“I think he’s been our best player over the past few games.”
That was New York City FC goalkeeper Sean Johnson evaluating his 18 year-old teammate James Sands Wednesday night in front of his Yankee Stadium locker.
NYCFC had just shut out the Chicago Fire 1-0 in a game that saw Sands shift positions in the second half from the center of a three back to his old and more familiar position in front of that backline.
At his post-game press conference, High Press Soccer asked Dome Torrent about his decision to deploy Sands at the heart of his defense. “We had problems,” Torrent explained, “and I say many times, James has this great quality, he can play center back, he can play holding midfielder.”
Torrent noted that he moved Sands up the pitch, “in the last 20 minutes because we had many balls between the lines (and) he can walk in as a holding midfielder.”
Confidence soaring in Sands
The level of confidence that his NYC coach has shown in his 18 year-old Homegrown talent, both versus the Fire and in general in 2019, is somewhat astounding when we consider that the Rye, New York native played just 223 minutes last year, having made just a 23 minute cameo in 2017.
When Sands started New York’s first match of the campaign, a 2-2 draw in Orlando, it was easy to presume that Sands was a placeholder for Keaton Parks, a 21 year-old American midfielder who came in on a high profile loan from Portugueses giants Benfica having already earned one full national team cap.
19 year-old Juan Pablo Torres had also arrived from Europe in the off season on a transfer from Belgian side Lokern and he had been a major contributor to the U.S. U20 side that won the 2018 CONCACAF Championship on the way to the age group World Cup. Torres tallied four goals and three assists for Tab Ramos’ group, a group that did not include Sands.
Eight games in Torres has yet to make his MLS debut and Torrent has seen fit to play Parks a total of 14 minutes to date.
Sands opened the season alongside captain Alex Ring in a defensive midfield role, often dropping back between the center-backs Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens. Torrent must have liked what he saw because he eventually formalized the situation, lining Sands up in the center of a three back set in Minnesota.
With Callens out, Torrent turned to Tony Rocha. It didn’t work out but NYC emerged with a point in a 3-3 match. Sands fared well in the goalfest and the system improved considerably when Callens came back from injury in a 2-0 victory at DC United.
“He basically did it all for us,” Johnson said, describing Sands’ position switch versus Chicago. But what the former Fire keeper admires most about his young teammate is his attitude. “I think the best part about him is his humility, his willingness to just put his head down every single day and continue to look to get better. You know, he’s not a loud kid but he’s got this quiet confidence about him.”
That quiet confidence was in evidence in the post-game locker room when High Press wondered if it was difficult to make that change mid-game. “Not really,” Sands began, “because I started the first four or five games at the six. So I’m used to playing both at this level.” Did Torrent send any instructions from the sideline?
“He just tells us to switch the formation, and I know the sets coming in.” It doesn’t hurt, I proposed, having a pair of veterans such as Chanot and Callens on his flanks.
“Yeah, for sure,” Sands agrees. “They’re always talking to me and helping me out and they’re helping me with everything and I’m learning to try and help them better.”
Although Sands was a regular at center back for the U.S. in the 2017 U17 World Cup side that fell to eventual champions, England, the NYC man has not been a part of the U20 team that is preparing for the U20 World Cup that begins in late May in Poland.
With injuries and inactivity a concern for a number of potential central defenders Sands would seem too good to pass up, especially given his strong play in a position of need for Tab Ramos’ team.
2022 World Cup in Sands’ vision
Naturally enough, High Press Soccer asked if the World Cup is a goal. “Yeah, it’s in the back of my mind,” Sands conceded, “but I haven’t really been part of that group.” “I’m trying to make a strong case for it,” Sands said, “but it’s not my decision.”
The quiet confidence and humility that his goalkeeper noted came through as Sands closed by saying, “I’ll just put my head down and work, I mean, I can just do as best as I can here and hopefully somebody notices.”