The Pathway

James Sands sets the example at New York City FC | The Pathway

Unique opportunities have always presented themselves to James Sands.

As a New York-area kid, he joined New York City FC’s brand new U-16 academy team in 2015, the inaugural year for the club in Major League Soccer.

He planned to go to college, but rapid success at a young age clarified the road ahead as he became NYCFC’s first homegrown player in 2017.

“I think having such a quality team at the academy level may have made a huge difference for my development,” Sands told “A large part of their pitch was the opportunity to be the first one.

“It adds a little bit of pressure, for sure, to create that pathway. Because if the first one doesn't succeed, then no one else wants to sign.”

Made in NYCFC

The 23-year-old US international has done a great job at being that example, and he credits a lot of it to who he was around.

Sands’ professional debut arrived on Sept. 16, 2017, as he subbed in for Italian legend and 2006 World Cup champion Andrea Pirlo. Spanish superstar David Villa, another World Cup winner, was also his teammate.

Having that exposure to world-class talent from the very beginning, under the guidance of head coach Patrick Vieira, was indispensable.

“Both those guys were phenomenal professionals and were such good people as well,” Sands said of Pirlo and Villa. “They were at that point in their career – they've seen everything. So their willingness to help me and the other younger players was pretty special.”

Whether it was watching Pirlo take free kicks after training or trying to replicate a certain approach, Sands soaked up everything he could and eventually became a regular for NYCFC. His ability to play both defensive midfielder and center back proved beneficial, and he recently celebrated being the first academy player in club history to make 100 senior appearances.

“Any time you achieve something like that, it gives you a little moment to sit back and acknowledge what you've done,” said Sands. “In this profession, we don't do that enough. Just appreciate what you've done so far.”

A special 2021

Sands has played alongside other notable figures in MLS such as Valentín “Taty” Castellanos and Sean Johnson. His emergence really flourished in 2021, when he was named an All-Star and then NYCFC won MLS Cup in Portland against the Timbers after a penalty kick shootout where Johnson made a pair of massive saves.

Sands started that game and went the distance through extra time.

“Watching Sean make those saves in the shootout was pretty incredible. It kind of summed us up as a team that we’re fighting back again and again,” Sands recalled. “I was so proud to be part of that.”

A few months earlier was another of Sands’ biggest moments, as he started the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup final. The United States shut out Mexico and now-FC Cincinnati center back Miles Robinson scored in extra time to hoist the trophy.

“My best memory up until now is winning Gold Cup,” said Sands, who has 13 USMNT caps. “The way it happened is how you dream of it – beating Mexico in the final. It's an honor to play for them and I really want to keep getting called up."

Lessons from Europe

In 2022, Sands moved to Scotland and joined Rangers FC on loan. He logged 41 appearances as the team won the Scottish Cup, made the Europa League final and played in the UEFA Champions League group stage.

For Sands, it was a way of living out a dream and realizing how to deal with pressure while managing expectations for such a storied club.

He continued to grow as he shifted between playing different positions, but with a coaching change came a reduction in minutes. NYCFC saw an opportunity to bring Sands back stateside in 2023 and further his development, specifically as a defensive midfielder.

Still, Sands reminisces on that European stint in a positive manner and hopes to return one day.

“I have a picture in my mind of how I want that process to look like, but I think it would be a mistake to focus on the end goal,” Sands explained. “The daily process is what's going to get me there. It's been more about focusing on what parts of my game I can do better, because I know I'm going to need to improve certain aspects to succeed.”

It’s also not lost on Sands that playing at the game’s highest levels helps fuel national team dreams. He uses his friend Joe Scally, who developed in the NYCFC academy along with Gio Reyna, as an example of those dynamics.

"He was in the academy and a homegrown so I know him well," Sands said of Scally, who's now at Bundesliga club Borussia Mönchengladbach. "He's been a good example of someone who's done really well in Europe, and because of it, he's getting a lot of exposure on the national team. I speak to him quite a bit.


Returning to NYCFC has been a welcome part of this journey, and the homegrown serves as one of the veterans for the youngest team in MLS. What he learned from prior captains like Villa, Johnson and Alex Ring has allowed him to step into his own with the captain armband.

That leadership role, paired with honing his craft and trying to replicate Pirlo’s game as a No. 6, has invigorated this career chapter.

“Being that guy who has a little bit more experience is helpful and it's a part of my game I really wanted to work on,” said Sands. “I really love the fact that our team is so young – it just means we have a lot more energy, we can push more in training, we can push more in the games. We have a really good culture right now.”

So much has changed since Sands was the kid going through the academy system. He applauds the integration of MLS NEXT Pro and how that has helped prepare the younger crop of players. And even though NYCFC got off to a slow start in 2024, they’re now one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, hoping to stay consistent and make another title run.

They have a tough test Friday against reigning champions Columbus Crew at Yankee Stadium (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). That one is special for Sands because it allows him to play against his twin brother Will for the first time.

In 2021, when James won MLS Cup, Will played for Georgetown in the NCAA men’s soccer Final Four the same weekend. Their dad went to Portland to support one kid and their mom hit North Carolina to cheer on the other.

This latest decision will be much easier.

“We got a lot of family coming out to the game,” said James. “At the start of the season, when we were close to the bottom of the table and they were near the top, we didn't really say anything. Now that we're kind of neck and neck, you’re starting to get the trash talk a little bit more. It should be pretty cool.”