As the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup continues, there are a few notable performers, including a versatile midfielder-defender starting to fulfill his early potential. While James Sands signed for New York City FC at a young age, his development has been a gradual process designed to build him into a well-rounded professional. His recent breakthrough indicates that he is ready for a bigger role, already possessing the experience of a veteran at 21 years old.
Sands was born in Rye, New York and has a twin brother, Will, who currently plays at Georgetown University. His youth career was spent with the New York Soccer Club and the Brunswick School, possessing a “level of competitiveness that was unique” and an “obsession with getting better.” He joined the NYCFC Academy in 2015, a member of the inaugural class. In 2016, U.S. Soccer added him to the now-defunct Residency Program in Bradenton, Florida.
In January of 2017, the then-16-year-old was included on the NYCFC preseason tour and traveled to Ecuador for a friendly against Emelec. Sands received rave reviews for his performance in the 2-2 draw, playing next to Andrea Pirlo in front of 40,000 spectators. “We wanted to see him to see how he would cope with the intensity and the level of tactical, mental, and physical demand,” said then-manager Patrick Vieira. “I’ve been really impressed with him – he’s really calm, composed, and good on the ball.”
Sands was signed to a professional deal that June, the club’s first Homegrown player. His “extensive passing range and stellar reading of the game” convinced the coaching staff to offer a contract. He made his debut against the Colorado Rapids, playing 23 minutes as a substitute. That would be his only appearance of the year, as most of his time was spent with the U-17 national team. The club was “extremely protective” of the young player, allegedly attempting to limit and guide his interactions with the media, an understandable and welcome decision.
His second season involved more playing time and also a short-term loan to Louisville City. Sands featured in three matches in the USL Championship under former U-17 manager John Hackworth. At the conclusion of the loan came his first start with NYCFC, impressing at the number six position and being described as the club’s “future.” He also appeared with the U-19 squad, converting the deciding penalty in the championship game of the 2018 Development Academy Playoffs.
The slow development process would eventually pay dividends, but Sands was not concerned with a lack of playing time. “I’m not rushing anything,” he told MLSSoccer.com. “We have a very specific plan in place. As long as I follow that plan, more opportunities will come down the road. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Sands saw a massive increase in minutes during the 2019 season, including starting in the opener against Orlando City. He made 19 appearances for City, despite dealing with a broken arm and collarbone. At the end of the year, Fortuna Düsseldorf brought him in for a “training stint.”
His career has continued to thrive in MLS. Last year, Sands made 19 total appearances, including three in the CONCACAF Champions League. Injury issues would haunt him once again, this time a right foot fracture.
Solid recognition and decisiveness from James Sands here to find the right forward pass immediately.— Tom Bogert (@tombogert) August 24, 2020
Breaks the entire Crew midfield (plus one fullback) and springs a transition moment that initially started with a throw in their own defensive third. #NYCFC #NYCvCLB pic.twitter.com/bL3SGML864
This season, Sands is a key player, with strong passing and defensive statistics. In March, he signed a five-year contract extension with NYCFC. “Playing at a top level in Europe” remains a long-term dream, and the front office will help to “achieve [his] goals.” Manager Ronny Delia indicated the club would not hold him back if suitable offers arrived. There is rumored interest from Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
As an international, the young defender was a regular with the United States U-17s. Sands led the team to a second place finish at the 2017 CONCACAF Under-17 Championships, being named to the Team of the Tournament. He played every minute at center back during the ensuing U-17 World Cup, a run that ended with a 4-1 loss to England.
His first senior call-up was for this recent CONCACAF Gold Cup, with the debut coming in the Group B opener against Haiti. He started the next two matches at center back, helping to secure advancement with wins over Martinique and Canada. Manager Gregg Berhalter complimented his passing and mentality, referring to the newcomer as “excellent” and “very intelligent.”
“The group stage has been a really good learning experience for me,” Sands told USSoccer.com. “It’s about doing the same things, not trying to change my game. There [are] certain things that I’m good at: clean passes, clean touches, being defensively good… One of the things I found challenging about the game was just trying to manage how much running I’m doing getting between each position… Playing in both spots really showcases the best of my abilities.”
This is one fun part of using James Sands, or another mobile player, as the central CB in a back three. That central defender can step between the lines without the ball and move possession forward. pic.twitter.com/PjoL7L02vj— Joseph Lowery (@joeclowery) August 21, 2020
Sands is a versatile player, capable of lining up at defensive midfielder and as a center back on a three-player back line. The latter position is becoming more popular with managers, helping in the build-up while also dropping back to provide more cover. He shared that the USMNT and NYCFC play a similar style, “building from the back, playing through midfield, [and] creating chances,” which has “given [him] a bit of a leg up.”
His “technical quality” is evident in the “sharp passing,” aided by a “high intelligence” to read the game. Sands makes “really good decisions” and is “always in the right place,” playing with “a real maturity” beyond his years. Half Spaces notes that he is “constantly telling his teammates where the ball should go,” understanding and communicating responsibilities. Major League Soccer Analysis is similarly complimentary on his ability to play long passes but points to the need to improve when in transition and starting attacks. Additionally, his physicality as a center back is sometimes lacking, with a definite weakness in aerial duels.
The Gold Cup has served to raise the status of several USMNT players, particularly on the back line. Ahead of World Cup Qualifying, there is a need to establish depth and add defenders capable of performing in Berhalter’s system. While perhaps not as flashy as other options, Sands has proven to be a good fit and could have a key role during the current cycle. At the very least, this tournament made the media and fan base aware of his abilities and readiness for the next level.