So far in the Gold Cup, the U.S. men's national team's young stars have passed their tests with flying colors.
Gianluca Busio, closing in on a move to Venezia in Serie A, has shined in midfield, looking every bit like a player smooth enough to play in Italy's top-flight. Daryl Dike, the up-and-coming No. 9 with European interest of his own, has shown why he should be a real contender to start in World Cup qualifiers this fall. Sam Vines, reportedly nearing a move to Belgian side Royal Antwerp, has stepped up too, while Shaq Moore has marked his return to the USMNT with several star performances.
Yet none of those players have been the USMNT's standout young star of the summer. That title goes to James Sands, a player who has, in just a few short games, taken a massive leap forward by showcasing a skillset matched by few in the player pool.
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“I mean, I guess it's been a surprise to a lot of people. But it's not a surprise to me that I'm playing this way,” Sands said earlier this week. “I've done it for a couple years with New York and I've been pretty consistent at it. With the national team, I’ve had some unfortunate injuries, timing wasn't always right, so I haven't been able to showcase it.
“But I think the things I've been doing these past two games are things that I’ve all done before, so I'm feeling pretty confident going forward. And then it's about doing the same things and not trying to change my game. There's certain things that I'm good at: clean passes, clean touches, being defensively good. It'll be important, especially in the knockout rounds, just keep doing those things, not try and be anything that I’m not.”
If the group stage was any indication, Sands is right: he shouldn't change a thing.
The 21-year-old New York City FC product, who has played 56 MLS games so far, has been deployed by Gregg Berhalter in a hybrid role, sitting deep as part of a three-center back system in defense while stepping up into the midfield when in possession. Think of Sands as playing a the Franz Beckenbauer role, one that requires an insane level of game intelligence and techincal ability.
Sands has shown plenty of both. He's completing his passes right around the 90 percent mark so far and, defensively, he's yet to commit a single foul.
His responsibilities are a lot to ask of a young player, especially one who still has only three USMNT caps to his name. It would be a lot to ask of any player, to be honest, but Sands continues to grow into the role as few other Americans would be able to do.
Can that skillset rocket him up the depth chart ahead of World Cup qualifiers? It's too soon to say. But it is safe to say that he's given Berhalter something to think about and will continue to do so with a few more big games in the coming days and weeks.
"With James, I really liked him moving up into midfield," Berhalter said after the group stage-closing win over Canada. "He gave us a numerical advantage and we're happy with it. I think at times it worked really well.
"James, in the first 20 minutes was, I think, one of the best players in the field. He dominated the game stepping forward, winning the ball, really calm on the ball."
Given his efforts, it's very possible that Sands could be the next young USMNT star to be linked with a European move. His teammates Busio, Dike and Vines have all been the subject of rumors all through the Gold Cup, while his former NYCFC teammate Joe Scally made the move to Borussia Monchengladbach officially last winter.
This summer is proving a big one for Berhalter's youngest stars, and he believes that scouts are keeping a close eye on several players in the squad this summer.
“It seems like, from my experience in Europe, my experience in MLS,” Berhalter said last week, “we've gotten to a point where there is critical mass. And what I mean by that is, we’ve had enough American players that have been successful overseas in Europe that now clubs are looking at the United States as a market.
“Now they’re focusing on us for our young players, to bring them in and develop them, or continue their development, and then potentially resell them. And I think it’s a good point that we’re at. Credit Major League Soccer, and U.S. Soccer, for the Development Academy that started years ago, and now we’re seeing the fruits of that.
“It's common you see that. In Major League Soccer, for example, a few Venezuelans came over and have been successful, and then you see an influx of Venezuelans. That's completely normal, and I’m glad we are at a point now in the United States that Europe’s really shining a light on us.”
That light will now be shining even brighter on Sands as the U.S. marches into the knockout stages. Tougher tests await, starting with Sunday's clash with a tough Jamaica team that features players like Andre Gray, Leon Bailey and Bobby Decordova-Reid, all of whom spent last season playing at the highest levels of European soccer.
Several USMNT youngsters on this Gold Cup squad look poised to join them soon, including Sands, if they continue to step up as they've done so far.
“As for playing in Europe, it's something that I've discussed with all the coaches and the people at NYCFC," he said. "It's certainly something I want to do. I always want to push up to the higher levels and really test myself. So I think that'll happen eventually, when the interest is right and the club that comes in is right.
"But until then, I've got a very good setup in New York, a really talented team. So I think I’m developing there and we'll see where it takes me.”
He added: “I always thought I'm on a good path. I've got good people around me; good coaches, my family's always supportive.
"So I always felt if I stayed the course my chance would come eventually, and when that chance came, I would have to take it. And I think that's what I've done at this tournament.”