James Sands’ USMNT call-up poses challenge to NYCFC

Over the weekend, James Sands took a major career step.

The 21-year old defender/midfielder made his debut for the USMNT, getting 15 minutes off the bench in the Gold Cup vs. Haiti. Sands played as the middle defender in a back three, and helped secure a 1-0 victory for the Americans.

“It’s a super special moment. Any kid in the US dreams of playing for the senior [national] team,” he told reporters over Zoom on Monday.

“As I was getting subbed on I was pretty nervous beforehand. I don’t often get nervous, but every time I step on the field the nerves kinda go away.” 

Sands’ appearance ends a long-running clamor for him to be called up, and his nerves were fully understandable. But as he prepares to undertake a potentially deep tournament run all over the US, there’s a local question worth asking: Should NYCFC be nervous too?

If the USMNT makes a run to the final — it’s currently a healthy second-favorite behind Mexico — Sands figures to be gone until Aug. 1. That would see the Rye native miss five total club games (including last week’s Montreal loss) while on international duty.

US defender James Sands
Sands made his USMNT debut vs. Haiti last Sunday.
AFP via Getty Images

NYCFC’s upcoming stretch includes second-place Orlando and fourth-place Montreal again. There’s evidence to suggest New York City can hold down the fort without him, but three wins in the last eight matches makes that margin of error smaller.

Regardless of NYCFC’s depth, this is still a big loss.

Sands has been a stalwart (when healthy) for three seasons running, and is often the starting point of the team’s attacks. He has the most touches, the most total distance in carries, and the highest pass percentage on the team (excluding two players with tiny sample sizes), per FBref. Combine that with his ever-growing sense of defensive positioning, and it’s easy to see why Ronny Deila has trusted him so steadfastly.

New York City has slid down to sixth in the East (though it has at least one game in hand of every team ahead) after a promising start, and can ill-afford the type of slump that it began the 2020 season with.

There’s reason for optimism, however.

NYCFC lost Sands for a stretch last season, too, as he missed the finals six games of the regular season (and one playoff game) with a broken foot. New York City lost that playoff game on penalties to Orlando, but played some of its best soccer before that, winning four of six contests with 15 goals. 

While that injury shook up New York City’s midfield, Sands has spent far more time in defense this year. The microscope will be on center backs Maxime Chanot, Alexander Callens and Sebastien Ibeagha, more so than the team’s group of midfielders (who have often shared the field with Sands), to replace his production by committee.

Deila’s first crack at life without Sands this season was using midfielder Alfredo Morales in a back-three in the loss vs. Montreal, a move that evidently didn’t work and bemused viewers as well.

Sands is a big loss, but New York City has enough to cope without him. Six players have more progressive passes this season, and the young South American trio of Thiago Andrade, Talles Magno, and Santiago Rodriguez has greatly improved the options off the bench.

Sands will be hoping both parties thrive.

“I feel proud that I did it for all the fans that wanted me there,” he said Monday, “and hopefully I can keep showing out and keep impressing so I can prove those fans right.”