The prospect of marking David Villa, even in a training scrimmage, would give most 16-year old soccer players sleepless nights.
However, Academy defender James Sands doesn’t seem to be your average 16-year old.
The New Yorker is making his own piece of history on this preseason training camp in Jacksonville, becoming the first NYCFC Academy product to train with the first-team.
A mature, forward-thinking defender, Sands is part of the U.S Soccer Youth Residency program in Bradenton along with his twin brother Will who is also in NYCFC’s Academy structure.
Now facing off against top class talent every day for two weeks in Florida, he’s settling to the task and learning from some of the best on this steep learning curve.
Sands told NYCFC.com: “There’s a lot of great players here, so the experience means a lot to me. The coaches have helped me a lot.
“All these guys I’ve watched on TV – getting the experience to play with them is really special.”
He’s certainly impressed the Head Coach in the first few days in Jacksonville.
Patrick Vieira describes Sands as a “special talent” and praised his footballing intelligence which has been on display throughout the opening four days of the camp.
Vieira said: “We wanted to give him an experience because he’s been doing really well in the academy. 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.
“I think we have a special talent in our football club.”
James was an important member of the U.S team who won the Nike International Friendlies title in December, defeating Brazil, Portugal and Turkey on the way to the crown.
In a short career, he’s already enjoyed a few notable highlights but the moment he received the call to join NYCFC on preseason surely ranks up there with the best.
Sands remembers: “My dad told me over the phone – he was excited. He texted me telling me to call him and then when he told me I was a little nervous at first because there’s a lot of great players but then I started realizing that it’s actually happening, so I had to settle into it.
“Everyone has been helping me out – the coaches, the players, they give me little bits of advice as I go and I’ve already learned a lot. I want to learn as much and get the experience so that when I’m older I can be back playing with them regularly.”
Khiry Shelton has also been excited by what he’s seen of James so far in Florida.
The 23-year old believes that Sands is another example of the increasing quality in U.S soccer.
Khiry reflected: “James is a fantastic player – 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.”