In another lifetime, Ilie Sanchez might be the fulcrum around which FC Barcelona revolves, the connector in the middle providing the foundation on which all that starpower shines.
It might have been this lifetime, but things play out as they do. Whatever missteps the Los Angeles FC midfielder might have taken on the cusp of such opportunity, there's no need for regret. He made his decisions, was granted great wisdom from them, then set a course that led him into unexpected, and wholly gratifying, territory. Sanchez came to America in 2017 for a chance to play in a system that valued his skill set, but he unearthed much more, finding his “heart and mind” in a land where anything is possible and a home, with Sporting Kansas City before heading west last year, where his brew of tactical intelligence, organizational know how, and skill on the ball could provide the connective tissue for would-be champions. Now the 32-year-old Spaniard, the heart at the center of all that Major League Soccer's reigning giant has achieved in the past season and a half, stands a step away from the prize he most covets. A triumph in the coming week's Concacaf Champions League final against Club Leon would cap a glorious year, for Sanchez and the downtown club, that's already been rewarded with the Supporters' Shield and LAFC's first MLS Cup crown. “It's the main goal I set for myself when I joined LAFC,” Sanchez told Soccer America last week. “Not because it was my personal goal, but because [general manager/co-president] John Thorrington transferred this idea to me that the goal for this club, it's to compete for international trophies. Of course, that was also a big goal for the organization when we achieved MLS Cup. But in my mind -- and I think also in John's mind, Steve [Cherundolo]'s mind, coaching staff, ownership group, organization -- the MLS Cup was a big step for us to be able to fight for the trophy that we're going to fight for on Wednesday [in Mexico] and then Sunday [at BMO Stadium]. “[MLS Cup] was the step that we needed, but now we are going to fight for probably the biggest goal you can have as an American team. [It can] be for us a barrier to demolish, a wall to jump as an organization.” Sanchez, who cemented his connection with the country two months ago by taking U.S. citizenship, is the on-field catalyst behind LAFC's rise, constantly creating the structure that enables Carlos Vela and Denis Bouanga, foremost among many, to fill highlight reels. He's the “deep-lying facilitator” and “connector” (says Thorrington), “the catalyst that keeps everything together” (Cherundolo), the “orchestrator” (midfielder Kellyn Acosta) who “definitely pulls all the strings” (defender Aaron Long) and provides “the balance for us” (Vela), and the club is 28-10-5 in league, playoff and CCL games since his arrival. “For me,” forward Stipe Biuk said, “he's the heart of this team.”
That's by design (and it has to do with more than what happens on the field, as we'll get to in time), for Sanchez, a product of Barcelona's youth system, is a 6 in the Catalan powerhouse's tradition, an organizer constantly calling out information, monitoring defensive shape, plugging holes and moving teammates into more advantageous positions, providing backline cover, leading the transition into attack, offering an attacking outlet, creating chances with deft delivery -- pretty much doing all the little things that too often go unnoticed.
“He's a little bit like Busquets, built in the Barcelona way in that position: a very headsy, positional player ... a real link,” said Peter Vermes, who brought Sanchez to Kansas City. Said Long: “He's one of those guys like Busquets. You're playing on a team with flashy attackers and guys that score a ton of goals, but there's guys behind the scenes who pull all the strings.”
“Ilie is a strategic leader out on the field, and also a vocal leader,” said Cherundolo, LAFC's second-year head coach. “He kind of trickles into being the emotional leader as well, but I think his idea, his understanding of how we envision the game as coaches and his ability to communicate that with the other players so they understand and can implement it is amazing.
“He's really the catalyst of our back four and our front five. It takes a very intelligent player, a player who is well-liked by the group, who has the quality to stay in this team, who's very successful. ... He's really, for that position, for us, the perfect player.”
A little bit like Busquets
Sanchez keeps things simple.
“In [LAFC's] game model, they needed a player as a central midfielder that could offer what I can do on the field,” he said. “And that's simply being positionally -- or try to be positionally -- right every time based on where is the ball, who has it, where are my teammates, and where are the opponents. And that's my game. That's all I try to do constantly on the field: Where is the ball? Who has it? Where are my teammates? Where are the opponent? And move and act based and related to that.”
Watch the game, you don't see Sanchez. Watch Sanchez, you see the whole game. That's a paraphrase of Spain's World Cup-winning coach Vicente del Bosque's assessment of Sergio Busquets, who has played the same role for 15 years at Barcelona, but it's most fitting here.
It's what Sanchez, who aims to coach when his playing days end, most enjoys in the game. “If you bring here a board with some magnets [representing players] and the ball, and you start moving the ball as if you were an opponent, and you tell me, 'OK, the ball is going here and I'm playing with this formation and I'm going to try to do this,' I could tell you what all my teammates need to do, my magnets need to do, to be able to steal the ball from you and then build an attack,” he said. “What I'm trying to do in real life, and playing on the field, is the same exercise. ... What I do on the field is try to move magnets -- even I know sometimes I cannot do that -- and the way I move the magnets on the field is not based on my ideas. It's based on what Steve wants those magnets to do. “So I need to know very, very well what he has in mind for his team to then be able to execute individually and collectively on the field. That's what I try to do, is try to bring Steve ideas into what we need to do on the field. ... What I enjoy the most is giving instructions, is moving after one of my teammates moved; it's whatever Steve wants the team to do in a moment of the game, try to replicate that.”
Sanchez conducts as if working with an orchestra, waving his arms and pointing, constantly prodding his teammates.
“There's a lot of 6s out there that see the field in a similar way but aren't saying anything about it,” said Ryan Hollingshead, who also joined LAFC last year. “And Ilie is seeing it and dictating and kind of telling everybody where to go. He's always talking. He's always verbal, and that's huge, because there's a lot of guys out there that can read the game well or have good vision. But the end of the day, you're like, 'But you don't tell me anything, so I'm not seeing it, so we don't get the job done.' “If Ilie sees it, he'll tell you. And he does it in a way that you're like, 'Oh, yeah, he cares. And he's trying to make us the best that we can be. It's amazing.” His ability to do all of this made him LAFC's de facto MVP last year. He would've fit snugly among MLS's MVP finalists, but he's a 6, and such honors go to goalscorers and playmakers. “It's easy to to overlook him if you're looking for a guy who scores the most goals or is a big-name kind of guy,” said Graham Zusi, Sanchez's former Sporting teammate. “But if you know the intricacies of the game, if you know the game, then you appreciate so much what he does on the field. “For me, he was such a key player for this LAFC team in that title run. I don't think LAFC misses that. I think they truly know what they have in him.” Three mistakes Sanchez says he “learned everything” from his older brother, Yuri, an economist nearly two years his elder. “He's my role model still to this day. I want to be like him ...,” he said. “If you could ask my uncles or cousins or friends or anyone who saw us playing soccer growing up, they would tell you that he would be the one to become professional, for sure. He was the best of his age, one of the best, in our city, in Barcelona. And that's a lot to say.” The opportunities instead fell toward Ilie, who had two stints in Barcelona's youth setup before beginning his pro career with the club's prestigious second team. He wasn't good enough for the club's famed La Masia academy in his first stint, when he was 8 and 9 and playing up top, but worked with the same coaches as part of the Barça School. One of them thought he'd make a pretty good midfielder. “I don't know what he saw in me, but he started teaching me, I would say, one or two things every season, and that was all my task for that season to accomplish,” Sanchez said. “I remember my first task as a midfielder, was as soon as the outside back would move forward with the ball and would pass me, that I would have to stay behind to offer him a diagonal option to play to me and [then on] to the other side. That was my first season as a midfielder. Next season, a different concept. Next. Next. Next. Until today.” He's still applying new concepts. This season, under assistant coach Ante Razov's instruction, he's altered his positioning in LAFC's attack. “I was trying to be the first option for the ballcarrier last year,” Sanchez said. “We realized, or he realized, that I was trying to be the solution when I had to be kind of the outlet. So if you don't find the solution [going to goal], you then you have the outlet ... where they will find you if they don't have that first pass to someone else. It's getting me more involved in the game, getting more passes, more touches.” He received a superior education at Barcelona, where he spent five seasons as second-team holding midfielder, with Busquets on the first team, and in 2013-14 captained Barcelona B to a third-place Segunda Division finish that would have sent the team to the LaLiga promotion playoffs had it been eligible. He was ready for an opportunity with the first team, but that wasn't looking likely, so he began looking elsewhere. It cost him his chance to play for the top side.
“That was a mistake, because that was on me leaving,” he said. “I had still one more year [on my] contract with the second team ... and my question was to the club: 'What can I do next?' Because, yeah, repeating the same team, the same division, I can finish second or first and I can play [in more games than last season], and I cannot be more than the captain, because that's the coach, right? It was very difficult to improve or to do the next step in that team, that I had to ask the club if I had room in the first team.” His “first mistake,” he said, was “not having that conversation on my own and making my agent have that conversation for me.” The club hoped he'd again captain the second team but not to expect a spot with the top side, so he bought out the last year of his pact, quickly signed with 1860 Munich, then in 2.Bundesliga, and soon realized he'd erred. (“My second mistake.”) It was chaos within the club, which barely staved off relegation, and he'd return to Spain on loan to Elche the following season. “In soccer, anything can happen,” Sanchez said. “There are so many examples that players that didn't count at the beginning [who] ended earning a spot in the first team. But in 'normal conditions' -- those were the words [Barcelona used] -- I was not going to have that opportunity. ... “I wasn't disappointed because, honestly, at that time. If you tell me you don't have a spot on the first team with Busquets, Xavi, [Andres] Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, you know?” he said. “Even my teammates in the second team were close to me in level, right? So why me, not the other one? So I cannot be disappointed for that. I still have no regrets, because who knows, right?” Sanchez's “third mistake,” he said, “was just destiny.” Luis Enrique, after stints in charge at Roma and Celta de Vigo, took over Barcelona's first team shortly after the move to Munich. “When I signed in Munich 1860, I didn't know that [would happen],” he said. “Luis Enrique was my first professional coach in my career in Barcelona. For two years I had him, and I learned. Luis Enrique, for me, is the best coach in the world. No doubt.” Sanchez watched from Germany as “all my former teammates [had] opportunities in the first team: cup games or preseason or Busquets was tired, let's put someone else in. And me not being there or having that opportunity. “But I'm not disappointed. Just wrong decisions you take sometimes, that I was able to fix with time, with my next decisions, which I'm really happy with.” The best human being The best of those decisions was heading to Major League Soccer. Vermes had seen Sanchez play with Barcelona B and was pursuing him when he signed with 1860. “So a few years later, we were looking for a defensive midfielder, and we had it narrowed down to three guys,” said Vermes, one of two men to captain and coach MLS Cup title-winners. “I was taking my time, just wasn't sure which guy that I wanted, when all of a sudden I got a notification that Ilie came available. I jumped on that then. And he was a perfect fit for us, because he just plays that position in a way that suits the way that we want to play.” Sanchez was merely looking for the right situation. “After having four coaches [in charge during his season with 1860], not really having a game model or someone above the coaches to ask for those principles and work on them,” Sanchez said, “I decided that any other move in my career would be only focusing on the field stuff: game model of that team, coach implementing that game model, what they think about me as a player and how I can help them to execute that game model. And if that didn't match with what I thought about myself, I wouldn't take that option. “As soon as I talked to Peter and he described me as a player and he told me what he expected from me on the field to help his team win, I saw very clear that I wanted to [join Sporting]. But if a coach like him in Australia would ask me to join their team, presenting the same scenario -- who I was as a player, and how I was going to help the team to win -- probably I would have taken that option. Or in Italy. Or in France. Or in Netherlands. “What I was looking for was just to find the right place for me to improve as a player and to become a better one.” Sanchez became a fan favorite in K.C., where he became involved in the community while averaging 32 league appearances and 30 starts in the four seasons not shortened by the Covid pandemic, missing successive games just twice in those campaigns, while helping Sporting to a U.S. Open Cup and two Western Conference regular-season titles, a Western final appearance in 2018 and the Champions League semifinals the following year. He contributed a few goals and assists -- 11 and 9, including two playoff goals and two more in the CCL run -- while running the midfield and in his final season seeing time in central defense. “Maestro,” Zusi called him. “He's a guy who you love to have on your side. His knowledge of the game is second to none. He's a very cerebral player, knows the ins and the outs of the game and does whatever is needed of him for his team to be successful.” Sporting let him depart after the 2021 season, unable, Vermes said, to make the economics of a new long-term deal work. LAFC, in a quick rebuild after posting a losing record and missing the playoffs in 2021, swooped in to nab him, to replace Eduard Atuesta, whose departure for Palmeiras in Brazil had left a sizable hole. “Ilie has always been on our list from before we had our team,” Thorrington said. “He fit the bill perfectly because he fit a position that we needed as well as a personality that just provides such great leadership. And you talk to people at any club he's ever been at, he's just a remarkable human being. “He's a great player and he's a critical part of the success we've had since he's been here, but he's a remarkable person. I mean, you don't see many like him. And I've been in the game a long time.”
It might as well be MLS's mantra. There may be no teammate more beloved within the league than Sanchez. Listen to the chorus: • Hollingshead: “I love that guy. It's been a joy and honor playing with him, He's one of the best human beings you'll get to be around.” • Long: “The nicest guy. Oh my gosh, the nicest guy. The first one to say hi to someone or offer someone a seat. If someone comes to the training ground, he'll go over and say, 'Hi, how are you?' and talk to them. Out in the community, going to the second-team games. Like, what a guy. Seriously.” • Sporting captain Johnny Russell: “He goes above and beyond for anyone. He would do anything for you, and I think that just speaks volumes [about] his family, the way he was brought up, him as a person. I've got a lot of love for that guy.” • Zusi: “First and foremost, he's just an amazing human being. He's so kind. He truly cares about each and every person he comes across. When you speak with him, you feel like he truly cares -- and he does. It's not an act, by any means. You feel very special when you speak with him, and that's just the kind of person that he is.” • Long: “He treats you like you're family, and he doesn't even know you. It's amazing. It's just who he is as a person. Every single day, that's him. We had [visitors] here today, and he'll go and talk to them, he'll sit down and take the time, really take the time. What a guy.” • Long, again: “He's so nice. That's one of the things you don't know. When you're around the league, you play against him, you know he's a great player, but you don't know him off the field until I came to the team [this season]. Surprised me so much.” • Kellyn Acosta: “He's one of those guys in football where everyone's like, 'You can't hate him.' No matter what. Even if he fouls you hard, you look up, it's like, 'No problem, it's Ilie. I shouldn't have been there in the first place.' He just has that type of personality that everyone just loves him.” • Cherundolo: “We had heard things about him in Kansas City. I actually got a letter from a fan in Kansas City saying we've just signed the most amazing human being, and that person was right.” • Thorrington: “He's an absolute gentleman, incredibly respectful. His first game here, he had a fantastic game, we won the game, and after the game we have our celebration. And he went to our other co-president [chief business officer Larry Freedman] and said, 'Thank you so much.' [Freedman] was floored, and he's been in sports forever. Ilie's just an incredible human.” • Acosta: “I think what says most about him and his character is he always makes time for people. He's shaking everyone's hand. I feel like he knows anyone and everyone from this [training] facility to the stadium. He's always saying hello.” • Hollingshead: “I've never seen him have a bad day. And I kind of want to. I'm like, 'What does it look like for you to get so angry or, like, act differently than this person that I see everyday here?' I think he's genuinely that way.” Sanchez, everyone reports, is the first one in at training and the last to go home, and he's revered for his work in preparing his body for the daily rigors of the job. “I'm often here very late, and Ilie is always the last to leave,” Thorrington said. “And if I see other players here that late in the day, I ask them if they're fighting with their wife or something, what's going on? But he's incredibly professional. He sets a great example. He's had private one-on-one sessions with our academy kids that play his position, that he volunteers for. He's in every way unique. I wish there were more of him, but we'll just appreciate that we've got him.” Sanchez credits his parents, Joan and Carmen, who visit frequently, for his manners but says he “can assure you that not everyone loves me.” There are always outliers. 'Made to be a coach' Sanchez's experience at 1860, seeing how things were run, stirred his desire to become a coach. His welcome in Kansas City, where he met nothing but kindness, led him to become an American. “Everything you can ask for, you can have it [in the United States],” he said. “American people since day one open the door for you without asking where do you come from, what are your values. They don't judge you. They just offer their help. ... I came here because of soccer, because of my profession. And I built my career in the U.S. and I'm so proud of that and I'm so happy I took that decision in 2017. “Hopefully, I can still continue my journey here for many more years as a player or as my next step or adventure will be. I don't know what's it going to be, but that's why I became a citizen. That's why I always envision my next step or my life here. Not just for me, but for my family.”
That “next adventure” certainly will be running a team somewhere. Sanchez last year completed his U.S. Soccer B license, had a blast coaching in Sporting's academy in his last season in K.C. -- “a lovely experience [working] with the players, learning from them, trying to help in their development” -- and is starting a Los Angeles-based youth club, to debut this summer with open camps, with a group that includes LAFC teammate Jesus Murillo and former LAFC defender Eddie Segura. “My main goal -- my only goal, if you ask me -- is to become head coach of a professional team,” he said. “That's what I want to do. But that's maybe a dream. I don't know if I will be able to accomplish that. I don't know if someone will give me the opportunity, the confidence, to take a project as a head coach. And that's why I need to prepare myself as best as I can while I don't have that opportunity. “If you bring me that opportunity tomorrow, I wouldn't take it, because I don't feel prepared and I wouldn't be honest to that project, to the people that trust me to do a good job. But that's my goal, or dream.” Hollingshead shakes his head. “Right? Classic.” “We're having that same conversation,” he said. “He's like, 'Yeah, we'll see.' Like, 'If somebody asks me right now, I'm not ready to be a coach.' And I'm like, 'Dude, you could step in and do it, for sure.' But it's his way, it's just his humility. It's his way of not wanting to expect or assume that he's, you know, the best at everything. It's crazy. I think that he's going to be hugely successful as a coach. This guy was made to be a coach, made to manage people. He knows the game so well, he can do it all. “It's just a matter of time until this guy is a coach at the highest level. And I'm excited to watch that progression. It'll be a fun thing to see. Everywhere he's been, he's made great connections, good friends. He's got a big network. And so it's going to be fun to see that all come into play [when he's] a coach. “I'm coming back out of retirement if he's coach so I can play for him.”