James Sands is thriving while on international duty with the United States men’s national team. The Concacaf Gold Cup has once again been the stage for a Sands USMNT break out, as the New York City FC midfielder has been named to the Best XI of the tournament’s group stage for his performances against Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Trinidad and Tobago.
The Concacaf formation graphic indicates he’s been a defender, but in reality Sands has been a nailed-on starter for the USMNT as a defensive midfielder. He’s reliably done for country what he’s been doing for NYCFC all season: Controlled the midfield, placing in the top five for tackles won through the group stage, while remaining his usual cerebral, composed, tidy self when the USMNT are in possession.
The trio of strong performances from the just-turned-23-year-old midfielder (legitimately, he just turned 23 today, happy birthday James!) have caught the attention of many a Gold Cup observer. The Sands-USMNT group stage experience has been described as both quietly phenomenal and quietly excellent, with The Guy from Rye nearly universally hailed as one of the USMNT’s biggest standouts.
Inclusion in this Concacaf-created Best XI is a significant albeit symbolic accolade, as it counts as further proof that Sands is taking advantage of the opportunity to re-establish himself with the USMNT presented by this midsummer continental tournament. Part of the logic of a Sands return to NYCFC after his loan to Rangers FC in Scotland went south had to be using a strong MLS season as a springboard for getting back into the national team fold.
Sands should have now firmly put himself back on Gregg Berhalter’s map, even if the competition he’s faced to date has ranged from formidable (Jamaica) to feeble (St. Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago). The knockout rounds will present more challenges starting with this weekend’s quarterfinal meeting with Canada, and a player is always one performance away from upending even the most universal of positive narratives about their game.
Regardless of what lies ahead, James Sands has once again been bossing a Gold Cup for the USMNT, much as he did as a central defender when he won the 2021 edition of the tournament.
It’s a testament to the value of excelling on a regular basis for NYCFC, as the match-after-match consistency Sands has shown in MLS got him back into the national team mix and he’s appeared to successfully capitalize on the opportunity. It’s just a shame that same opportunity has yet to be extended to a certain NYCFC teammate.