“Football is played with the head. Your feet are just tools.”
If you’re not familiar with it, that’s a pithy quote from one of the greatest players of his generation. And it applies well to James Sands, the 21-year-old newcomer who has arguably turned more heads than any other US men’s national team player at this summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup with his passing range, defensive judgment and tactical intelligence.
Those are the words of Andrea Pirlo, who not only was Sands’ New York City FC teammate for a few months at the dawn of the homegrown’s professional career, but almost literally passed the torch to the youngster, making way for the then-teenager to make his MLS debut as a substitute in a September 2017 match against the Colorado Rapids.
The Italian maestro is just one of several worldly influences on Sands’ development at NYCFC. The Rye, New York native has had the uncommon experience of working under the likes of Patrick Vieira, longtime Pep Guardiola acolyte Dome Torrent and Norwegian manager Ronny Deila, all in addition to some of the top youth coaches in the United States during his time in the Cityzens’ academy. Each experience seems to have prepared him well to make this big leap forward in his international career.
“I think one of the biggest advantages I had coming in was just coming from a place like New York,” Sands said in a Tuesday media call when asked about his USMNT stock’s rapid rise this month.
“We try and play a similar style to the national team, building from the back, playing through midfield, creating chances, all those sorts of things. So I think with the coaches I've had in New York, I felt like I had a good idea what Gregg [Berhalter] and the other national team coaches wanted. So I think that's given me a bit of a leg up.”
Sands’ game is a study in subtlety, to an extent that remains fairly rare among US-developed players. His deliveries begin attacking sequences rather than finish them; his head feints and hip swivels deceive the first line of pressure more often than the last defender. His positioning and decision-making tend to prevent fires from starting more than extinguishing flare-ups. His soccer IQ allows him to contribute at center back or holding midfielder in three- and four-player defensive systems, sometimes both in the same match.
All that could make him an acquired taste, a key performer who all too easily goes unnoticed. He’s ready for the spotlight, though. Tuesday’s availability revealed flashes of a confident, aggressive striver alongside that cerebral identity.
“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 matter-of-factly. “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.”
Sands’ potential hasn’t been lost on Berhalter, who as Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle wrote about this week, has already entrusted the youngster with responsibilities that far eclipse his limited experience at this level (Sands’ substitute appearance versus Haiti marked his senior international debut). His assurance played a key role in the USMNT topping Group B and booking a quarterfinal spot before beating Canada 1-0.
“I liked his game today. I thought it was excellent,” said Berhalter after the 6-1 thumping of Martinique, Sands’ first start. “He battled, he competed, his passing was excellent. So it gives us an option. You don’t always have the opportunity to play three in the back, but he gives you that option, certainly. So really proud of James, proud of the way he's performed in both of the games.”
The top subplot to the USMNT’s hunt for this Gold Cup trophy is the coaching staff using the tournament to evaluate players for World Cup qualifying rosters that will be built in September and beyond. Sands arrived a bit late to that competition compared to his center-back colleagues Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman, but seems to be making up ground quickly. His skill set may prove every bit as valuable at the No. 6 role, where questions linger amid Tyler Adams’ injury history.
“Everyone you've just mentioned is a top player,” said Sands when asked about his competition in those places on Tuesday. “But I always will back myself. I think with any group of players, I can rise to the top of that. Certainly in a back three, I think my kind of style is unique, in that I can do that role pretty well, I can play as a lone 6 pretty well, and with New York, I’ve started playing as the center back when we're in a back four.
“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.”
A clearer picture of Sands is emerging, a top talent with places to go and a sense of urgency just barely concealed by his soft-spoken manner. Though not restive for a move just yet, he’s eager to keep climbing, to try his hand across the Atlantic sooner than later, to keep pushing his case to Berhalter.
“I kind of came into this camp, this Gold Cup, just wanting to get the experience with the national team and put everything out there and do my best,” he said. “In the end, that's the coach's decision who's the first center back, who's the first 6, who’s the second center back and so on. I'm not the one who decides that, but I think if I keep putting in strong performances, I can certainly make a good case for myself.
“As for playing in Europe, it's something that I've discussed with all the coaches and the people at NYCFC. 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.”