When NYCFC’s lineup was released before kickoff of their season opening match against Orlando City last Saturday, one name stood out.
James Sands, the 18-year-old Homegrown midfielder, made his way into the lineup for his first MLS Opening Day, his fourth career start.
“It was a great experience for me,” Sands told amNewYork on Wednesday. “I was prepared for it. I had a good preseason, so I think I was ready for that possibility and then I was just happy when I actually found out.”
Sands completed all 18 of his passes while making three tackles in an 88-minute shift. But his effort wasn’t enough as NYCFC squandered a two-goal halftime lead in their 2-2 draw against the Lions.
“We just came back a little slow,” Sands said. “Their subs definitely helped. I think we were just a little careless.”
Sands’ Opening Day nod shows NYCFC’s continued shift toward their youth. Along with Sands, 21-year-old Jonathan Lewis — who had highlights with the U.S. Men’s National Team in January camp — earned the Opening Day start and newly-acquired midfielder Keaton Parks, also 21, subbed in for Sands. The club also signed 19-year-old Juan Pablo Torres and 17-year-old Justin Haak, their third Homegrown player, during the winter. Joe Scally, 16, and their second-ever Homegrown player, signed last year.
Sands credits his progress to his preparation from last year’s loan with USL side Louisville City FC.
“It for sure prepared me, honestly,” he said. “I think the quality in USL is not as high as MLS, but the physicality is pretty close and that’s one of the biggest jumps for a young kid to make.”
Sands’ and NYCFC’s physicality will be tested Sunday afternoon in their home opener at Yankee Stadium against D.C. United, who are unbeaten in their last 11 regular season matches dating back to last year.
“That’s going to be a really challenging game on Sunday,” Sands said. “[D.C.] kind of picked up right where they left off last year. They had a really strong run and the end of the season and I think they’ve just kind of taken over from that point.”
NYCFC was strong at home last season but lost some of the magic in the Bronx toward the end of the campaign, winning just twice in the Bronx after a 1-0 loss to New England on September 5.
The Blues have won just one of their last five matches against D.C.