offer an evening session on Fridays, so she has ample time to unwind ahead of weekends spent watching her son play either on TV or at Children’s Mercy Park.

“My mom loves it here, more than she thought she would,” Ilie says. “It is the same for me. I came to Kansas City for the (soccer). But now it feels like more than that. Barcelona will always be my (first) home, but Kansas City feels the same.”

Messi never loses.

Not in small-sided games. Not in full-sided scrimmages. Not in 5-v-2, endurance tests, juggling or free kick contests. It’s a defining trait of a soccer player many deem the best to ever play.

In the world’s-best-player debate, Ilie firmly plants himself on Messi’s bandwagon. But unlike most, Ilie is one of the very few to have actually played on the same field as Barcelona’s legendary No. 10.

During his five-year stint with Barcelona B from 2009-2014, Ilie regularly trained alongside Messi and his famous teammates—namely Dani Alves, Javier Mascherano, Alexis Sanchez and Neymar as well as Spanish World Cup winners Xavi, Puyol, Iniesta, Busquets, Pique, Pedro, Cesc Fabregas and David Villa.

Barcelona and Barcelona B trained every day at 11 a.m. on fields less than 100 yards apart at Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper, the club’s state-of-the-art training base in the Barcelonan suburb of Sant Joan Despi. If the senior team was short on players, or if the coaching staff wanted to mix the squads—which was especially common during preseason—Ilie often found himself competing with world-class stars.

“Playing around all of that quality, you try to go about it with big eyes and big ears,” Ilie recalls. “The biggest difference is that the ball moves so fast, you can hardly think. It’s the highest level of soccer I will ever see. The speed of the ball movement is just unbelievable.”

At various levels of the game—from the Spanish first and second division to the German second division to MLS—Ilie has witnessed brilliant technique, passing and dribbling. The key differentiator, he says, is the speed of movement with which the top-tier players conduct their business on the field.

“Imagine what they do in games,” Ilie says, referring to the elite players that adorn the Barcelona roster. “Now imagine what they do in training when they are relaxed and don’t feel pressure anymore. It is difficult to even explain what you see sometimes. I cannot say there will never be another Messi, but it is hard for me to see someone ever playing the game faster and smarter than him.”

It was during these training sessions that Ilie forged friendships he still cherishes today. He remains close with numerous Barcelona products who continue to compete abroad—including Barcelona’s Denis Suarez, Girona’s Marc Muniesa, Watford’s Gerard Deulofeu, Lazio duo Patric and Luis Alberto, and Levante duo Javier Espinosa and Oier Olazabal—as well as current Sporting KC teammates Andreu Fontas and Cristian Lobato.

Training with the likes of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta helped nurture Ilie into the polished player he is today. His touch, passing, vision and positioning make him one of Major League Soccer’s most effective defensive midfielders. His soccer mind, on the other hand, was molded by a handful of coaches—each of whom has been commonly labeled a mastermind of the sport.

Luis Enrique gave Ilie his first opportunity as a full-time professional in 2009. Then the head coach of Barcelona B, Enrique would become the senior team’s head coach in 2014 and guide Barcelona to the Champions League title in his first year at the helm. A longtime Spain international as a player, Enrique is now the current head coach of the Spanish national team.

When Ilie was afforded opportunities to train with the senior team, he was under the watchful eye of Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola. Over the last decade, Guardiola—regarded as one of the best midfielders of his generation—has become one of the most successful managers in world soccer. He won multiple La Liga and Champions League titles at Barcelona, a bevvy of domestic trophies at German giant Bayern Munich, and last season guided Manchester City to the most dominant campaign in English Premier League history.

“One of the best qualities of Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola is that they get the best out of each player," Ilie says. "They maximize everyone’s potential. When you can do that with the most talented players in the world, you are going to win a lot.”

Ilie was particularly close with Enrique, whom he played under from 2009-2011 before the coach departed for AS Roma. Ilie describes Enrique’s character as strong but pure. He is confident, self-assured, meticulously organized, committed to a certain way of playing, and extremely transparent: “He’s always talking to you face-to-face, never behind your back. He cares about you as a player and a person, but he doesn’t care to hurt your feelings if you aren’t performing well. He demands a high level.”

To this day, Ilie finds remarkable similarities between Enrique and the manager he now sees every day at Pinnacle. He’s a coach who is humbly confident in himself and his players. Someone who is detail-oriented to the greatest degree possible. Someone who has a plan, not just for training that day or the next game at Children’s Mercy Park, but for the long-term well-being of the club. Someone who inherently leads, motivates and instills toughness and belief.

With a deliberate choice of words, Ilie tries to encapsulate just how highly he views Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes.

“When I spoke to Peter for the first time, the way he talked about soccer, about his team and about me as a player, I immediately knew that he was so similar to where I came from. He was someone I wanted to play for.

“I want him here for me and my teammates in Kansas City for a long time. But he has the quality to coach a national team or a club in the UEFA Champions League. No doubt.”

1860 Munich had ditched the frigid grayness of Germany for the sun-drenched beaches of Marbella, Spain. It was January of 2015, and the club had begun training in the Mediterranean city during the German second division’s winter break. Ilie, halfway through his first season with the club, learned then that Sporting KC had shown interest in bringing him to MLS. But 1860 Munich was unwilling to part ways with a player they had only signed six months earlier.

In the 12 months that followed, Vermes and Sporting KC assistant Kerry Zavagnin kept close tabs on Ilie. They had identified him as the perfect No. 6 for their possession-oriented 4-3-3 system, but certain circumstances prevented any deal from going through. Ilie spent the 2015-16 European season on loan at Elche in the Spanish second division before discussions with Sporting KC escalated.

Vermes remembers a conversation he had with Ilie at the start of 2017, two years after their first interaction.

“We knew (in 2015) and we know now that you’re going to fit perfectly into the way that we play,” Vermes told Ilie. “And I could tell you everything great about our club, but it’s not going to be anything like when you actually get here.”

Ilie officially signed for Sporting KC on Jan. 13, 2017. He toured Children’s Mercy Park, Swope Soccer Village, and learned that the club’s new training center was under construction—one that would be among the best worldwide. He noticed architectural similarities between the Plaza and Sevilla, Spain, became acquainted with Kansas City-style barbeque and had high marks for a handful of Hispanic restaurants he visited with teammates. All the while, that Midwestern friendliness described to him by the coaching staff was evident everywhere he went.

Then came his debut at a raucous Children’s Mercy Park and the first wave of matches in MLS. Less than a month into the 2017 season, Ilie approached Vermes.

“Coach, you are so right,” Ilie said. “It’s so much more than I expected.”

The media studio at Pinnacle is packed with reporters and TV crews from across the city. Ilie is seated at the podium at the front of the room, wearing a black Sporting KC jacket on a rainy September afternoon that has generated significant excitement among everyone tied to the club.

To his immediate left are three of the most iconic players in Sporting KC history—Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza and Graham Zusi. Together they have joined Vermes to announce that all four players have signed new, multi-year contracts, committing their futures to Kansas City.

“It’s always (been) the same feeling since I first came here—from my teammates, from my coaches, from the ownership group that is here today and also from the fans and the city,” Ilie says at the press conference. “I am so happy because it has been so easy to be here. I think that was a part of my decision when I decided to sign this new contract—this love that I feel from all of them, starting with my teammates.”

It’s safe to say the feeling is mutual. Ilie may not have the longevity and lore that Besler, Espinoza and Zusi possess, but the fact that he was looped into this momentous club announcement suggests that he has made a profound impact during his two-year tenure in Kansas City.

Away from the field, Ilie makes a conscious effort to reciprocate the love he feels from others. Every matchday, for example, he conducts himself like a true Catalan gentleman. This means hugs and kisses on the cheek for everyone at the stadium, from teammates and technical staff to valet assistants and Victory Project honorees.

On the pitch, Ilie has played every minute of every single Sporting KC match in all competitions since the start of 2017—save one road trip to Seattle on Aug. 12, 2017. That fixture came less than 72 hours after Sporting KC edged the San Jose Earthquakes on penalties in the semifinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup—a tournament Ilie’s parents and brother would see him win the following month. Over the last two seasons, Ilie ranks among the MLS leaders in successful passes, passing accuracy, duels won and recoveries. Now is he is enjoying a stellar 2018 campaign in which he has added offensive punch—four goals, three assists, and an impressive uptick in chances created—to his steady defensive midfield metrics.

Ilie’s consistency in the center of the pitch hasn’t gone unnoticed around the league. On the first day of August, he joined Zusi in representing Sporting KC at the 2018 MLS All-Star Game against Italian powerhouse Juventus in Atlanta. In the month that followed, Sporting KC posted four consecutive shutout victories to jump into contention for the top spot in the Western Conference.

“I played in Europe, and I have to say that what we have here—not just with the facilities, but also with the culture of the club—makes it a place to be,” Ilie says. "Another very important reason for our happiness is the all people who work at Sporting KC. They create the necessary environment for us to work hard, enjoy ourselves and win."

Why Kansas City?

Ilie harkens back to this basic question, pondering what makes this city the perfect match for him. This question has a multifaceted answer, of course, and only part of it can be credited to Sporting KC.

Yes, Ilie plays at a superb soccer-specific stadium and practices at a phenomenal training facility with all the bells and whistles one could possibly imagine. Yes, he plays under an organized, experienced and successful technical staff and fits seamlessly into their system. Yes, he is at a club with a vibrant, tightknit culture, strong ownership and four major championships to show for since 2012.

But there is another main component to this equation. It’s the fervent fans who cheer and shout for him when he steps between the lines. It’s the middle-aged husband and wife who stop him on the street corner for a selfie. It’s the youth soccer player who writes him a personal letter revealing his plans to be Ilie for Halloween.

“The way that people support soccer here is what sustains everything,” Ilie says. “Their passion that they show for us—it’s huge. I feel loved here. This is like home.”