James Sands, pictured playing for NYCFC, helped close out the USMNT’s win Sunday night. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

As he waited on the sidelines at Children’s Mercy Park to replace Nicholas Gioacchini late in the U.S.’s game against Haiti in the Concacaf Gold Cup Sunday night, James Sands admitted he was nervous.

Which hasn’t happened too many times to the 21-year-old.

Then again, it’s not every day you make your debut for the U.S. men’s national team with the game on the line.

“I was pretty nervous beforehand,” the New York City FC center back said during a Zoom call with the NYCFC media from Kansas City, Kansas Monday. “I don’t often get nervous but when I stepped on the field, kind of the nerves kind of go away. Once I got a few touches on the ball and felt like normal like I was back playing an MLS game in New York.”

The directions Sands received from head coach Gregg Berhalter were to the point before coming on in the 76th minute.

“To kind of secure the game, lock it down, settle things at that point,” Sands said, “because a 1-0 game against a team like Haiti, anything can happen. My job was just to go in there, settle the game a little bit.”

Sands later added, “The most important thing in that first game is three points, just to lock them down, connect [with] the guys around you and just keep the ball moving.”

Which he did over the final 14 minutes and stoppage time, helping close out the USA’s 1-0 Group B opener for both teams.

The Rye, N.Y. native was able to celebrate for two reasons – personally and for the team.

“It’s a super special moment any kid in the U.S., dreams playing for the senior team,” said Sands, who added that not being called up to the U.S. Under-23 national team for Olympic qualifying in March affect him.

“It’s always something that’s tough but I never let it get to me that much,” he added. “I’m always focused on the next thing. I’m going to show the coaches that I deserve a spot. This opportunity has really helped me to gain some confidence [that] I’ll be able to bring back to New York, continue develop as a leader there. It’s been so beneficial for my game and hopefully my future goals and aspirations.”

Sands can play in the center of a three-, four- or five-man backline and as a defensive midfielder. National team coaches are always looking for versatile players, especially ones who can adapt quickly.

He was called into camp as a center back.

“I think they felt more comfortable calling me in at that position, but I know they have seen my games where I’ve played midfield [or] in the middle of a back five,” he said. “I think the coaches are aware that I can do all those roles. I think they see kind of my skill set, what I bring on the ball is really helpful at center back. Mostly up until this point, I played the back four, which is good.”

Sands’ transition into the team was a relatively smooth one. It certainly didn’t hurt that NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson, a USMNT veteran, was there. Players such as Seattle Sounders’ Cristian Roldan and D.C. United’s Paul Arriola also helped out.

“It’s been a pretty easy transition for me,” Sands said. “The guys who have a lot of experience with the national team. They’re the ones that are most helpful. Let’s say Sean’s the obvious one, Because he’s a New York player. Guys that have been there and done that, they are really helping me out and given me bits of advice along the way.”

During his post-game conference call Sunday night, Berhalter praised Sands and several players who made their USMNT debut. during his post-game press conference.

“They look comfortable and they’re very technical players good on the ball,” he said. “It’s nice to have players you can bring in with that quality.”

Berhalter also talk about the players making their debut.

“You talk about the honor, less than 800 people in the history United States have done that,” he said. “So, it’s a great accomplishment for these young players.”