After Gold Cup triumph, Sands eyes WCQ role, NYCFC silverware, & European ambition
August 12, 2021
WHEN THE 2021 GOLD CUP ended with the United States lifting the trophy in Las Vegas in changed the perception that many fans had on the player pool. Of course, many were aware of the start players featuring for Champions League clubs, and many are also aware that European teams are scouting and looking to sign young American players currently playing for MLS clubs. What the Gold Cup did, however, was answer that the current player pool, not just the future player pool, was deeper than expected ahead of World Cup qualifying.
James Sands, 21, was one of the players on that team who boosted his stock. Not only was he part of a defensive unit that conceded just one goal in the tournament, he also had to shift roles and adjust to increased responsibilities at the tournament progressed.
Early in the team’s third group stage game against Canada, team captain Walker Zimmerman was forced off the roster with a hamstring injury. Following that, Gregg Berhalter had to shift from a three central-defender set-up to a traditional four-man backline with two center backs. From there, Sands and Miles Robinson along with goalkeeper Matt Turner and defensive midfielder Kellyn Acosta were responsible for keeping the four toughest opponents off the board as the U.S. team won the title.
“Because it was my first run with the national team, I wasn't completely sure what to expect going into camp, but then I found my feet pretty quickly,” Sands said. “How we work in New York is pretty similar to how Gregg and his staff works. All the games were like good learning experiences. I thought the group games went well. The knockout games were kind of a different animal…Obviously, I understand that a lot of the top guys weren't there but I will always back myself. I really have a role to play for that team in the future.”
“I'm fairly certain that everybody was aware that a lot of the top guys were not there,” he added. “But I think it did serve as motivation a little bit just because it was largely a group of guys who are not going to get as many looks as the top guys in Europe. You never know when your next opportunity is going to come. That really worked in our favor in the tournament because we had a lot of guys just putting everything on the line, trying to show their best form to make a move for World Cup qualifying.”
Throughout his career, Sands has featured in both defensive midfield and central defense and he hasn’t quite settled into a position – while feeling comfortable at both. Moving forward for the national team, Sands is now in the mix for central defense and the list of players at that position is growing with solid options but the list is not quite settled. John Brooks is a starter but Chris Richards, Mark Mckenzie, Tim Ream, and Matt Miazga have all featured there this season. Walker Zimmerman was a the Gold Cup captain but it was Sands and Robinson who saw their stock rise at the Gold Cup.
This step up by James Sands into the midfield pocket from CCB in possession makes me swoon. pic.twitter.com/lseX57kFLt— Kevin Nelson (@Kevin_N_Nelson) July 18, 2021
Now looking ahead, Berhalter might bring four or five central defenders moving forward in qualifying and that could see spaces open.
“Lucky I was playing with Miles,” Sands said. “In those type of games, he really excels just because of his athletic abilities, his understanding. It was good to play alongside next to him. For both of us, just as young players going through an experience like that and beating Mexico in a final, it's something that we both can learn a lot from and move forward.”
It hasn’t always been easy for Sands to make an impact with U.S. Soccer and he’s had to fight through some setbacks. Following taking part in the U-17 World Cup, Sands struggled to get involved in subsequent youth tournaments. Tab Ramos showed little interest in Sands during the 2019 U-20 cycle and in 2021, Jason Kreis did not call-up Sands to the U-23 team for the failed Olympic qualifying team.
Looking back, Sands admits that his previous lack of involvement with the U.S. team was somewhat of a motivational tool but he always had faith that he would surface to the despite previously having been cut.
“I would say it was a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, but that's not entirely what was motivating me - I'm pretty self driven,” Sands said. “I just never had a doubt in my mind that I would play for the national team... It was it was only a matter of time. I'm just blessed that that opportunity finally came and hopefully there's more down the road.”
Looking forward, Sands is hopeful to be part of the team for World Cup qualifying. He doesn’t get the sense that the team is facing addition pressure due to the failure to qualify for the World Cup but instead most see it as a positive opportunity to open up a new chapter in U.S. Soccer and continue with the changing perception.
Part of that also starts with MLS where most of the top young American players are electing to begin their career and use it as a possible vehicle to move to the top league’s in Europe. Sands initially signed with New York City in 2017 and was the club’s first homegrown player. He has since made 52 first team appearances for the club and has helped it become a regular in the post season.
In 2021, Sands believes that this is NYCFC’s best year to compete as he said that his is the most talented, and that “all the pieces are in place now.” The team currently sits in third place in the East but could move into second if it takes advantage of its game in hand on second place Orlando.
Sands’ rise into the NYCFC first team has coincided with general rise in minutes given to talented young players throughout the league. Like many of these young players, Sands holds ambitions to go to Europe but also believes that MLS has become far more relevant in the rise of the quality of the American than ever before.
“It's been a real positive step that MLS has taken in the past couple of years, I think a lot of the teams have seen not only is it a good way to make money by selling their academy players on to bigger teams, but they're also producing players that can help the first team,” Sands said. “I know that wasn't always the case. It brings more eyes to the league, and it makes moving overseas much easier because other Americans have come from this league and done that. It makes the pathway a little bit easier. That's helpful for a lot of guys who have big aspirations in some of the top European leagues.”