Emerging star Sands keeps his cool amid rapid USMNT rise

James Sands New York City FC 2021Getty Images

"James Sands one looks like a stock photo."

It was a tweet that elicited a reply from U.S. Soccer, a quick response with a photo of the 21-year-old defender/midfielder throwing up a peace sign upon his arrival to U.S. men's national team camp this week. It was also a tweet that spoke to the still-developing perception of the talented youngster, a player just coming into his own for club and country after surging into the spotlight this summer.

On the field, Sands is not flashy but always reliable. He's versatile, but not flamboyant. He's a player that goes about his business, makes the right play and starts preparing for the next one. The perception is that Sands is the type of player that is singularly focused, that is always serious, that is always moving on to the next fast enough to not truly enjoy the now.

And Sands is already very, very aware of that perception. He's aware that he's not the player running around with a smile on his face like Weston McKennie. He's not the player showing all sorts of emotions like Gio Reyna. He's not a trash talker like Kellyn Acosta either.

But Sands wants people to know that it is just a perception, that there's a second side to his personality that hasn't quite shown itself during his limited time in the limelight this summer.

"I sometimes come across as this super kind of serious, focused person," Sands tells Goal, "and I am that, definitely. On the training field, in games, I'm certainly super focused. 

"But I think a lot of people don't probably realize how much I've enjoyed the journey up until now. For younger players, I think that's especially important: to understand that I am serious because this is what I want to be doing, but I'm also really just enjoying the moment and not trying to rush anything.

"I'm really just taking it all in."

Over the last few months, Sands has had a lot to take in. He's emerged as a legitimate option for the USMNT at center back after making his debut at the Gold Cup. His six caps this summer came after Sands knocked on the door for quite some time, only to see potential call-ups to youth and senior camps derailed by untimely injuries.

And, on the club level, Sands was recognized as an MLS All-Star, coming on as a second-half substitute in the win over the Liga MX All-Stars. After years of building his way into New York City FC's first team, Sands is now being recognized as one of the league's best young players.

"It definitely has been crazy for me," he says, "but the Gold Cup, being an All-Star, playing for NYCFC, it's all stuff that you look forward to as a player and I've worked very hard for it, so it's nice to see those things finally happening. I kind of use it as motivation to kind of look for the next thing or the next step."

He continues: "It feels like the recognition I'm getting now has been a very recent development and has all kind of happened at once, but the way I've been playing, it's been developed over many years.

"I feel like maybe that has to do a little bit with the style of how I play, just not being the most flashy guy in the field or the most outspoken. So I think sometimes it's hard to see what I do if you're not with me every day."

Sands credits his father and sisters with being among the first to see what he could do. He also credits his first professional coach with being one of the biggest influences so far.

At the time of his arrival at NYCFC, Sands was the club's first-ever homegrown signing. Emerging from an academy that had also produced Borussia Dortmund star Reyna and, later, Borussia Monchengladbach youngster Joe Scally, Sands was NYCFC's first true local prospect and was pegged as one of the young players that would define the club's future.

And so Sands, as a teenager, walked into a locker room that featured David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and his new head coach Patrick Vieira.

"Age is just a number -- it's about his desire to compete and the talent," Vieira said of the then-16-year-old Sands upon handing him his debut. "He understands the game like a 30-year-old. He's got personality and he's really good on the ball."

It was Vieira who truly convinced Sands' family that their son was on the path towards something special.

"I was definitely nervous, everybody's a little bit nervous about those situations, but I also think one of my strengths is just kind of rolling with it, accepting things the way they are," Sands said. "I was very fortunate that I had those particular guys like Patrick Vieira, Pirlo and Villa just because they were so down to earth, such good humans.

"I have three siblings who all play soccer and they all went to college, so for me to not go to college, that was a big deal for my parents to allow that, and I think one of the reasons they ended up deciding that it was okay is because Patrick was the coach. They felt comfortable with me at the club."

James Sands Claudio Reyna Patrick Vieira GFX NYCFC
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Sands made five total appearances in 2017 and 2018 before taking the big leap in 2019, featuring 19 times for NYCFC. In the years since, he's become an integral piece for the club given his ability to play both in defense or in the midfield.

It's a skill set that few players have anymore. In defense, Sands plays a role that is Beckenbauer-esque, allowing him to step into the midfield fairly often and kickstart the attack. And, in the midfield, he can play as a pure No. 6, shielding the defense and dropping back a bit when needed.

He's not like a Fabinho or a Fernandinho, who have drifted back to play center back in a pinch. Instead, Sands says he feels comfortable at both spots and remains unsure exactly which position will be his best going forward.

"Going back and forth so much doesn't really faze me," he says. "When I keep pushing on and reaching higher levels, it's going to depend on the players around me, in what system I'm playing, but being able to do both definitely opens up a lot of doors for me."

Sands opened up more doors this summer by showing off another side to his game, specifically as a central defender.

Following an injury to Walker Zimmerman, Sands was played in a back four alongside Miles Robinson, with the USMNT not allowing a goal from open play in the Gold Cup. 

His play earned him a spot on the USMNT's first World Cup qualifying roster with U.S. boss Gregg Berhalter saying that he was surprised by Sands' ability to handle everything thrown at him this summer.

"I liked his progression this summer," said Berhalter. "He came into camp and we had him in mind as a center back primarily in a back three. He proved us wrong. He proved that he can perform well in a back four as well.

"He gives us comfort on the ball, gives us passing range, he reads the game really well, he's always in good positions to defend the ball. He's another player that exceeded expectations in the Gold Cup.

"Now for him, like Miles, this is an opportunity for him to see a different level of competition to grow with that. It's important that we keep developing our younger players moving them along. He's another guy that is going to benefit from this World Cup qualifying process."

James Sands USMNT
Getty/Goal

So the big question is what's next? Sands has made no secret of his desire to take his career a step further, both for club and country. He has openly admitted that he wants to play in Europe someday, whenever that day comes, and that he wants to become a big part of the USMNT's plans.

But, even when it comes to his own future, Sands remains calm and collected. Just like when he's on the ball, he's being careful and assessing his options before making the right play.

"I'm really fortunate to be at a club like New York," he says. "I think the talent we have on our team this year is second to none in the league so just being in and around that every day will continue to make me a better player.

"I think one of the big focuses for me this year is becoming a leader and I still need to keep improving on that, keep working at that. I think the second half of the year will be big for that part of my game.

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"The thing I've learned from the guys who have gone over to Europe is that it's so important to find the right situation. The guys who are doing well and are succeeding have found a club that supports them and gives them opportunities. There are a lot of guys who have gone over and haven't found that so I think that'll be the most important thing when I eventually look to make that next step."

And when that next step does come, when he heads to Europe to begin the next phase of his career, there probably won't be some flashy announcement video. The next time he takes the field for the USMNT, potentially this weekend, he likely won't be seen smiling for the cameras on his way towards the field.

But James Sands will definitely be smiling, he promises. He's just taking it all in.