What Is James Sands?

Sizing up NYCFC’s versatile homegrown teenager.

James Sands is special. At 18, NYCFC’s first homegrown player has already laced up his boots with World Cup winners and marked Manchester United’s all-time leading scorer Wayne Rooney into the ground. He’s talented at aerial duels, good on the tackle, and quick enough to cover opposition speedsters. Under pressure he’s composed, completing more than 86% of his typically short passes, and his ability to read opponents’ transitions gives him a dominant positional sense. There’s a reason NYCFC looks best when the Rye native is on the pitch.

On offense, Sands is a reliable cog in the middle, guiding the direction of the buildup and showing Pirlo-level calm receiving passes in his own defensive third. He’s not a one-v-one artist but he has a deft touch and positions his hips and plant foot well. And while he’s yet to show much of a goalscoring threat, final third production isn’t really his responsibility.

Still, there’s the nagging question that follows any positionally flexible young player: he’s great, but what exactly is he?

Position

Defensive Midfielder: This is Sands’ most transferable role, the position that, if he masters it, could make him a global hot commodity. He excels at a defensive mid’s bread and butter: tackling, intercepting passes, and playing short. But he doesn’t have the offensive output to become a box-to-box midfielder like his former teammate Frank Lampard. Ultimately, as Sands grows into his 5’11” frame, his ability to play this position may be decided for him, as any drop in speed could force him to shift to a role that suits his profile better.

Sands’ first MLS start, in September 2018, came as a defensive midfielder. (Credit: Knuckler)

Central Defender: Long term, this role suits Jimmy the best. It rewards his aerial ability, his knack for being in the right place at the right time, and his unnervingly calm short passing. Physically, he’s already shown he can handle most MLS strikers one on one in the box, an impressive feat for an 18-year-old. He’s been deployed as a right-sided center back for the youth national team and looks very comfortable in the center of NYCFC’s back three, where he should continue to get minutes as the club looks to develop its future spine. Center back is a position that rewards experience and skills honed by repetition, so for a young player already succeeding there the future looks rosy.

Sands has looked comfortable in the middle of NYCFC’s back three this spring.

Inside Fullback: Sure, this one’s a longshot, but it’s a possibility Sands and Dome Torrent have raised in the past. While fullbacks who tuck into midfield have become an important tactical wrinkle for Gregg Berhalter’s United States Men’s National Team, finding the right Americans to plug into the role has been difficult. Could Sands’ international future be at the position that’s lately been manned by Nick Lima and Tim Ream? His experience as both a defender and a midfielder puts him in the conversation, but playing as an inside fullback would limit his aerial usage and his distribution in all phases from the center of the field, where he’s thrived for club and country.

Outlook

Promising young hybrid defenders don’t always come good. Take Reece Oxford, who made waves as a 16-year-old wunderkind out of West Ham’s highly regarded academy (where he played under new NYCFC academy director Liam Manning). He was lauded for his positional flexibility, playing both defensive mid and center back at a high level thanks to his imposing physicality and ability on the ball. But after injuries, pressure, and a drop in form derailed his meteoric rise, Oxford landed on loan at FC Ausburg, where his ambiguous position is now considered a liability in his struggle for minutes. There are drawbacks to not committing early to mastering one position.

Still, if we’re talking possible futures for Sands-style hybrids, Oxford would be a pretty decent floor. And if you were to stand on the floor and look up, you’d see Bayern Munich’s stalwart Javi Martinez looking down from the Sistine Chapel ceiling of defensive versatility. The Spanish international can dominate as a lone defensive midfielder, in a double pivot, or—as he often did under Pep Guardiola—at center back. Like Sands, Martinez has great timing in his tackles, aerial prowess, and a strong short passing game. Perhaps Dome Torrent sees some of Martinez in Sands. After all, he did coach Martinez in Munich.

Sands’ best position is what he’s currently playing for Torrent, as a center back in a back three with the option to push into the midfield. His physicality is an asset on the defensive end, especially with the healthy weight he put on this winter, and his fearlessness distributing the ball allows his team to build from the back with confidence. If NYCFC sticks with the 3-4-3 long enough for Sands to find some stability in the role, his breakout season should continue to develop him for long-term success. ❧

Image: NASA, Mars Odyssey All Stars: Arabia Dunes

Written by NYCFC Tactics

Twitter: @NYCFCTactics