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Is James Sands coming back to NYCFC?

The Sands loan to Rangers hasn’t gone as planned, but it’s unclear if a return to MLS is in the works

The were the days.
Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy

James Sands sure looks like he’s on the way out of Rangers FC. The player’s lack of recent game time, comments from his new manager, and a big Deadline Day signing by the Scottish club all seem to point to Sands not being long for Glasgow.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst, the manager who brought Sands over on loan from NYCFC, was fired by Rangers during the World Cup break. In the 10 matches since new manager Michael Beale took charge in late November, Sands has earned just two starts, seeing even his substitute appearances dwindle since late December.

In a press conference ahead of the now-passed European transfer deadline, the manager openly discussed the possibility of players on loan to Rangers returning to their parent clubs. Here's the key quote from Michael Beale’s January 30th press conference: “We’ve got a couple of loan players in and we’ve got to make a decision on whether we want to retain them long term, and if we didn’t, maybe there’s an opportunity for them to go back as well.”

When Rangers signed 21-year-old Belgian midfielder Nicolas Raskin away from Ronny Deila’s Standard Liege, some observes believe the fate of Sands was sealed. Any hope that the Scottish giants would permanently buy Sands for his reported $5 million sale price also appears to have disappeared.

It looks to be a disappointing end to the Guy from Rye’s first foray into European football, and his next steps following the potential termination of his loan seem unclear.

Sands could quickly get his career back on track from the perspective of gaining playing time if he comes back to MLS to rejoin his hometown team. As anyone paying attention to the Hudson River Blue Transfer Tracker is likely to have noticed, the NYCFC roster has been decimated by departures this offseason. Right now, the team has to cross its fingers and hope players like Keaton Parks, Alfredo Morales, and Maxime Chanot can prove unexpectedly durable throughout the 2023 season, because there’s almost zero experienced depth behind those players.

Bringing James Sands back into the fold would provide MLS-tested cover at multiple positions, alleviating a few of the concerns that currently plague the roster. Sands benefits, too, in that he’s likely to have a chance to get steady playing time in a central midfield role — something missing from his time with Rangers.

It’s also entirely possible that Sands will balk at a return to his club, instead preferring to find another team in Europe willing to give him a shot. Sands has certainly earned the right to continue to chase the European dream if he so chooses, and shouldn’t be written off entirely based on how his Rangers loan spell might end. His early days in Scotland were promising, as he eased into the Rangers squad during the second half of their 2021-2022 campaign, and made appearances in the Europa League knockout rounds and final.

Even early in the 2022-2023 season, Sands had bright spots for Rangers. He played a big part in Rangers qualifying for the Champions League group stage, helping keep a clean sheet in the club’s decisive qualifying win over PSV Eindhoven. Sands struggled the most when up against the highest-level teams Rangers faced—Napoli, Celtic, and Ajax. Sands seemed to show that he’s good enough to stick around the European club scene, but that he also might benefit from a move to an organization that’s a step down from Rangers, one that might not be on the Champions League-qualifying level.

Whatever comes next for Sands, hopefully it’s a move to a club that will play him regularly and let him develop comfort and consistency in what seems to be his best, natural position: Defensive midfielder. Sands struggled the most when deployed as a center-back for Rangers, with Rangers supporters even acknowledging that Sands was somewhat misused and dealt an unfair hand.

While Sands’ positional flexibility got him into the lineup for both Rangers and, briefly, the USMNT, he’s always seemed less comfortable in central defense. Wherever he ends up playing in 2023, hopefully it will allow him to get back to plying his trade as a midfielder tasked with disrupting opposition attacks and shielding his back line, the role he filled with aplomb at the end of NYCFC’s run to lifting MLS Cup in 2021.