James Sands is Figuring It Out

NYCFC’s homegrown talks about taking his game to the next level.

It’s not always easy to know who and what James Sands is. He’s still trying to figure it out himself.

Headed into his fourth professional season, NYCFC’s first homegrown player is not your typical 19-year-old. He’s simple and he’s kind. He lives comfortably at home with his parents in Rye, where he enjoys the perks of youth (“I like saving my money”) and being close to the club’s training facility in Orangeburg (he likes the reverse commute). In conversation and on the field, he’s far more composed than most teenagers, which helps when coaches shuffle him around: whether he’s squeezed between the back line or lodged deep in midfield, the thing you notice about Sands is he looks like he belongs.

Now he wants to find his voice.

“A big focus for me is organizing the guys in front of me and being more of a vocal leader,” Sands told The Outfield recently. “That’s something I’ve always struggled with. But now that I think I’m a bit more established in the team, it’s something I can really focus on. Something like that just makes everyone’s life easier.”

Sands can come off as shy, but maybe he’s quiet because he’s busy learning. His goals for this season include improving tactically and working on his recovery to stay healthy after injuries interrupted a breakout 2019. He models his preparation on his teammate Maxime Chanot, watching the veteran center back’s movements and how he takes care of himself off the field. For craft, he idolizes the likes of Manchester City’s Aymeric Laporte and Rodri—versatile, ball-playing defensive players who exemplify City Football Group’s possession style.

Like a lot of Pep Guardiola’s favorite players, Sands blurs the line between a defender and a midfielder. “I’m really happy that I’ve been able to play both because one helps you with the other,” he said. “By playing in the midfield, I think I have good feet as a center back. For a center back, I can cover ground like a No. 6. So I think I try to take the best of both worlds.”

It’s too soon to say which position will be his future. There’s a risk that if a transfer doesn’t materialize Sands could find himself NYCFC’s odd man out this season, scrounging minutes behind Chanot and Alexander Callens in defense and Alex Ring and Keaton Parks in midfield. But he’s used to staying flexible. In last week’s CONCACAF Champions League season opener, Sands slotted into new coach Ronny Deila’s 4-3-3 as a defensive midfielder, the position where he was groomed in NYCFC’s academy, but he’s also thrived at center back for the U.S. Youth National Team and under Deila’s predecessor, Dome Torrent.

It was Torrent who gave Sands his breakthrough last spring. The former NYCFC coach and longtime Guardiola assistant often spoke highly of the teenager, once going so far as to name Sands the first player he’d call if he were coaching in Europe. Torrent trusted Sands with 18 starts and 1,602 minutes in 2019, primarily as a center back, and might have given him more if a pair of freak injuries—a broken arm, then a broken collarbone—hadn’t kept Sands out for most of the second half of the season. Still, the performances drew accolades from pundits and MLS executives, and the buzz earned Sands a chance to train with Bundesliga club Fortuna Düsseldorf in November. 

Düsseldorf Sporting Director Lutz Pfannenstiel told The Outfield that Sands is “an interesting player” who came recommended by multiple people, including at Manchester City. “He’s not the typical six-foot-three No. 4 like others. He’s a good player of the game and a very, very good No. 6 when he controls the game more or less in the midfield,” he said. 

Although Sands’ 5’11” frame would be small for a Bundesliga center back, Pfannenstiel explained, he’s well trained, with a good physique and good experience for his age. Pfannenstiel believes figuring out Sands’ long-term position will be an important step to establish him further. “We’ll definitely keep a look at him in the future and maybe take him over again for a few weeks,” he said.

For Sands, the trip was a chance to compare his skills to top-flight players in Germany, where he said he had to adjust to a quicker speed of play. It may also have been a preview of things to come. As Gio Reyna’s meteoric rise at Borussia Dortmund and Joe Scally’s sale to Mönchengladbach draw Europe’s attention to NYCFC’s academy, it seems likely that Sands could be the next to earn a move abroad.

“Personally, I think I’m close to that level, but there’s still lots of things I need to improve on,” he said. “That’s some of the stuff I’ll be focusing on this year.” ❧

Image: Sam Buxton, Inhale, Exhale