After slowplaying their academy, NYCFC are reaping the rewards of patience as they produce some big-time talents.
They have a number of homegrowns in the first team, some more in Europe and others who will be in Europe soon. It shouldn't be a surprise considering their U-19 side won back-to-back national championships and were denied a chance at the three-peat because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was a big day in the summer of 2017 when the club had the pleasure of unveiling their first-ever academy graduate signing an MLS contract, as James Sands posed alongside then-sporting director Claudio Reyna and then-head coach Patrick Vieira. The hope is he'd be the first of many, but he'd have some added pressure by being the first.
Rather than becoming a frivolous club history trivia answer, Sands blazed a path to the first team a number of talented academy graduates aspire to. As a teenager he became an integral starter for two different managers, and like the cerebral and understated nature of his excellence, the defensive midfielder hasn't gotten the headlines which typically trail rising young attackers in their ascension.
WATCH: Sands finishes No. 6 in 2020 22 Under 22
“He’d been underrated, frankly, before he went out with injury," NYCFC sporting director David Lee told MLSsoccer.com. "For a 20-year-old American central midfielder to be as good as he was, it's exceptional. He’s got a really bright future, it wouldn’t be surprising to see offers for him in the future.”
There have been no offers yet for Sands, sources tell MLSsoccer.com, but it won't be long.
Teams from Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands are interested in the US youth international, a source says. When the right offer comes in, Sands will move. A source added that is expected to happen within a year, though, obviously, things can change. There is no rush but the club won't block a move if the right offer presents itself.
The COVID-19 pandemic has clouded the international transfer market, but plenty of deals are happening, including a few marquee ones from MLS to Europe.
Reggie Cannon moved from FC Dallas to Boavista in a complex deal which will likely end up being $3.5 million with a 25% sell-on percentage. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Union and RB Salzburg reached an agreement over the January transfer of Brenden Aaronson for $6.5 million, likely to rise to $9 million with incentives as well as a healthy sell-on percentage between 10-20%, depending on his next move.
Sands could be the next. He was voted No. 6 on MLSsoccer.com's 22 Under 22 rankings. But he wouldn't be the first from this NYCFC squad to move to Europe as homegrown right back Joe Scally will head to Borussia Monchengladbach after the club agreed to move the teenager to Germany last year for a seven-figure fee.
“It is hard to say he’s underrated because we certainly rate him really highly," Lee said. "He might not get as much media attention as others, but we naturally get attracted to goals and assists. James does his job brilliantly. It’s why Patrick (Vieira) was there when he signed, then he made himself indispensable under Dome (Torrent) and has done so with Ronny (Deila). When you go through three coaches and they all want to put you on the field, you’re doing something right.”
Sands started 16 of the team's first 17 games in 2020 before a foot fracture prematurely ended his regular season. During his time in MLS, he has played both as a defensive midfielder and center back, excelling at both.
NYCFC head coach Ronny Deila on James Sands
“He makes really good decisions," Lee said. "When he plays center back or midfield his decision-making is excellent. He’s always in the right place and makes the right decision on the ball, he plays with a real maturity. That normally comes later for young players. That’s what has made him a really important player for us."
Sands has shown no signs of his development slowing down anytime soon — though he is unlikely to appear in the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs after suffering a fracture in his right foot last month.
“I don’t know what his ceiling is because every challenge James been given, he’s risen to it," Lee said. "Whether it was coming in for preseason and playing in front of 40,000 in Ecuador or coaching changes to proving yourself to another new coach, he’s done that. James has met every challenge head on and risen to it, it bodes well to whatever his future is and what level he can play at.”