Key Stats: 36, the number of tackles won credited to Sands in 2023, which led all NYCFC players last season.
James Sands returned to New York City FC in 2023 after spending parts of two seasons on loan with Rangers FC in Scotland, and his first season back was solid, but not quite good enough to earn him another transfer out of MLS.
That’s not to say Sands had a bad year in 2023, because he didn’t, he was a consistent, solid defensive midfielder (and occasional central defender) who completed 88.8% of the 1,416 passes he attempted while leading NYCFC in defensive categories like successful tackles and blocks, of both shots and passes.
Defensive strength, reliable passing, and good decision-making are all calling cards of Sands’s game at this point, and coming back to NYCFC let the player get back into a comfortable rhythm playing almost exclusively as a defensive midfielder while starting and going the full 90 minutes in all of his team’s matches. Yet Sands in 2023 also wasn’t the kind of player who stood out or stood a length above his other starter-caliber defensive midfielder peers around MLS, which still seems possible for the 23-year-old.
Sands steady as ever for most of 2023
That NYCFC played its opponents as tightly as they did during the 2023 season is in part a credit to Sands and his efforts directly in front of the New York City defensive line.
Sands got a chance at far more playing time by moving back to NYCFC after ending up stuck to the bench at Rangers, only missing three matches due to injuries, and another five due to international duty with the United States men’s national team.
Part of Sands’s plan in returning to NYCFC in 2023 likely involved getting a chance to break back into the USMNT, which he successfully did last year, playing and starring for the national team in a friendly vs. Mexico last April, then anchoring BJ Callaghan’s Gold Cup squad by starting all five of the USMNT’s matches during their unsuccessful run to the semi-finals. He was in the Gold Cup Group Stage Best XI, not exactly a trophy you keep in your collection, but a nice national-team accomplishment nonetheless.
A next level?
The positives to James Sands also raise questions: He’s such a smart, accurate passer, but why doesn’t he, say, create more chances, or take more risks in order to try to unlock the opposition from deeper in the midfield?
Sands played the third-most progressive passes on the NYCFC team in 2023 behind only Keaton Parks and Santiago Rodríguez, yet his possession was not the kind translating into shots or good looks at goal.
While being the team’s leading tackler in 2023, he also lost out on the most challenges of anyone on NYCFC last year, meaning there seems like room for improvement even in his defensive game as 2024 approaches.
What’s in store in 2024?
Flexibility and versatility are traits valued by NYCFC, and Sands has sometimes seemed to fall victim to his own versatility, as he’s sometimes yo-yo’ed between being a midfielder and being a central defender. NYCFC gave him the chance to stick as a defensive midfielder, but he still ended up playing center back on at least six occasions in 2023.
Entering 2024, NYCFC have an entrenched first-choice pairing at center back, but they only have one other experienced, proven central defender on their roster, the recently-signed Strahinja Tanasijević. Thiago Martins has missed time with leg injuries in both 2022 and 2023, and Birk Risa is about to face his first full-length season as a player in MLS, so it’s very possible Sands once again finds himself playing in the New York City defense. Even when he got his latest USMNT call-up for January’s “Camp Cupcake” and friendly against Slovenia, Sands was listed as a defender, so his “tweener” status may never disappear.
Debates over his ideal playing position are probably secondary to Sands, who will be looking to improve on a strong return to MLS in 2023 by continuing to up his performances for NYCFC and, if he’s lucky to get more call-ups, the USMNT. He’s still young enough to make another transfer to Europe, but he’ll need to stand out as one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS in 2024 to make that a real possibility.