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Sporting KC rave about newest Spanish midfielder Ilie: "A very good player"

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Barcelona academy product, signed from the Catalan giant's B side. Defensive midfielder. Wrecker of opposing possessions, heady distributor when his own side are on the ball. Wears his first name on the back of his jersey.

Sound like anyone you know?

It's hard not to compare Ilie Sanchez, Sporting Kansas City's new defensive midfielder, to Uri Rosell, who became a star at Children's Mercy Park before his midseason transfer to Portugal's Sporting CP in mid-2014.

Just don't ask manager Peter Vermes to do it.

“It's not fair to them,” Vermes told reporters on Tuesday, during the club's annual media day. “Ilie's in our team now, and he's a very good player, and he's only going to get better with us over time. “

He's not doing too bad already. Where Rosell – a midseason acquisition in 2012 – took the better part of a year to break out as the clear first choice, Ilie stepped in right away and was a box-to-box boss in last weekend's season opener, a scrappy scoreless draw at D.C. United.

"He reads the game very well, both offensively and defensively,” Vermes said. “He showed up in places where – let's say we were attacking down the left and both our outside back and our winger were high up the field. He understood that was a place where either he had to go over and plug the hole or, more importantly, make sure we had somebody covering right there. He has a really good insight on the field.

“And then the other thing is that he brings a calmness in the way that we want to play, and so his vision 360 on the field is very helpful in the build-up. It's everything, because he's the link between the defense and the attack, and then he's also the conscience of the team when we're going forward. So it's a very important position in the way that we play.”

There's that link again to Rosell, whose gift for “La Pausa” was often cited as a reason for his and Sporting's success during his time in Kansas City.

Don't expect to see that all the time, though.

“It's not about calm,” Ilie said. “It's about what the team needs. Sometimes we need calm; sometimes we need to accelerate the game. It just depends on the opponent and how we feel during the game.”

It's still early days, obviously, but Ilie already looks like the prototype D-mid for Vermes' high-pressing 4-3-3: Savvy at breaking up attacks to keep pressure off the backline, and instinctive at finding teammates in good spaces when Sporting are in possession.

For a club that finished 2016 with just 42 regular-season goals – tied for fourth-fewest in the league – Ilie represents one key to unlocking Sporting's offense.

“That's something that's harder to see, especially for a fan that's not watching the game intently for that,” said Benny Feilhaber, Sporting's veteran No. 10. “People start getting a sense of how much more easily our attack starts coming about, but maybe they won't realize it's because of him. He's good at getting the ball off the backline. He gives them options to play out of the back, so hopefully we won't see too many long balls into the channels.

“The balls that he finds me in between the lines are going to be huge for how effective I am.”

That's not so much a matter of imposing his will on the game, Ilie said, as seeing what the game offers and making use of it to his club's advantage.

“I need to be a team player, not an individual player,” he said. “So I want to show that I can adapt how they want, and I think that I can give good positioning in the field to give the best solution to my teammates.”

Looking further at the stats from Sporting's opener, it was striking how much offense there was in his defense. Both of his interceptions and half of his eight recoveries came in United's half of the pitch, and all three of his clearances came from well clear of the penalty area.

“Defensively, he's a guy that understands the position,” center back Matt Besler said. “He's always going to be in the right spot, which is huge. As a defender, you love having a guy like that in front of you, where you don't need to tell him 'Left' or 'Right' or 'Drop' or 'Push up.' He's just there.

“And then, with the ball, he just provides a very good outlet for a lot of people around the field and the way that we want to play. That's going to make a big difference, and hopefully we're going to be able to control the game and control a lot of the possession, and then I think you'll see the difference in the last 15-20 minutes of the game if we're able to do that. We're going to be the fresher team. We're going to be the team that's kind of pushing and either scoring g oals or being able to lock the game down.”