PORTLAND – New York City FC midfielder James Sands is still only 21 years old, but at times he feels like a grizzled veteran.
Sands is NYCFC's first-ever homegrown player, achieving that milestone in July 2017 when he signed his first professional contract at the age of 16. Since then, he's worked his way up from wide-eyed academy prospect into a key cog for NYCFC, culminating in his biggest year yet in 2021. Sands started all 26 of his appearances for NYCFC this season, playing a career-high 2,262 MLS minutes while also parlaying his strong form at the club level into his first seven caps with the US men's national team.
For Sands, Saturday's MLS Cup Final against the Portland Timbers at Providence Park (3 pm ET | ABC, UniMas, TUDN) represents a unique opportunity: Win one game and achieve MLS Cup immortality for his hometown club.
"It's for sure special for me to be here," Sands told reporters before NYCFC's training session Thursday at the University of Portland. "I think it says a lot about the club putting me in this position to be successful. I think New York has a lot of talented players, the academy is very talented and as we start to grow as a club we'll have more and more homegrowns contributing and I think this year having myself, Tayvon [Gray], Andres [Jasson], Justin [Haak] all contributing just shows how much belief the club has in the academy."
Portland, NYCFC set to meet at Providence Park for historic MLS Cup final
The amount of time Sands has spent in City blue means that he's witnessed all the ups and downs, consistently challenging for Eastern Conference titles amid playoff heartbreak.
Sands said that this NYCFC group feels different and deeper than those teams of years past, perhaps with fewer splashy big names on the roster, but a collection of players that have mastered how to function as a cohesive unit and overcome adversity.
"I think you just have to look at how together this group is," Sands said. "We don't have the superstars that maybe we had the first couple years but what we now have is a lot more quality from the first guy on the roster to the 25th guy on the roster, and I think there's a closeness in this group and a team that has a lot of belief right now and has gone into tough environments in New England and Philadelphia. And I think we're confident we can come to Portland and get it done."
To do so, NYCFC must confront one of the league's most hostile venues for traveling opponents. It promises to be a raucous scene at Providence Park, where the Timbers went 11-4-2 this season, but Sands said that's where his team's experience comes into play, having vanquished higher-seeded opponents on the road in each of their last two playoff victories.
"I think just keeping our heads," he said. "Against Philly we conceded a goal, I think against the run of play, and in years past maybe we let that get to us, maybe we don't a result. But against Philly, we scored two minutes later. So I think that shows why this group's a little bit different and even you look against New England, we conceded twice after we had scored and just to not put our heads down and keep fighting, it bodes well for this team."
And ending 2021 with an MLS Cup, after his USMNT rise and placing third on this year's 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list? Doesn't get much sweeter than that.
"A win, for sure, would make a pretty special year for me," Sands said. "Just being part of this team for four-and-a-half years now, I've seen us struggle so many times in playoffs in such heartbreaking losses. To win here, to win away and to win for all of our fans would be really special."