As reported earlier, James Sands has indeed returned home to New York City FC and signed a long-term contract after his loan was cut short with Rangers FC. This brings mixed feelings: While it’s great that Sands is returning to an NYCFC that needs his services, the fact that a loan option with intent to buy was cut short is not what you want to see. You have to wonder what form Sands will bring with his return to the Bronx.
On balance, I believe Sands will slot right back into being the player we saw during his entire tenure with NYCFC. But what does his return mean for head coach Nick Cushing’s side?
Sands offers several positional options, which has always been one of his biggest values as a player. He can play in a single pivot as a defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3, allowing Justin Haak and Keaton Parks to move more freely as box-to-box midfielders. He can slot into the double pivot we saw on Saturday, at the expense of either Haak or Parks. Or he can play as part of a back-three in which he controls the center of the backline, allowing the wingbacks to push further into the attack. All of the managers Sands has played under at NYCFC to date – Patrick Vieira, Domé Torrent, and Ronny Deila – have utilized the Guy from Rye in all of these roles.
Beyond his versatility, however, it is his footballing acumen that makes Sands so important to this squad. He’s not a physically imposing defender but he is a very cerebral player, which is why Sands was one of the best central defenders with the ball at his feet in MLS. FBref.com ranked Sands in the 90th percentile or better per 90 at Fouls Drawn, Pass Completion Percentage, and Ball Recoveries. He was also in the 80th percentile in Key Passes per 90 among central defenders. For a team that emphasizes passing out of the back, Sands was an invaluable player who New York City never fully replaced.
Last Saturday, we saw Nashville SC outplay an NYCFC side that looked sloppy, disjointed, and unable to stabilize itself in possession for most of the game. These are elements that Sands will impact significantly in a positive way for the club. His anchor-like effect on the pitch will also allow other players, such as Thiago Martins and Maxime Chanot, to focus on man-marking and ball-winning across the backline, while Sands directs traffic centrally between the backline and the midfield. And the fullbacks will be able to push further into the attack with more defensive cover.
So what formation do I think makes the most sense for City with the return of James Sands? I think the team returning to their trademark 4-3-3 makes the most sense. With news coming that Santi Rodriguez will soon return to the club as well, here’s my ideal Starting XI for NYCFC:
I really liked the way Torrent and then Deila utilized Sands in this formation, and it will give the head coach Nick Cushing the ability to morph it into a 3-4-3, with Sands dropping lower and the wingbacks pushing up, depending on what the current game flow requires. I think that’s where Sands shines so uniquely as well: Being utilized as a player that can transition from midfield to central defense seamlessly during the course of a match.