The first time James Sands walked onto the pitch as a member of New York City FC's first team, he was a boy.
Sands signed his first professional contract in 2017 when he was 16 years old, the first graduate of a burgeoning academy that has since produced US men's national team players like Gio Reyna, Joe Scally and Sands himself. He stayed longest at NYCFC and was an integral part of the club’s MLS Cup-winning side in 2021. Then he left for Europe in January 2022, a loan stint with Scottish powerhouse Rangers FC.
Now he’s back, much more accomplished, developed and experienced than from over a half-decade ago.
“My first couple of years at the club, I felt like I was the academy player contributing to the first team,” Sands, 22, told MLSsoccer.com. “Now, I’m going back with the experiences I’ve had. I’m a guy that the team will rely on a lot more. The expectations for my performances are going to be much higher and that’s a great thing for me to develop as a player.”
Sands left NYCFC after winning MLS Cup, signing for Rangers on loan through June 2023 with a purchase option. It was conveyed that the purchase option wouldn’t be picked up, so the clubs agreed to allow Sands to return now rather than in the summer.
He could have stayed in Europe. There was interest from a handful of other clubs – including from Belgium's Standard Liege, who are led by former NYCFC boss Ronny Deila, a source told MLSsoccer.com – but everyone ultimately decided it was best to return to NYCFC.
“It was really clear for us: If there was a way for James to come back to New York, we’d be really interested in making that happen,” sporting director David Lee said. “James had opportunities in Europe to continue.
"… I felt like it was on us as a club to make the case to James that being in New York was the right decision for him.”
Part of NYCFC’s package was a plan for Sands to primarily play defensive midfield. A versatile player, Sands has played both in the midfield and as a center back, plus even occasionally covering at right back. Another attractive point for Sands was the expectation to take up a leadership role in a team that saw key veterans Maxi Moralez, Alex Callens and Sean Johnson depart this winter.
“Going to Rangers was about answering questions about myself,” said Sands, who's earned seven USMNT caps. “The biggest one was what position I can play best on the field. Now, I can say that’s in the midfield. New York gives me a unique opportunity where there’s an opening for me to fill that role and step up as a leader… I felt it made more sense to come back than going to another club in Europe.”
“Position was a really important one,” Lee added. “When we think about our methodology, we think James is a prototypical No. 6 and what we want to see from that position. For James, it’s going to give him the best opportunity of going back to Europe and playing at a really high level. That was a big part of what James wanted to see.”
The original move to Rangers wasn’t likely to be long-term, despite the purchase option. Amid the unexpected ending to his time in Europe, Sands insists he looks fondly at the experience and feels the transfer helped his development.
“When you move somewhere on loan with a purchase option, everyone only looks at if the club picks up your option,” Sands said. “For me, that wasn’t the end goal. It was more about development and the process. That’s something we understood, but maybe people outside the club didn’t understand.”
Rangers encountered financial troubles a decade ago that led to administration – the club went bankrupt during the 2011-12 season and re-entered the Scottish league structure in the fourth tier the following season. They returned to the top flight in 2016-17 and this year qualified for the UEFA Champions League group stage for the first time since 2010-11.
“We had different options, but ultimately we decided Rangers was the best for me,” Sands said. “We were fully aware of the financial situation the club has been through. They went into administration, had other difficulties. We were all fully aware it was unlikely they would spend what they needed to spend to make the move permanent. That was not a big factor.”
Growth at Rangers
Throughout his Scottish sojourn, Sands enjoyed highs.
Rangers won the Scottish League Cup, made the Europa League final (where Sands came off the bench in an eventual loss to Eintracht Frankfurt after penalties) and qualified for the Champions League group stage. All told, Sands made 41 appearances across all competitions for Rangers.
“The whole idea of the loan was for me to answer some questions about myself, which I think I did,” Sands said. “I only look at the last 13 months as an overwhelming success.”
It wasn’t all perfect, of course.
Sands was a regular under head coach Giovanni van Bronckhorst, but he became a peripheral squad player after the former Dutch international was dismissed and Michael Beale took over. Before returning to NYCFC, he didn’t start any of the club’s last nine league games.
“I had a great time under van Bronckhorst, I played a lot,” Sands said. “The new coach came in, had more familiarity with other players, so it was tougher to get games. Still, they were very clear that they loved me as a player and would have been interested in keeping me, but the price was going to come between the two teams.”
With NYCFC’s 2023 season starting up and Rangers not keeping Sands past the summer, the clubs discussed a possible early return. Rangers were open to it, but asked that he would stay through the club’s Scottish Cup final against Celtic on Feb. 26 in case the squad needed him. Sands wasn’t named to the bench with everyone fit, and a few days later, he officially returned to New York City.
“When we knew Rangers weren’t going to execute the purchase option, that was the first hurdle to clear,” Lee said. “Then when James decided he wanted to be back in New York, it was working with Rangers to see how quickly we could get him back in New York.
"They had no obligation to let him go early, they were well within their rights to keep him… I’m really thankful they were understanding of our situation and the role James would play in our team as a really important part of our starting group.”
Sands returned for NYCFC’s 1-1 draw at Chicago Fire FC last weekend. He started in the midfield, as he’ll be expected to for the rest of the season. It was his second debut of sorts for the club.
“It was clear he had grown and was ready to take on a bigger leadership role,” Lee said. “That was something we were not only going to ask of him, but demand of him. He had fantastic experience in Europe, he won MLS Cup with us. Sometimes you can think of James as the 16-year-old kid who first signed with us, but he’s 22-year-old age with thousands of minutes. He’s played in the Champions League, Europa League. He’s a top-level professional.”
NYCFC make their 2023 home debut on Saturday when hosting Inter Miami CF as part of Matchday 3 (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).