Ilie Sánchez has experienced plenty of reasons to celebrate since arriving in Major League Soccer a half-dozen years ago.
The two-time All-Star midfielder was part of Sporting Kansas City’s 2017 US Open Cup-winning side, earning a trophy during his first season stateside. He was also part of LAFC’s double-winning 2022 group, scoring the game-winning penalty kick against Philadelphia Union that delivered the club’s first-ever MLS Cup title after they’d already captured a Supporters’ Shield.
Those accomplishments have some new competition.
The 32-year-old officially became a naturalized US citizen earlier this week, a proud moment for the Spain native that’s been years in the making. Now in his seventh MLS season, Sánchez is an FC Barcelona youth product who’s approaching 200 matches played across the regular season and Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
"I know and I understand that I will never be the same [as] someone who was born here, but for me, I don't feel different. The way that people treat me since day one, even before becoming a citizen, has been amazing," Ilie said Thursday. "Partly I think it's because of the place I landed, Kansas City, but also nothing changed when I moved to Los Angeles. I just experienced different situations. I've met different people, but the treatment or the relationships have been amazing as well.
"I'm just happy. Nothing changed from yesterday when I wasn't a citizen to today when I finally became one of you guys. But still, I hope in the next years to come I can keep building relationships and moments and memories here in the US."
Ilie, now in his second LAFC season, sometimes gets overlooked amid the Black & Gold’s star-studded roster. That’s natural, to a degree, when global legends like Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini arrived last summer, or how DP forwards Carlos Vela and Dénis Bouanga remain in 2023 as faces of a pace-setting club.
As midfield partner Kellyn Acosta tells it, Sanchez is a glue player who makes LAFC contend for trophies on multiple fronts.
"We call him the professor because that's kind of what he is, on and off the field," the US international remarked about his new compatriot. "He's a guy who's the brains, the nucleus, a guy that's the maestro as we like to call him with his long, flowy hair. But it's always great playing alongside him, a guy that gives us a lot of information, a leader on and off the field. A guy that I admire a lot."
LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo focused on the off-field component as well when asked about their Spanish-American No. 6 who joined in free agency as part of 2022’s MLS-experienced roster refresh.
"Ilie means a lot to us as a person first," Cherundolo noted. "Just an unbelievable human being, very kind, great communicator, somebody who takes other people's feelings into consideration first before his own. Really just an all-and-out leader for us and a fantastic guy to have in our locker room, at our club. We're extremely blessed to have him."
Might this development build towards a US men’s national team call-up one day? That ball’s in the court of interim head coach Anthony Hudson and whoever takes over the program long-term, but it’s a possibility Ilie is open to – also recognizing the career stage he’s in.
"If soccer brings me there, I would be very, very proud and excited about the opportunity," Ilie said. "But at the same time, I also think the US national team, their strongest line on the field it's probably the midfield, right? It's difficult for that to happen.
"I'm open to everything. It would be an opportunity for me to improve and to have a better career. But I'm also focused on what we do here every day and keep building a successful season or time here in LA."
Cherundolo said he would “recommend [Ilie] to any squad or any coach who calls and asks me about him,” but stressed the decision isn’t his to make. Acosta, part of the USMNT’s FIFA 2022 World Cup squad, voiced support for Ilie getting a chance at a deep position.
"Who knows, hopefully he can continue playing well and hopefully earn a call-up," Acosta said. "But we like to call him a Gringo now. He's American and it's definitely super special. I know it was a long time coming for him."
Whatever awaits, Ilie has made the US his home and was nothing but ear-to-ear smiles when discussing it. To think it all started with a 2017 trip from Barcelona to Tucson, Arizona for preseason camp with SKC as manager/sporting director Peter Vermes greeted their new signing.
"For me, that was all that mattered at that time: To be received, to be welcomed in this country the way that they did for me," said Ilie. "That was the best way to start this journey. All the confidence and the love that I felt from those people."