Under Ronny Deila, New York City FC showed signs of progress, despite two defeats to open the year. And at the heart of their positive performances was James Sands, who is stepping into his presence as a leader and key influencer.
New York City FC were not far away from winning it all last season. They ended the regular season atop the Eastern Conference, consistently performed as one of the premier teams in the league, and were unfortunate to lose to Toronto FC in the playoffs thanks to some freak defending.
In 2020, they returned almost all of their star players. In fact, 92% of their minutes from the 2019 season are still in the squad. You could argue that as many as their best 14 players all remain with the team, depending on where you rank Ben Sweat.
Even with a new manager at the helm, the foundations for a brilliant 2020 are there for an already excellent New York City FC. All they needed was a little development from certain players and they could take the team to that truly elite level.
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One of the players who has been earmarked for progression and growth is young defensive midfielder, James Sands. The 19-year-old broke into the senior set-up last season under Dome Torrent, rotating between centre-back and midfield. But this year, Sands is set to take on a greater role of responsibility, on and off the pitch.
Sands has again rotated between defence and midfield. He started the year in the defensive midfield position but dropped into centre-back against Toronto FC with Maxime Chanot suspended after his red card the week prior. In his absence, the New York midfield was overrun by TFC, with Alejandro Pozuelo and Jonathan Osorio dictating play superbly. The promising Keaton Parks struggled in Sands’ stead and NYCFC failed to gain a foothold in the game throughout,
Sands was noticeable in his absence, which is something he is hoping to be more as a footballer and a character. This week, the midfielder conceded that he is working on being more vocal on the pitch, commanding himself with more authority and control, demanding the ball from others and impressing his personality on his teammates and his opposition.
Speaking to mlssoccer.com, Sands confirmed head coach Ronny Deila has demanded a more forceful edge to his presence on the pitch:
“That was one of the big things that he wanted me to focus on. And I think that’s really great. It’s always been something that, since I’ve been little, coaches have told me that’s something I need to work on. But he’s really the first one who’s kind of put a little bit of pressure on me to make it happen. I think it’s really hard, as a young player if you’re not playing so often, you don’t always feel like you’re part of the essential group of guys. So it can be a little hard to speak your mind sometimes. But having these games under my belt has really helped me and it’s just something I continue to work on every day.”
While we will never know what his impact has been in the dressing room, on the pitch, in a purely footballing sense, Sands has played with confidence and assurance that was missing last season. He strides through the pitch, he reads the game with effortless certainty, he enters challenges knowing he will win the ball, and he strolls around his defensive areas with a self-belief that is both intimidating to opposing attackers and reassuring to his own teammates.
Sands is stepping into his presence, as a footballer and a personality. And New York City FC might just go a step further as a result.