When James Sands made his MLS debut in 2017, replacing Andrea Pirlo as a late substitute, it marked the first time an NYCFC homegrown player stepped foot on the field for the club. Little did NYCFC fans know at the time, but it also represented a change of the club’s philosophy that directly led to its first MLS Cup title 4 years later.
Despite still being a very new team in the grand scheme of things, NYCFC has had significant talent come through the academy ranks. Players like Gio Reyna and Joe Scally are already plying their trade successfully in Germany, while Tayvon Gray and Andres Jasson are showing promise as members of the current NYCFC first team.
Still, Sands, the first-ever academy player to make the jump to the first team, represents the perfect model for any homegrown in MLS. Having signed at 16, he trained with the first team for months until making his lone appearance in the 2017 season. Sands continued his development with a USL loan and a few spot appearances in 2018, before breaking through to the first team as a major player in 2019.
It was obvious throughout that time that the club had a clear plan to get Sands to the first team, and his physical and mental development since signing as a 16-year-old has been clear as day to anyone who watched him right until the day he was sold.
For the last 3 seasons, Sands has been as important as anyone in the heart of the NYCFC squad, regardless of if he played at center back, center midfield, or even right back. He has been consistently good, so much so that Gregg Berhalter has called him into the US Men’s National Team, where he continued to impress throughout last summer’s gold cup.
His strong play continued throughout the MLS Cup Playoffs, in which he was a vital player in each of the Pigeons’ 4 wins. The quiet kid from Rye had become a champion for both club and country, and he was at the center of both.
It can be frustrating at times to be an American fan of an MLS team. Across every other American sports league, the very best in the world come to play. An NFL fan doesn’t expect to lose their team’s favorite player to the CFL. The Yankees would not sell their best player to the Japanese League.
In soccer, all clubs outside of the ten biggest in the world are victims of success. Look at Ajax or Borussia Dortmund, massive clubs that lose their best players almost every season and continue to be strong. New York City FC is another club in the massive soccer ecosystem, who can only hope to keep the James Sands’ and Taty Castellanos’ of the world for so long.
Regardless, at a club still less than a decade old, Sands was the perfect first homegrown player. Signed as a skinny kid from Rye, he became a massive part of a strong squad and helped to deliver its first-ever major silverware. Now, he has joined a huge club in Europe at Rangers, another step up in the soccer ecosystem.
NYCFC will have got 5 strong years of play out of a player they signed for nothing, and are likely to profit millions when Sands’ loan ends in 18 months, regardless of if he stays in Glasgow. As a result, young players around the world will see NYCFC as a club in which they can live in a major global city, compete for titles, and achieve their goals of playing in Europe’s elite.
James Sands was as much of a home run as any MLS team could hope for in a youth player.