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He Fits the System: Why isn't James Sands on the USMNT?

Dismal defensive performances against Japan and Saudi Arabia show why Gregg Berhalter was shortsighted not to call up the NYCFC Homegrown.

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New York City FC has connections aplenty to Gregg Berhalter’s version of the United States men’s national team. Captain Sean Johnson is firmly entrenched as the USMNT’s No 3 keeper and feels like a lock for a 2022 FIFA World Cup roster spot, while former academy prodigies Gio Reyna and Joe Scally regularly feature for Berhalter and have good odds to make it to Qatar, pending injuries and Berhalter’s selection preferences. 

For NYCFC’s first homegrown player, though, national team inclusion has remained fleeting. The now-Rangers FC defender James Sands has not featured for the Yanks since starting their away World Cup qualifying win in Honduras last September. While called in for the final round of qualifying in March, Sands never got off the bench, and he’s now been excluded from the national team entirely over the final three friendlies played in advance of the World Cup. 

This snub comes at a time when Sands has managed to establish himself as a regular starter at center-back for Rangers mere months after leaving NYCFC on loan to chase his European ambitions. He helped Rangers qualify for the Champions League group stages, starting in all four legs of their playoff-round triumphs over Union SG and PSV Eindhoven. 

Despite Sands having a legitimate case to make as, at minimum, a bench option for his country, he has been summarily dropped by Berhalter. It feels like a shortsighted decision by the coach, with Sands paying the price for struggling mightily in heavy Rangers losses in the Old Firm and against elite Champions League group opponents Ajax and Napoli.

These stumbles are easy to point to as justification for the snubbing, particularly with Berhalter in the building to witness a nightmarish Sands showing against Celtic. (How awkward that Sands was the only person in this photo not included in the final pre-World Cup roster.) 

Yet the dismal performances of players like Aaron Long and Mark McKenzie in the two final pre-Qatar friendlies against Japan and Saudi Arabia, and the dire state of the defensive player pool thanks to injuries and whatever is going on between Berhalter and John Brooks, makes it feel like a mistake to not get another look at what Sands can offer.

It’s easier to say all this in hindsight, with the center back position now looming as arguably the biggest area of concern for the U.S. team. Without players like Miles Robinson, Chris Richards, and Cameron Carter-Vickers as options, defensive depth is desperately needed. Yet in Sands, Berhalter is ignoring a player who could provide some of that depth, and one who has never put a foot terribly wrong in his appearances with the national team. 

Sands had shaky moments during the 2021 Gold Cup, particularly in the semi-final against Qatar, but he still started and went the distance at center back in four straight 1-0 U.S. victories en route to their winning the tournament. It also feels important to note that this was the 22-year-old’s first experience with the senior national team.

He subsequently was given the chance to start an away CONCACAF World Cup qualifier in Honduras, no easy assignment, and it wasn’t one Sands seemed to flunk. He’d shown promise and contributed to winning, a brief track record of success that makes his recent absences more puzzling — especially when you consider what has since transpired in the player’s club career. 

That started with NYCFC’s late-season surge to capture the 2021 MLS Cup, a run that had Sands at the center of things, showing off his defensive solidity while also highlighting his positional flexibility. Sands saw time in central defense, as a defensive midfielder, and even at right back/elbow back, ultimately Bing-Bonging his way to NYCFC’s first trophy. Sands then departed to go to Rangers on loan — a move that you’d think would be a statement of intent to a national team manager. Here was a young player willing to jump to a challenging new club and test himself at the highest level of European competitions. 

It ultimately may all boil down to the fact that Sands’s play hit a rough patch at the worst possible time. It is extremely hard to make a compelling case for a player who was just on the receiving end of three straight lopsided losses, so omitting Sands from this September U.S. roster did not come as a huge surprise. 

Yet with all the questions swirling around the American defense, it feels like an oversight to not give Sands another opportunity. He’s testing himself (thus far, with mixed results) at the upper echelons of European football, has already been bloodied with the senior national team in important competitive matches, and would bring something unique to the roster by way of his positional flexibility. Add Sands to the list of players handled in a head-scratching manner by Berhalter, and here’s hoping whoever oversees the national team in the lead-up to the 2026 World Cup gives The Guy from Rye another shot.

Sands made a number of appearances as a substitute following his move to Glasgow, including subbing into the Europa League final against Eintracht Frankfurt. He clearly did enough to impress manager (and rumored onetime NYCFC managerial target) Giovanni van Bronckhorst, who chose to make Sands a regular starter for the 2022-2023 Rangers campaign. 

Somehow, none of this was enough to convince Berhalter that Sands warranted another opportunity with the national team. It’s extra confusing when you consider that Sands possesses many of the qualities that would theoretically be favored by a national team manager. 

Positional flexibility would seem extremely valuable when deciding who to put on your bench in a knockout tournament, where the matches come in rapid succession and injuries and suspensions are always possible. Sands also has long held a reputation as a solid distributor from the back who is willing to attempt progressive passes and is generally calm and comfortable with the ball at his feet. I’m not sure the same could be said about Aaron Long.