ORLANDO — Peter Vermes had three players in mind to sign this winter to help fill a void in Sporting Kansas City’s deep-lying midfield role, but before he could decide on any of them he received word that a player he had his eye on five years earlier was suddenly available. Just that quickly, the coach’s short list was reduced to one name.
That player was Ilie Sanchez, and so far this season the FC Barcelona academy product has proven to be worth the wait.
Sanchez is by no means a flashy player, and has barely registered much attention from casual MLS observers. He has yet to score a goal or record an assist, and doesn’t make highlight-reel plays. What he has done so masterfully since arriving this winter is serve as the perfect midfield conductor to tie everything together, providing the perfect link between Sporting KC’s defense and attack. His contributions have gone largely ignored outside of Kansas City, but make no mistake, the product of the famed La Masia Academy has been instrumental in helping turn SKC from a middle-of-the-pack squad in 2016 to Western Conference leaders in 2017.
“(Sanchez) is an incredible player,” Vermes told Goal . “That’s great that nobody is giving him any buzz, but he is the glue of our group. He’s a fantastic player. He reads the game, is an incredible decision maker on the ball. He’s a top-level player.”
Other league newcomers have drawn more attention than Sanchez, but a deeper look at Sanchez’s shows just how important he has been to Sporting KC. Sanchez ranks in the top six in MLS in touches, passes completed, duels won and recoveries among field players, and is in the top 20 in interceptions, ranking fourth among midfielders. The numbers paint a picture of a player who not only serves as an ideal conduit in front of the defense, but one who also puts in his share of defensive work.
“What happens when you have a guy like him, those guys, Benny (Feilhaber), Roger (Espinoza), (Matt) Besler, Ike (Opara), they can play through him and you can also higher up the field because he can play you the ball,” Vermes said. “He can link it. Whereas if the guy can’t find you then you have to come back and be further away from the goal.
“He’s patient, and is the most unselfish guy. He doesn’t lose himself in the match, and has a great maturity for a player in that position.”
Feilhaber told Goal : “There’s always quality to the way (Sanchez) brings the ball up, and so when it does arrive at my foot or Roger’s foot, or even the three guys up top, there’s a sense of quality to the play. It’s an easier idea of what we want to do once we get it up there. When you don’t have a player like that, that can dictate the play and dictate where you want to start the attack, it’s a little more free-flowing, and sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. It’s important to have him there to kind of guide us in that sense, to help us in the way we want to attack.”
Sanchez’s deep-lying role doesn’t lend itself to goals and assists but you need only to take a closer look at recent Sporting KC matches to find his fingerprints on key plays. It was Sanchez’s slide-rule pass into the penalty area that sprang Gerso Fernandes on a run that eventually culminated in a Latif Blessing goal in last Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Orlando City. On Wednesday night, it was Sanchez who sparked a Sporting KC counter with a release pass from deep in SKC’s half of the field that led to a breakout and insurance goal in a 3-0 victory against the Seattle Sounders.
So how did Sporting KC find Sanchez?
Vermes first noticed Sanchez with Barcelona B during a visit to the Spanish giants. That same trip ultimately helped lead to the signing of Uri Rosell, who played a key role on Sporting KC’s MLS Cup-winning squad in 2013 before moving on to Sporting Lisbon. Vermes tried to sign Sanchez three years ago, but lost him to German club 1860 Munich. Sanchez’s time at 1860 Munich didn’t go so well though, and with MLS providing teams with more money to sign players like Sanchez with mechanisms like targeted allocation money, Sporting KC was able to act quickly when he became available this past winter.
“We were actually looking at three other guys, and I was in the process of making a decision between the three,” Vermes said. “We had done all our homework, we saw them live, we watched everything, and even talked to them about character. But then all of a sudden we’re in a meeting and one of my guys comes in and says, ‘I just got a phone call that Ilie Sanchez is available.’ So I go, ‘Alright, we’re getting him. That was it. These three guys are out and we’re getting him.’
“I saw him live. I had been to Barcelona, (assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin) and I went there years ago, saw him up close and followed him for a long time,” Vermes added. “This is a guy that we always wanted but just couldn’t get to. It worked out, the timing. We got lucky a little bit.”
There was still the matter of convincing a 26-year-old Spanish midfielder to leave Europe for MLS. Sanchez admitted that the fact Vermes had been after him for so long was reassuring, and after consulting with Rosell about his own experience with Sporting KC, Sanchez made the decision to sign.
“(Vermes’) philosophy of play was what convinced me, and as soon as I arrived, and saw that it was true, and I could work with total liberty, I was happy with my decision,” Sanchez told Goal . “I think we play a daring kind of soccer, and we do it well, we train for that, but I wasn’t expecting a team that is so organized, with such clear ideas.”
Sanchez has been impressed with his new team’s quality, but also with the overall quality of the league he now plays in.
“MLS is a good league,” Sanchez said. “For those of us in Spain, we hear a lot about MLS with David Villa playing here, and the media there also discusses MLS. We know the level it’s at, and the level it can reach and the goals it has to grow. Now that I’m here, I can attest that all the teams have good players, and there are good managers, and all the teams are very similar in level. Hopefully interest in the league can continue to grow.”
Sanchez represents a growing trend of younger Europeans making the decision to play in MLS. Long-regarded as a retirement league after years of signing superstars in their mid-30s, MLS is now attracting more European players in their 20s, like Chicago Fire striker Nemanja Nikolic and San Jose defender Florian Jungwirth.
“It’s difficult, obviously, because all you know is Spain and Europe, and the level is high and you want to play at the highest level,” Sanchez said. “What happened (for me) is that the options I had in Spain and Europe were similar to coming to MLS, and what I was looking for was a system where I could thrive as a player, where I could help and show my ability. I’ve found that here, and at no point have I regretted my decision to leave Spain or Europe. If one day I have to go back, then I’ll go back, but right now I’m happy here.”
So happy, in fact that Sanchez has already turned MLS recruiter, having consulted close friend and former Barcelona B teammate Victor Vasquez to sign with Toronto FC.
“We’re very close friends, he’s like a brother, and before he went to Toronto he asked me about the league and how the preseason was going with Sporting,” Sanchez said. “I don’t like to give players advice about where to play, because everyone’s experience can be different and I wouldn’t want to feel to blame if things don’t go well, but I told him my experience, and told him not to think twice. If he had the opportunity to come to MLS, and a team like Toronto, because everything I can say about the league is positive.”
So far, everything Sporting KC has to say about Sanchez is equally positive, and though he may not be generating as much attention as goal-scorers like Nikolic and assist men like his close friend Vasquez, Sanchez is impressing his new team, as well as opponents, by shining in the position Vermes saw as being perfect for him since he first spotted Sanchez five years ago.
“I just want to repay the confidence (Vermes) shows in me and gives me every game,” Sanchez said. “I’ve played in Spain, I’ve played in Germany, and now I’m here and in the end when you’re 26 what you need to do is play games and keep learning, and with Peter I’m learning a>