In 2017, US youth international James Sands became New York City FC's first Homegrown player. The then-16-year-old marked what the club would hope to be the first of many graduates from the academy to the first team.
After a slow-build to ensure they got it right, the academy had arrived, thy name James Sands.
Sands' progression came despite NYCFC not having a USL affiliate for him to potentially earn minutes in that key transition phase between when he clearly surpassed the academy level but before he was ready for NYCFC first-team soccer. Prior to 2019 when he became an integral member of the starting XI when fit, he made a total of four MLS appearances and a further three in USL.
But not all academy graduates or young players in general can make that jump without first-team minutes, particularly at a club as strong as NYCFC. Sands' teammate Juan Pablo Torres played exactly one MLS minute in a stacked Cityzens team last year. Keaton Parks waited until June 30 for his first start. Jonathan Lewis never found regular time, facilitating a trade to the Colorado Rapids.
While a number of clubs have looked to create a landing bridge for those transition years, with affiliates in the USL. NYCFC still don't have one. And for the club, now onto their second class of academy standouts following Tayvon Gray becoming their fourth Homegrown player in club history this offseason, it might begin to be a problem.
“It’s a big step from playing U-19 to the first team here at a top team in MLS," new head coach Ronny Deila told media on a conference call Friday. "We have to find decent routes to get into the first team. Sure, a couple players can take the step and be part of the group, but to see a lot of youngsters coming in at once, we wouldn’t be at the top of the league like we want to. We have to find the right balance, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge that we don’t have a second team (because) without playing games, it’s hard to develop. Then when you get in the team and get a chance, you don’t have any game time so it’s hard to get good performances. It’s something the club knows about.”