There are many things that fans can reasonably gripe about when it comes to New York City FC. Their academy, and the success it is having, shouldn’t be one of them. As NYCFC enters its fifth season in MLS, it does so already having three Homegrown Players on the roster — one signed each of the last three seasons. While Justin Haak received a lot of buzz before actually signing his own Homegrown Player contract, and Joe Scally remains hidden in plain sight, it is James Sands who still remains the number one name when discussing City’s Academy products.
Sands forever etched his name in New York City FC history by signing to the club’s first ever Homegrown Player contract. Then just 16 years of age, the kid from Rye, NY represented a milestone for the club and its fans — the first of what hoped to be many in a long line of Academy products who would bring on field success to the club, and perhaps (more importantly to the club) bring oodles of transfer fee money down the line as they make their names in the world of soccer. In a league like MLS, where #playyourkids is a real and loud movement across practically every club’s fanbase, signing a player like Sands was a beacon to City that perhaps the club was “finally” heading in the right direction.
Those positive vibes eventually got stifled, though, as Sands saw very little time on the pitch his first two seasons after signing with the club. In his first two seasons, Sands made 4 appearances and 3 starts (all last season) totaling 246 professional minutes. While a teenager seeing first team minutes on a team with City’s aspirations does seem like a tall ask for a manager, what really irked many of the fans was the lack of any form of playing time being given to the youngster; namely, fans didn’t understand why Sands was not even out on loan in USL. Sands would eventually receive a late loan assignment last summer where he was sent to Louisville City FC (where Jonathan Lewis was also briefly loaned to as well), playing 3 matches, totaling 270 minutes and recording an assist. While it was something, it isn’t what fans thought was best for the young midfielder to say the least.
While professional minutes were scarce for Sands, that isn’t to say he hasn’t played much before this season. In addition to training regularly with the first team the past two seasons, Sands has been a consistent selection for the US Youth National teams, participating the U-18 FIFA World Cup (as a 17 year old), and has continued to get call ups with the U-20 team as well. Sands has also frequently been called to participate in tournaments with the academy, specifically their U-19 squad. Last year the U-19 Academy roster had a successful season, performing well in the US Development Academy Playoffs and other showcases. While these were not first team minutes in MLS, it was more time spent playing a system that Reyna and Vieira — and now, hopefully Torrent as well — have instituted starting with the MLS club and trickling down to all of the youth teams in the academy. In other words, this was more reps Sands got to experience playing in the style, and the role, the technical staff have envisioned for him in MLS since signing him to that Homegrown Player contract.
While training with the first team and getting minutes with academy do not at first glance seem like the recipe needed to develop an academy product into an MLS first-team regular, that seems to be the path James Sands has followed. Earlier this winter, Technical Director Claudio Reyna went on a media tour telling anyone who would listen all about his vision for the club, and how that vision was heavily invested in the NYCFC playing their young players:
“They’re here to play,” Reyna said. “You can see it already. In particular, Sands and Torres are professional players; they fit in and are competing to play. I don’t think [Torrent] has any worry or issue to play those players.”
Reyna showed little worry before the season regarding whether or not Sands would be up to the challenge. And at the end of last season, Torrent himself sung praises about Sands as well, stating he could see Sands starting for the club next year (now this season). At first, it seemed mostly like rhetoric front offices and coaches say all the time, but don’t often put into practice. That’s why this season, it has been a welcomed surprise to see Sands — and Lewis to a lesser extent — begin the season getting the trust they seem to have from Torrent and his coaching staff.
In the wake of losing Yangel Herrera back to the mothership, it was openly wondered if Sands would be the incumbent replacement. Then, City signed two other promising young American midfielders in Keaton Parks and Juan Pablo Torres. While young, both players are both a few years older than Sands, and coming from situations where it seemed they clearly signed with NYCFC to get more playing time. Add in the fact that the club brought back Ebenezer Ofori on another loan from VfB Stuttgart, and it was hard to see Sands even being a regular on the bench, let alone the Starting XI. But despite what appears to be a crowded midfield for City, Sands has risen above the pack to become a starter for Domè. And two games in, I would say it seems like the right choice.
Despite mediocre results in the club’s first two games, Sands has proven to be anything but mediocre himself in his performances. His poise on the ball, his clean passing, and smart defensive reads have really stood out to the point he has been arguably the best outfield player for City overall through both games. Whereas others have too often been sloppy with their passing, or too willing to settle for meaningless possession, Sands has played with a veteran calm in City’s midfield. And therein lies what Reyna’s ultimate vision may very well be.
For all of the players that City has acquired through its brief history, there is always an orientation. The player must come in, learn the system, learn their role in it, and then begin perfecting what they’ve learned and putting it into practice, both on the training pitch and in actual games. Even for players who’ve played in similar styles, there is still an adjustment period. And different players have adopted and performed in the system to varying degrees. For an academy product like Sands, however, the transition is a very different one.
Sands has needed time, not to learn the system, or his role in it, but rather to adjust to what it means to play professional soccer. To play against grown men. To train everyday as if this were your livelihood (because now it is). It can be a daunting transition for any young man. But, for a player like Sands, his physical maturation over the last couple of years is now allowing everything to come together as it were. He is now able to display skills and tactical awareness he has been accruing for over 4 years from when he joined the academy until now as a pro player. Although it’s still in a limited sample size of playing time, Sands has shown how much the way City wants to play is instinctive to him, more muscle memory than learned behavior at this point. And it stands out even amid a talented roster with the likes of Alexander Ring and Maxi Moralez on it.
Could other Homegrown Players, like Joe Scally and Jusin Haak follow a similar path? It’s too early to say. But considering how NYCFC is still not close to forming their own USL team, it is a very likely scenario. Granted, Reyna & Co. should definitely be forming a USL team as soon as possible. Even if Scally and Haak turn into good, or even great players, coming through the way Sands has, it doesn’t account for the all the other missed opportunities NYCFC is facing by not having their own USL team. One need only look at a player like Aaron Long, who found his way on New York Red Bull’s USL team, and has worked his way all the way up to USMNT call-ups. It’s those diamonds in the rough that City would do well to find, or even to give players like Daniel Bedoya — who doesn’t have the luxury of joining the academy squad — somewhere where he can fine tune the qualities that led to Reyna signing him in the first place. Reyna could also loan him out, but it is also very clear that the technical staff is very particular with their loan assignments, and want their players focusing on their style of soccer first and foremost (something that you can’t always guarantee with loan deals).
At the same time, it is not always the case that there is one right way to do something, especially in sports. There is no one right way to build a championship squad, and there’s no one right way to develop a young player on your roster. In Sands, City may have found a formula they think can work for their academy players. Joe Scally and Justin Haak certainly hope the same proves true for them as well.