The story of James Sands’ rise from 10-year old local club hopeful to New York City FC homegrown signing has been unfolding for years, but the young man’s trajectory has skyrocketed since this past winter.
In a matter of weeks, Sands went from being a U-16 NYCFC academy player to facing Ecuadorian powerhouse Emelec in front of over 40,000 wild fans alongside the likes of Andrea Pirlo and David Villa.
The whiplash caused by such a sudden turn of events simply wasn’t felt by Sands, whose level-headed attitude on even the biggest of stages is what stood out most to Patrick Vieira, the man who decided to give Sands a shot at this level.
“Since the first day he showed no fear, he just played his game,” Vieira said. “The way that we play will help him to express his talent.”
Obviously, James’ talent was something that allowed him to make the step up to the first team, and it’s what has placed him firmly in the center of the United States U-17 National Team as they prepare for their upcoming World Cup campaign. However, expressing that talent on the biggest of stages is not something that always comes easily for a teenager suddenly thrown into a squad with FIFA World Cup winners.
For Vieira, there was never a question of whether or not Sands could make the jump physically. The match against Emelec was a test of Sands’ mental attributes – and he passed.
The manager explained: “We wanted to see him to see how he would cope with the intensity and the level of tactical, mental and physical demand. I’ve been really impressed with him – he’s really calm, composed and good on the ball. He’s really smart as a footballer.“It just confirmed how we already felt about him. He made the team play.
“I think we have a special talent in our football club.”
When coaches talk about bringing young players through the system and developing them into first team players, they usually talk about pushing them out of their comfort zones and forcing them to adapt to increasingly complex and fast-paced conditions.
Vieira and the rest of the first team staff have yet to actually find the boundaries of Sands’ comfort zone, though. No matter what gets thrown at him, he’s able to adapt and thrive. Conquering the atmosphere brought by a huge South American stadium crowd, as it turned out, was just another moment for him to make his own.
“It was a great experience and I felt comfortable because they’re such great players, they’ll always provide an option for you, said Sands of his teammates after his first minutes with NYCFC.
“I never felt lost, and constantly throughout the game they were just providing me with advice and stuff on how I could improve, so it was good for me.
“I think, just learning to relax in a crazy atmosphere like that, and also just playing your game and not being worried about what other people think, was a big step for me.”
Even though he’s made plenty of big steps over these last few months, plenty more are on the horizon. Living up to the potential assigned to those who leap so quickly to the first team ranks of a club at such a young age isn’t easy, and it will take a lot of work for Sands to continue his progression from prospect to star.
The key to all of it for James may just be continuing to believe in himself. His ability to remain undeterred by every challenge in his path has brought him this far, and belief in his ability to succeed at the highest levels has spread to his teammates as well.
“He’s really an amazing guy – so smart, so smart,” gushed David Villa, who knows a little bit about what it takes to reach the game’s highest heights.
“We are all very impressed with James. Not only in the game [against Emelec] but in training every day.
“It’s good news – very good news for New York City.”
After a preseason training session, NYCFC’s first-ever MLS Superdraft pick Khiry Shelton had some kind words as well.
“James is a fantastic player,” said the winger.
“I’ve been watching him and I played on the same team as him in training just now and I think it speaks wonders. It shows soccer in America is growing and I’m proud to have him out here with us.”
Perhaps most importantly, though, is what the sudden rise of James Sands has inspired in other players in the NYCFC academy pipeline. As the first homegrown signing in NYCFC history, James is a symbol that everyone else can aspire to. He may be part of the future fabric of the NYCFC first team, but his success is part of the future for the academy, as well.
“The story of James Sands being here in preseason has certainly inspired his teammates that he plays with on the U16s — to realize how quick opportunities can happen,” said Claudio Reyna.
Reyna, whose son Gio plays with NYCFC’s U-16s, has seen firsthand what that inspiration looks like.
“Gio’s got a long way to go, says Reyna, “But he’s been inspired by James playing on the first team. Every time on the phone with him, he’s asking: ‘How’s James doing? Who’s he rooming with?’ James played with them a couple of months ago, and now he’s here.”
Who knows where he’ll be a couple of months from now.