James Sands placed the ball on the penalty spot, took eight steps back and waited for the whistle.
“One of the hallmarks of James’ development over the last years,” NYCFC sporting director David Lee told The Post, “has been kind of rising to whatever occasion has been put in front of him.”
With his team on the precipice of a trophy, Sands sauntered up to the ball, smashed it into the net and kicked it back in one more time for good measure. The NYCFC U19s were U.S. Soccer Development Academy national champions, and Sands was the matchwinner.
That moment was nearly three years ago and Sands’ pro career was barely underway.
Now, Sands is embracing a different type of occasion, one that distinguishes him within the club’s short history.
Sands, 20, has signed an extension with NYCFC, making him the first homegrown player to do so with the club. The extension is for five years.
“It’s just an amazing feeling all around for me, because it’s a reward for all of the hard work I’ve put in in the past couple seasons,” Sands told The Post in an exclusive interview.
“And I think this extension also shows how they want me to grow in the future and I think that’s being more of a leader, so that’s the next step I’m going to take for this club.”
Sands’ growth has accelerated over the last couple seasons.
After signing his first professional contract in 2017 and being sent out on loan the next year, the Rye native emerged as a starter in 2019 and has since been a stalwart in the center of the park. His play last season led to him being ranked No. 6 on MLS’ 22 under 22 list, and even convinced NYCFC they’d be fine jettisoning club captain (and fellow defensive midfielder) Alex Ring to expansion outfit Austin FC.
Sands’ ascendancy improves the club’s chances of lifting its first trophy, but means his extension will likely serve more as a price-raiser than a blood pact. European clubs are already circling around Sands, and he’ll move when the right offer comes through.
“I’ve expressed my interest in playing in Europe, and the coaches, the club they all understand that,” he said. “And I think they’ve been great about getting young players over to Europe… now it’s just about finding the right team and the right club where I can really succeed.”
Fellow homegrown Joe Scally hadn’t yet played a professional game when the club agreed to sell him to Borussia Mönchengladbach in 2019. Gio Reyna jumped straight from the academy to Borussia Dortmund at age 16. Sands’ lengthy new deal looks like an outlier compared to those paths, even with the caveat that he likely won’t see out the entire extension.
Still, NYCFC have secured a pivotal player for at least the short-term future, and the importance of Sands’ re-up won’t be lost on a club so fixated on developing young talent. Five players have been signed to homegrown contracts through just six seasons, and seven more academy players are expected to make the trip to Orlando for the preseason camp on March 8. The pathway is clearly there if you’re good enough.
“Just personally for me, being a homegrown, coming from the academy, I feel like it’s a little bit of my responsibility to kinda pave the way for the next homegrowns,” Sands said. … “So it’s a little bit of pressure on my shoulders, but it’s pressure I’m really happy to accept and deal with.”
Sands is no stranger to that feeling. The youngster who would sit in the front of academy meetings and draw winces from his crunching tackles was thrust into a first team squad when first signed four years ago. A team that featured European luminaries Andrea Pirlo and David Villa and was manned by Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira at coach. A reserved teenager needed to make an impression.
“He’s a quiet person,” said Sands’ former academy coach Matt Pilkington. “But he doesn’t play that way.”
That assertiveness took time to manifest. Early games featured a skittishness on the ball, Sands said, as he tried to juggle typical nerves and the fear of messing up in front of his elder, more decorated European teammates.
“I looked a little rattled,” he says now of his start to pro life.
You wouldn’t know that now. He’s amassed 34 league starts in the past two seasons (it would’ve been more last season if not for a broken foot), and now feels more comfortable directing traffic in his holding mid position. You may even see him bomb forward a bit more in 2021, but that missing piece is precisely what illustrates his potential.
Sands has never scored in the league, seldom touches the ball in the opponents’ box and lags behind the defensive midfield elite in terms of his upfield passing. And yet, his coaches have fiercely trusted him, and a move to a higher level seems inevitable.
“He’s become a really important player for both [ex-coach] Dome [Torrent] and for [head coach] Ronny [Deila], and I think that’s a testament to him,” Lee said.
European clubs (reportedly from Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, at least) will likely target Sands regardless of where his offensive game ends up.
That complicates Lee’s job of building a competitive roster, though he told The Post he’s “delighted” when players earn big moves and tries to “work collaboratively with all of our players” to understand their goals.
Until then, Sands will work to correct the club’s postseason woes. And the club will be preparing for his departure.
“It’s just become a part of the job,” Lee said. “…The continual work to hopefully produce the next James is already ongoing.”