Losing David Villa was a blow that we as a fanbase were not emotionally prepared for. It’s something that we were sort of expecting, but weren’t truly ready for when word came down that El Guaje would be moving on to Japanese club Vissel Kobe for one last hurrah with former Barcelona and Spain teammate Andres Iniesta. Not only was New York City FC losing one of the league’s best strikers, they were losing their first-ever signing and team captain. A loss like that is sure to echo throughout the organization for years to come, especially if a suitable replacement cannot be found.
Despite all of that being said, Villa is not the most important player to replace as we quickly approach the beginning of the 2019 MLS season. That is a distinction owned by none other than midfielder Yangel Herrera.
Though I’ve been more than happy to place the blame of NYCFC’s late-season collapse firmly upon Domé Torrent’s shoulders — and trust me, he still bears responsibility for most of it in my eyes — one could easily point to Herrera’s gruesome leg injury back in May against the Houston Dynamo as the first sign that trouble wasn’t far off. Throughout the five months that the young Venezuelan was left watching from the sidelines, the Blues rotated a plethora of midfielders in his place in hopes to find some kind of answers moving forward. These players were almost exclusively Ebenezer Ofori and Eloi Amagat, with each one yielding mixed to — at least in Amagat’s case — horrifying results. The head-scratching losses, the disappointing draws — they all began to mount until Herrera made a surprise return in October.
In his first game back, Herrera came off the bench in an absolute stinker of a game against D.C. United. In what was pretty much his first few touches on a ball, the future Manchester City star did this:
¡REAPARECE CON ASISTENCIA!— Mario Sánchez (@MarioSanchez_SC) October 21, 2018
Yangel Herrera (@YangelHerrera8 ) entró al 73 con New York City tras casi 5 meses de inactividad por lesión. Al minuto 78 asiste a David Villa para el gol del descuento de su equipo ante DC United.
Vía @MLSVenezuela pic.twitter.com/YrCrQPG9oo
In mere moments, Herrera had already shown exactly what his presence brings: success. A point that would be proven after NYCFC would go on to wallop the Philadelphia Union twice in a row — both 3-1 victories — in the final game of the regular season and the knockout round of the MLS Cup Playoffs respectively. It would all be for naught as they would eventually run into the buzzsaw that is Atlanta United. But it was to be expected seeing as the Five Stripes had more than just a better team — no, they had a better coach.
What Herrera brought to NYCFC was an extremely physical and technical style of play that, when mixed with the contributions of destroyer Alexander Ring and immaculate playmaker Maxi Moralez, made for one of the best box-to-box midfielders in MLS for two seasons.
And now, he’s back in Manchester awaiting his next assignment while NYCFC is left with the daunting task of replacing such a pivotal player. One could make the argument that City could shop for a box-to-box midfielder now that the winter transfer window is officially open. Hell, one could even make the argument that it would be worth using a Designated Player slot to secure a No. 8 that could bring as much to table as Herrera did.
But should they take the traditional route and replace the departing Villa with a DP-caliber striker, NYCFC — providing they don’t throw around that TAM — will be forced to search within their own ranks to find Herrera’s successor. And with Ofori back in Stuttgart and Amagat being given his pink slip, that leaves only one realistic option: none other than City’s first-ever Homegrown Player signing James Sands.
Due to his sporadic appearances over the course of two seasons, we still don’t know much about the 18-year-old Sands. Initial scouting reports painted him to be a defensive midfielder with the capability of filling in at center back. But from the little we’ve seen of Sands to this point, it appears that both of those opinions, while not wrong, might not be optimal.
Sands made only three appearances in 2018, all of them starts and all of them in September. In his first two games, the Rye, NY native played at defensive midfielder in in 1-0 loss and 1-1 draw to the New England Revolution and the Wayne Rooney-led DCU respectively. And while he didn’t play terrible or even bad in each of those games, Sands struggled to make a significant impact in either. It wasn’t until his third game where the Sandman would log in a truly quality shift.
In a 2-0 win over the Chicago Fire on September 26, Sands solidified himself as a viable midfield option, logging an impressive 92% pass accuracy rating and 3 tackles to boot. And while he still maintained a more defensive position, Sands definitely showed quality moving forward.
Yes, one game doesn’t make a player an ideal replacement for a bonafide star. And yes, the Fire had seen better seasons up to that point. But it’s still something. And if NYCFC wishes to see Sands become the player he was touted to be before joining the club on a professional contract, he will need some significant reps in the near future.
For the better part of his season-and-a-half stay with NYCFC, Sands hasn’t done much more than warm up the bench or watch the games from the stands. At some point, City is gonna have to offer its academy products some significant playing time. It’s what has turned clubs like FC Dallas and bitter enemies the New York Red Bulls into absolute powerhouses over the past few seasons. And unless they plan on letting every quality academy player go elsewhere much like Gio Reyna did most recently, then they have to offer some encouraging path for young players to provide incentive for them to stay. This starts with playing Sands, the first HGP, and giving him a shot at glory. And maybe even, to a lesser extent, Joe Scally.
And it’s not like Sands won’t have help. Apart from Villa’s heartbreaking departure the cutting of some dead weight (cough!RodneyWallacecough!), NYCFC’s 2018 squad remains relatively intact; both Maxi Moralez and Alex Ring remain with the club and could easily bolster whomever fills that gap in between them. Not to mention that the strong defensive core of Maxime Chanot, Alexander Callens, Anton Tinnerholm, and Ronald Matarrita/Ben Sweat will all be returning to the team and will provide quality backup to anyone in the middle of the park.
If there’s ever been a time for NYCFC to bank on one of its young prospects, it’s now. And Sands should be the guy who has first dibs on bringing in a new era to the five boroughs.
It’s worth a try.