The 2021 Gold Cup was a massive triumph for the United States. Not only did Gregg Berhalter’s squad win the tournament, the victory also flexed the program’s depth and strength ahead of World Cup qualifying.
The Gold Cup tournament saw many younger and internationally inexperienced players make names for themselves and build their resume for spots on the upcoming World Cup qualifying rosters. One such player was New York City FC’s James Sands.
“Everybody was aware that a lot of the top guys weren’t there,” Sands said. “But I think it did serve as motivation a little bit just because it was largely a group of guys who are not going to get as many looks as the top guys in Europe. You never know when your next opportunity is going to come. That really worked in our favor in the tournament because we had a lot of guys just putting everything on the line, trying to show their best form to make a move for World Cup qualifying.”
Some of the U.S. players new to the team who impressed at the Gold Cup came from players who had high expectations. Sands, who turned 21 during the Gold Cup, was a surprise. Coming into the tournament, it was expected that Berhalter would utilize a four-player backline with Miles Robinson and team captain Walker Zimmerman in the middle with Sands as a backup.
Two big things happened. First, Berhalter needed to bring some width to the U.S. team’s attack. To fix that, he switched to a three central-defender lineup to allow the fullbacks to push forward. This created an opening for Sands to play. Second, when Zimmerman suffered a hamstring injury, it left the U.S. team thin in central defense. Berhalter had to revert to the four-player backline with two central defenders. Sands then partnered Robinson – who also excelled at the tournament.
The backline had to significantly adjust twice throughout the tournament with Sands, who had never been capped entering the tournament, and Robinson, who had just three friendly caps before the tournament.
The result is that the team conceded just once in the entire tournament (never from the run of play) and maintained shutouts against an improved Canadian team and in all three knockout games -- including over 120 minutes against a near full-strength Mexico in a 1-0 victory in the final.
“It was a little bit of nerves,” Sands recalled. “Walker was kind of a leader and the captain of that group. For him to go down, it was tough. It also meant that we were short on center backs. The first two games with Walker there, I was kind of in the middle of a back three, which I have done a lot in New York, and I felt pretty comfortable. When he went down, we switched to four in the back. I had to kind of adjust on the fly and learn from there.”
“Lucky I was playing with Miles,” he continued. “In those type of games, he really excels just because of his athletic abilities, his understanding. It was good to play alongside next to him. For both of us, just as young players going through an experience like that and beating Mexico in a final, it's something that we both can learn a lot from.”
Moving forward, Sands is in an interesting position for both NYCFC and with the U.S. national team. He has the capability of playing both in central defense as well as in the defensive midfield. For the U.S. team, there are a lot of good options in central defense but still some uncertainty with players such as Chris Richards, Matt Miazga and Mark McKenzie either not having completely locked down starting jobs with their clubs or still in uncertain club situations.
With the upcoming World Cup qualifying campaign mostly involving three games per window, the U.S. team will be playing big games mostly on three days rest. Berhalter will have to rotate his squad during each window. On top of that, Berhalter has been often using three-central defender formations (even against Mexico in the final of the Nations League) so it is very possible he will need a roster of at least five central defenders in qualifying.
“I thought he was excellent,” Berhalter said after the group stage win over Martinique. “He battled, he competed, his passing was excellent. It gives us an option. You don't always have an opportunity to play three in the back. But he gives you that option. I am really proud of James. I am proud of the way he's performed... he's been fun to work with.”
For New York City, things are equally as bright for Sands. The club currently sits in third in the Eastern Conference and within striking distance of second. Sands initially signed with New York City in 2017 and was the club’s first homegrown player. He has since made 52 first-team appearances for the club and has helped it become a regular in the postseason.
In 2021, Sands believes that this is NYCFC’s best year to compete: “all the pieces are in place now.” His formative developmental years have coincided with an era where many MLS clubs are electing to play young domestic players, often coming from within their own academies.
Like many players, Sands wants to eventually move abroad to the bigger leagues of Europe -- but for now he’s trying to help NYCFC win its first MLS Cup. For him, both the league and club have been a good place for him at the early stages of his career.
“It's been a real positive step that MLS has taken,” Sands explained. “A lot of teams have seen not only is it a good way to make money by selling their academy players on to bigger teams, but they're also producing players that can help the first team. I know that wasn't always the case. It's really helpful now to have a lot of young, talented guys. It brings more eyes to the league and it makes moving overseas much easier because other Americans have come from this league and done that. It makes the pathway a little bit easier. That's helpful for a lot of guys who have big aspirations in some of the top European leagues.”
Of course, like many young players, there have been both peaks and valleys in his young career. The recent peaks are now obvious. The valleys, however, have seen him cut from significant youth national teams. Following taking part in the U-17 World Cup, U-20 head coach Tab Ramos showed little interest in Sands during the 2019 U-20 cycle. In 2021, Jason Kreis did not name Sands to the U-23 team for the failed Olympic qualifying team.
But Sands knew that if he kept performing at the club level, it would only be a matter of time before he would get his national team chance:
"I just never had a doubt in my mind that I would play for the national team. The U-20s and the U-23's didn't work out and the coaches there saw something else. I would say it was a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, but that's not entirely what was motivating me. I'm pretty self-driven. I'm just blessed that that opportunity finally came and hopefully there's more down the road. Obviously, I understand that a lot of the top guys weren't there but I will always back myself. I really have a role to play for that team in the future. And I'm going to keep working for that.”