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Ilie Sanchez already making an impact for LAFC

Unlike most kids from Barcelona, Ilie Sanchez never dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player.

The Los Angeles Football Club midfielder left that to Yuri, his older brother by two years who was considered one of the top players for his age group hailing from Spain’s second-largest city.

“I always tried to do whatever he was doing and he chose soccer,” said Ilie, 31, now in his 14th year as a professional footballer after signing with LAFC as a free agent following five successful seasons for Sporting Kansas City. “More or less it was an opportunity that was presented to me in life and I just took it.”

By osmosis, by chance, by adoration and emulation, Sanchez went from having fun tagging along to pickup games in the park to being one of the most respected players in Major League Soccer after joining the top flight of the American game in 2017.

“Ilie was a great person and great player for this club for the years he was here,” said Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes, who will coach against Sanchez for the first time when his team visits LAFC on Sunday afternoon. “He always had a tremendous mentality and attitude. I can’t say anything but great things about him.

“I hope he doesn’t have a great night on Sunday, but I really wish the best for that guy. He brought an incredible amount of professionalism to our club.”

Through an abbreviated preseason and six regular-season matches that have LAFC (4-1-1, 13 points) atop the Western Conference standings despite last weekend’s heart-wrenching 2-1 loss to the Galaxy, Sanchez’s new head coach, Steve Cherundolo, has seen enough to offer similarly glowing remarks.

Playing in the middle of the park for LAFC, Sanchez has delivered exactly what he promised he would, Cherundolo noted.

“That’s the best thing someone can say about me because, honestly, what I promised is no other thing than consistency, trying to be available for selection no matter where I played, midfield, back line, whatever,” Sanchez said. “It’s exactly the same thing I’m looking for in my teammates.”

After half a dozen starts, each lasting through the final whistle, Sanchez appears settled in as he influences matches the way he hoped he would when he agreed to a two-year contract in the offseason.

Sanchez chose LAFC because of the quality of the roster and how he imagined he would fit in with the group, and his ambition to hoist trophies. In five years with Kansas City, he won a U.S. Open Cup and said that record wasn’t good enough.

His experience against the Black & Gold over the previous four seasons seeing the rabid support in the stands helped convince him that leaving the Midwest for a place that reminds him of where he was born was the correct move.

“You can enjoy being next to the beach and everything that goes with that lifestyle, and then you can also go do some hiking as I did in the mountains,” he said. “That’s a similarity with Barcelona.”

Like Barcelona, several high-level club soccer and youth academy programs also exist for Los Angeles’s boys and girls, but none come close to the prestige of the programs found in the Catalonia region in the northeastern portion of Spain.

Sanchez’s game took big steps forward in his early teens learning the game in several academies, including the famed Barcelona FC youth academy, La Masia, where Ilie’s grandfather served as director.

“This ambition or goal of becoming a soccer player came right at the moment when a teenager has to decide where to go with studies and future plans,” he said. “So that was more or less meant to be, right?”

Along the way, though he’s loath to say such a thing, he surpassed Yuri, who played more of an attacking role and faced stiff competition to see the field. Yuri eventually set soccer aside and focused on his studies. He settled on economics and currently lives in Amsterdam working in that field, and so it was Ilie who found a life he didn’t imagine being possible when he began.

Without his family to lean on, Sanchez has done in L.A. what he did in Kansas City by weaving himself into the fabric of the team and the community that he cares about it.

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