James Sands: “I feel like this club is now putting a lot of trust in me, trust that I can be a leader and help this team in the future.” (Photo courtesy of MLS)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

He is all of 20-years-old with 39 Major League Soccer games under his belt.

Yet, James Sands is expected to play a pivotal role for New York City FC in a couple of ways.

With Alex Ring dealt to Austin FC in the offseason, the Rye, N.Y. native is expected to take over one of the center midfielder roles alongside Keaton Parks.

And with so many changes since he joined the team in 2018, Sands can be considered one of the veterans despite his young age.

“Yeah, I do,” he said during a Zoom conference call with the media Thursday, “especially because Ringy’s gone, Mata [Ronald Matarrita] is gone. People really have to step up. It can’t be the same guys always. It has to come from everybody. I feel like this club is now putting a lot of trust in me, trust that I can be a leader and help this team in the future.

“I definitely feel more pressure this year to be a little more vocal and help the guys around me than I have in previous years. Now that only makes me a better player.”

Sands is already showing it in training camp in Orlando, helping the six NYCFC Academy players get acclimated with the big boys. After all, the soccer boot was on the other foot when Sands went through that as a teenager just a few years ago.

“I definitely try and help them when I can,” he said. “I remember you know the first preseason I went to, I loved it, I loved all the guys but it’s a tough time if you’re a young player. You don’t really know anyone. You know you feel a lot of pressure to be doing well. You get nervous and all that sort of thing.

“I just try and keep the mood light with them. As long as they’re enjoying it, then I think they’ll get something out of it. I really do try and look out for them a little bit more than the other guys, just because I know what it what it was like. I’m really rooting for all of them. They’re all top players. I’m hoping nothing for the best for them.”

During the stretch run last year, head coach Ronny Deila moved Ring to the wing and paired Sands and Parks in the center of the midfield.

In  many ways, that was a perfect match for both players.

“I think it’s not that we’re totally yin and yang, but I think he’s good at the things I’m not so good at things that, and I’m good at things he’s not great at,” he said. “For example, I’ve always been a bit of a defender first more conservative with my passing and that sort of thing. That’s where Keaton really excels. He’s very forward thinking, always driving at the opponent. So, I think that’s where we’re a little different.

“And then on the flip side of that, I’m a more disciplined defender and I think that’s not where his strengths are. So, I think we just cover a lot of bases between the both of us. It’s because we’re close off the field. I think we just have good chemistry on the field. And I think we understand really well when one goes forward, the other one stays back. It really feels more natural between the two of us than some of the pairings I’ve had in the past.”

When Sands signed a five-year contract extension with the club March 4, he said still wanted to play in Europe someday to achieve his goals. He was asked to expound upon his sentiments Thursday.

“I feel like being at New York is the best place to help me develop as a player and showcase what I can do,” he said. “Also, New York is just such a unique spot with the connection with CFG [City Football Group] and know it’s a club that just has so many resources. So, I think they’re in such a good position to help me, a much better position than a lot of other MLS clubs. Also, I really trust the people at this club in the front office and what I want for myself, is what they want as well. So, you’ve got to trust the people at the club, and I do.”