Ahead of the 2021 Concacaf Gold, New York City FC homegrown James Sands was uncapped and slotted more into the intriguing prospect category than the guaranteed starter category.
The gap between Points A and B in that mental exercise is vast, but it’s clear which direction that Sands is trending in after helping the US men’s national team lift the continental championship with a 1-0 win over Mexico.
More than ever, Sands feels that head coach Gregg Berhalter trusts what he brings to the international arena – an important step before World Cup Qualifiers start Sept. 2 with an Octagonal opener against El Salvador.
“I think with my performances at the Gold Cup, I've at least put myself into the conversation,” the 21-year-old said when assessing his place in the USMNT player pool. “I fully understand that there's a lot of talented players who weren't on that roster and who are on the Nations League roster, so it will definitely be tough to win a spot on the qualifying or World Cup roster.
“But at least I'm now in the conversation and at least they're watching my games in New York now. I feel like that's a big step forward for me. I didn't always feel like that was the case, so I'm just going to have to keep working and I'm totally willing to fight for a spot on those rosters.”
Sands featured at center back and formed a solid partnership alongside Atlanta United defender Miles Robinson, who earned a spot on the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup Best XI. He contributed to the USMNT’s five shutouts in six games, putting out fires in front of New England Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner, who received the tournament’s Best Goalkeeper Award.
Sands’ role grew in importance when Nashville SC center back Walker Zimmerman went down injured in the 1-0 Group B-clinching win over Canada. He wasn’t air-tight for every 90-minute showing – the first half of a semifinal against Qatar, in particular, had some shaky moments – but the New York City-area native presented his bonafides to Berhalter.
“He was pleased with how I was able to fight in all of those games,” Sands said of conversations with Berhalter. “It's easy to be a good player when things are going well and you're beating teams 6-1, 6-0. But I think it's a better test of character when the games are not going well and you're on the back foot a little bit and showing the coach that you can fight through those tough moments. That's a lot of what Concacaf is, so I think he was proud of seeing that from me.”
A versatile player who can play in the No. 6 (defensive midfield) spot or in four-man and five-man backlines, Sands has multiple entry points as Berhalter deliberates who to call in for WCQs. He's battling for a center-back spot alongside Robinson, John Anthony Brooks (Wolfsburg), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich), Matt Miazga (Chelsea) and others.
Sands didn’t feature as a No. 6 during the USMNT’s Gold Cup run, though he certainly factors into that conversation. He’s cerebral and anticipates danger at the back, then boasts an impressive range of passing and link-up play. Beyond first-choice pick Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig) and the Gold Cup-fueled revelation that Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids) can play the position, Sands presents another option.
Phrased another way: Across the impending three-game WCQ windows, his ability to shift between formations and positions will only benefit him.
“There's a limited number of spots on rosters, so if I can fill in at more than one position it really helps me make a case,” Sands said. “Then I played a little bit of each position in all the games. I probably felt most comfortable in the middle of the back three. But that's also maybe because I've done it more in New York.
“Playing as one of two center backs was more challenging, but it's also a position where you need more experience. That's why the best center backs in the world are 27, 28 years old. Just because it's a position that relies so much on experience. For now, I felt best in the middle of a back three but that may change depending on the club situation or who's available for the national team and stuff like that.”
In the meantime, Sands returns to an NYCFC team that’s unbeaten in four games. He was recently named to the 2021 MLS All-Star Team Roster as the Cityzens’ sole representative for the Aug. 25 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target against the best from Liga MX.
Sands, who has expressed a desire to play in Europe, is in his fifth professional season after turning pro in 2017. Ahead of the 2021 campaign, he inked a new five-year contract extension and now hopes that injury troubles are behind him.
“Now that I feel like I've shown that I can play at a national team level, I can feel more confident in New York, being a leader,” Sands said. “That's something I said I wanted to do more of at the start of the year. I think I'm always improving in that area, but I think especially now I can really start to step up.
“Then I said this before, but learning how to fight when games are tough. As a younger player, you disappear a lot when the games are not going well. I think that's also something I've taken away from the national team. I'm honestly really excited for the rest of the year in New York. We've got such a talented team and I definitely think we can win a trophy here.”