NEW YORK – Although it’s not his forte, James Sands is tasked with being more vocal in his second season as a regular starter for New York City FC.
The 19-year-old is talking more at training, in games and in interviews. He’s also speaking up about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected so many, including thousands in Westchester County, where he resides.
“It's definitely not easy for me. I don’t think it's been easy for everyone, but everyone just has to do their part. They can only control so much and that's just staying at home and staying inside,” Sands told MLSsoccer.com. “Obviously, New York has been hit harder so far than the other places, but I think the hospital workers and grocery store workers are incredible in New York and they're doing a great job keeping us up on our feet.”
With the numbers of those infected rising to unfathomable levels daily in New York, it’s hit close to home for Sands. A member of the NYCFC sporting department had coronavirus and the virus' reach is so wide-ranging that if you don’t know someone directly, you know someone who knows someone.
“You definitely know someone or a friend of a friend. But what you do is, you just try and stay in contact with them, see if they need anything from afar,” Sands said. “I think the thing that helps people the most is just staying in contact, it can be a little overwhelming if you're just by yourself. So if you just stay talking to people, I think that's the best way to get through this.”
James Sands fights for the ball against Toronto FC striker Jozy Altidore | USA Today Sports
Sands gets to enjoy somewhat of a family reunion at his parents’ Rye, N.Y., home during this unprecedented season stoppage. His twin brother Will is back from his freshman year at Georgetown, where he helped lead the Hoyas to the NCAA Division I title, as is sister Lizzy, who played soccer at Bowdoin in Maine.
Sands also has the luxury of a spacious backyard where he can juggle or get some few touches in.
“I always try and look at the positive things,” Sands said. “And while there's not a lot going on right now, being with my whole family, it doesn't happen that much anymore. So that's something I really, really enjoy.”
Getting Sands to have a louder voice on the team, which is no small feat, was practically a preseason mandate by new NYCFC coach Ronny Deila. He knew how important Sands had become on the field, but saw the soft-spoken teen often defer to older players, such as Maxime Chanot, Alex Ring and Sean Johnson.
“That was one of the big things that he wanted me to focus on. And I think that's really great,” Sands said. “It’s always been something that, since I've been little, coaches have told me that’s something I need to work on. But he's really the first one who's kind of put a little bit of pressure on me to make it happen.”
Sands has come to terms with how communication is critical, whether he's in central midfield or central defense. That wasn’t always the case when he saw limited minutes during his first two seasons after becoming the club’s first Homegrown signing in 2017.
James Sands fights has come a long way since turning pro in 2017 | New York City FC
Sands credits Chanot for pushing him to be more vocal.
“I think it's really hard, as a young player if you're not playing so often, you don't always feel like you're part of the essential group of guys. So it can be a little hard to speak your mind sometimes,” said Sands. “But having these games under my belt has really helped me and it's just something I continue to work on every day.”
Sands has also been more willing to show emotion on the field. Getting in the face of Tigres UANL goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman during the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals is a prime example.
“Yeah, that was interesting,” Sands said. “I was told by some of my coaches and teammates that was kind of his thing. He tries to get in people's heads. At that point, we were playing well, we were in the front seat in that game, so what’s there to be nervous about or afraid about? You’ve just got to play.
“In that moment, I didn't feel afraid or anything and didn't back down. I think it comes off as a good thing. It gives everyone else a little bit of confidence. I’m happy, looking back on it, it happened that way."