James Sands has had possibly the best summer of his career. Following a string of the usual great performances at the club level with NYCFC, featuring as both a defensive midfielder and the anchor in a three-back, the 21-year-old Homegrown signing received his first-ever call-up to the USMNT first team for the Gold Cup in July.
Sands’ performance in the Gold Cup — albeit not perfect throughout — was one of the stories of the summer as the NYCFC star emerged as once of the USMNT’s brightest revelations at both defensive midfielder and center back. And for his strong performances, Big Game Jimmy has received another call-up to the Stars-and-Stripes for World Cup Qualifiers against El Salvador on September 2, Canada on September 5, and Honduras on September 8.
This time around, however, the longtime Night Owl (yes, it’s a thing now!) won’t be competing against what was considered to be a “C-Team” like he was in the Gold Cup. On this occasion, the USMNT has brought out their big guns.
Here’s the full USMNT roster for this first batch of WCQ’s:
DEFENDERS (10): George Bello (Atlanta United; 3/0), John Brooks (Wolfsburg/GER; 43/3), Sergiño Dest (Barcelona/ESP; 11/1), Mark McKenzie (Genk/BEL; 6/0), Tim Ream (Fulham/ENG; 45/1), Antonee Robinson (Fulham/ENG; 12/0), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United; 9/3), James Sands (New York City FC; 6/0), DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray/TUR; 64/0), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC; 17/2)
MIDFIELDERS (5): Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids; 37/2), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig/GER; 14/1), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy; 29/7), Weston McKennie (Juventus/ITA; 24/7), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders; 25/0)
FORWARDS (8): Brenden Aaronson (RB Salzburg/AUT; 7/3), Konrad de la Fuente (Olympique Marseille/FRA; 1/0), Jordan Pefok (BSC Young Boys/SUI; 6/1), Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas; 0/0), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea/ENG; 38/16), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund/GER; 8/4), Josh Sargent (Norwich City/ENG; 16/5), Tim Weah (Lille/FRA; 13/1)
If Sands wants even a second of competitive football in these high-stakes games, he’s gonna have to compete with the likes of Tyler Adams, Kellyn Acosta, John Brooks, Tim Ream, Miles Robinson, and Walker Zimmerman to get it.
For anyone aspiring to break into the US’s defensive midfield, Tyler Adams is the player you will need to supplant. And that’s no easy task. In addition to being a favorite of head coach Gregg Berhalter, Adams is easily among one of the most talented, brightest, and versatile player on the entire roster. And following a breakout summer from Berhalter favorite Kellyn Acosta where he seemed to finally find his stride, becoming Adams’ understudy won’t be an easy feat either.
Finding a spot in the defense could prove equally as difficult. Should the Yanks continue to deploy the 5-3-2/3-5-2 setup, John Brooks is virtually a lock at the middle CB position, and rightfully so. Brooks is coming off an arguably career-best season with the Champions League-bound VfL Wolfsburg in which he was among the best defenders in the Bundesliga, and is firmly in his prime as a player. Even if he lacks the overarching athleticism of the modern center back, Brooks more than makes up for it with great instincts, positioning, and pure defensive chops. Dethroning a healthy Brooks as the anchor in a back-three is practically a fool’s errand and cannot be seriously entertained, though it’s more likely Sands could become a reliable backup in this role
If Sands is to have any real shot at becoming a perennial fixture in the United States’ current setup, he might have to adapt to a wide center back role in a three-back formation that he hasn’t played in the past. As of the Nation League final back in June — the last time the US had their first-choice squad at their disposal — these spots were occupied by Mark McKenzie and Tim Ream.
Of those two, Ream is easily the weakest link. Unable to compensate for his lack of pace, Ream was completely burned in the Nations League final by Diego Lainez on Mexico’s second goal and almost cost the Yanks the game. Had it not been for the set-piece mastery by Weston McKennie, it’s likely Ream’s performance would’ve come under even more scrutiny than it did.
Mark McKenzie wasn’t all that impressive in that game either. Just moments in, McKenzie gifted Mexico the opening goal after a wayward back pass, something he seemed to struggle with throughout. One of Sands’ trademarks is his distribution from the back and wouldn’t likely be a problem at all.
You can’t forget about Miles Robinson either. Miles is coming off an equally impressive Gold Cup in which he defended well for most of the tournament, in addition to scoring the winning goal against Mexico in the Gold Cup final.
Surely, it will be difficult for Sands to find himself consistent minutes in this batch of games. But luckily for him, Berhalter seems to be a fan of his work.
Notable quote from Gregg Berhalter on James Sands:— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) August 26, 2021
"I liked his progression this summer. He came into camp and we had him in mind as a centerback that primarily can play in a back three, and he proved us wrong. He proved that he can perform well in a back four as well."#USMNT
Gregg Berhalter on James Sands, cont'd:— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) August 26, 2021
"He gives us comfort on the ball, gives us passing range, he reads the game really well, he's always in good positions to defend the ball. And another player that exceeded expectations in the Gold Cup."#USMNT #NYCFC
Should Sands find playing time in his preferred DM/middle CB roles, he will have to make the very best of every second he has. But if he can adapt to a wide center back role that is somewhat foreign to him, who knows what heights he can hit while away with the national team.