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2023 Player Preview: James Sands

After a rocky loan spell in Scotland, NYCFC’s first-ever Homegrown player is back in MLS hoping for consistent game time, and to rediscover his breakout 2021 form.

Back at home in the Bronx for 2023 and beyond.
Photo via

James Sands

Position: Midfielder/Defender
Age: 22
2022-2023 Season with Rangers FC (all competitions): 27 appearances, 1 goal, 6 yellow cards, 1 red card, 1,770 minutes played
Key Stat: 36%, which is the percentage of Rangers FC matches across all competitions that Sands started during his loan.

What went right in 2022:

James Sands made the move to Europe right at the start of 2022, then was eased in by Rangers FC manager (and former New York City FC target) Giovanni van Bronckhorst. He started in his debut away to Aberdeen, but ultimately made just seven starts in the 32 Rangers matches across all competitions for which he was eligible in that initial 2021-2022 season, with seven additional substitute appearances. Sands did play a part in Rangers’ Europa League run, entering the Final in extra time to see out the final 20 minutes before that match was decided, in Eintracht Frankfurt’s favor, on penalties.

Sands’s 2022-2023 campaign with Rangers started off on a better foot. He got a long look as a starter at center back and helped the club qualify for the Champions League group stage, and he was in the middle of the Rangers back line for important wins in two-legged Champions League qualification match-ups: First against Belgian side Union SG, then Dutch club PSV Eindhoven. That qualification success propelled him to a steady dose of minutes as a regular starter through the early part of the Rangers season, with Sands logging a combined eight starts in the Champions League (if the qualification rounds are included). At the very end of his time with Rangers in February, he also managed to score this somewhat dubious first-ever professional goal that sure looks like an own goal, but, whatever, it’s still credited to Sands as of today.

What to improve:

Things went south for Sands at Rangers in September, with a three-match stretch standing out as the death knell of his stint in Scotland. Sands started at center back in three straight lopsided Rangers defeats in a span of 10 September days: 0-4 loss to blood rivals Celtic in the Old Firm, 0-4 away defeat to Ajax in Champions League group play, then finally a 0-3 Champions League home defeat to Napoli in which one costly Sands foul resulted in a conceded penalty and sending off for a second yellow card. Sands’s struggles seemed to coincide both with his use as a center back in a four-at-the-back defensive system, and with his facing the highest level of competition to date in his professional career.

After that trio of terrible September showings, Sands was more in and out of the Rangers lineup, and increasingly became a lightning rod for criticism from Rangers supporters. He seemed to unfairly become a popular scapegoat for Rangers supporters frustrated by their club’s dismal showing in the Champions League, where they lost all six group matches and boasted an unsightly -20 goal differential.

Eventually the manager who recruited Sands to Ibrox would be fired during the World Cup break, and Sands never managed to win over new boss Michael Beale. Sands was given two starts as a center back not long into his managerial tenure, but Beale was clearly not impressed by the Guy from Rye, and Sands’s last Rangers league start came way back on December 20th.

Now that he’s returning to NYCFC and MLS after having his loan to Rangers cut short and his $5 million purchase option not exercised, Sands will need to prove his time in Scotland was only a temporary setback, just a bad fit between player and team, and not a permanent indictment of his quality.

What to expect in 2023:

Sands should get a real opportunity to re-establish himself as a defensive midfielder now that he’s back in MLS. Alfredo Morales has had a difficult time staying on the field since last summer, and Keaton Parks has dealt with major surgeries in each of the last two seasons. Justin Haak has become the midfield’s “next man up” and performed decently in Nashville, but NYCFC have also to date lost six of nine matches in which Haak was a starter. Opportunity is likely to be there for Sands to regularly slot in as a defensive midfielder, which he never got to do consistently at Rangers.

In Sands, NYCFC is also helpfully adding another experienced option to its pool of center backs. Maxime Chanot and Thiago Martins are first choice, but prior to Sands’s return, journeyman Tony Alfaro was the most senior of the back-up CB options. While the preference for player and team might be to have Sands feature in midfield, it has to be a relief to coach Nick Cushing and sporting director David Lee to have another quality MLS-caliber central defender on the roster.

If Cushing wants to go back to his preferred late-season 3-4-3 formation, Sands would be a strong candidate to slot in alongside Chanot and Martins. In his last MLS season, Sands was asked to play all over the pitch by manager Ronny Deila (who was reportedly trying to bring Sands to his new club, rudely battling NYCFC for him)—center back, defensive midfield, right “elbow” back. Hopefully in this second NYCFC go-round, Sands gets the chance to enjoy more positional consistency, rediscovers the form that originally caught the eye of European clubs and the USMNT, and helps a rebuilt NYCFC roster exceed expectations and push for another trophy.

2023 NYCFC Player Previews

• Tony Alfaro
• Malte Amundsen
• Luis Barraza
• Maxime Chanot
• Maximo Carrizo
• Braian Crufré
• Matt Freese
• Chris Gloster
• Tayvon Gray
• Justin Haak
• Mitja Ilenič
• Alfredo Morales
• Kevin O’Toole
• Samuel “Kwaku” Owusu
• Keaton Parks
• Matías Pellegrini
• Gabriel Pereira
• Gabriel Segal
• Talles Magno
• Thiago
• Thiago Martins