The campus of SUNY Purchase, where Major League Soccer's New York City Football Club has its training grounds, consists of slabs of Brutalist concrete dropped like Legos amongst the encroaching shag greenery. It's pretty in a post-apocalyptic sort of way, especially if you hold out hope that after the end times, our earth will be repopulated thanks to swarms of reasonably chill college kids in cargo shorts. Last time I visited, it was to see a Virginia grindcore band called Pig Destroyer. Pig Destroyer are large men, maybe nimble in their spare time, but lumbering and caustic on stage. Now I'm here to meet James Sands, the youngest member of NYCFC's squad, as graceful and sweet as Pig Destroyer are cyclopean.
Signed at 16, Sands, who turned 17 in July, comes across as self-contained and cheerfully ambitious. He grew up in Rye, New York and is the first signee from the New York Football Club's two-year-old Academy, which aims to develop and produce young local talent. Reading quotes about Sands, from coaches and publicists alike, the word "confident" is used so much that I almost expect him to shake me down for my lunch money, but when it comes time to meet him, Sands is poised but polite, his handshake reassuring.
"I'm new to being a pro," he tells me, and I feel the cognitive dissonance of watching a high-schooler (him) feel the need to go out of his way to not intimidate a grown adult (me). If Sands's ruthless efficiency on the pitch has rendered him part of the de facto future of American soccer, it hasn't stopped him from being disarmingly agreeable and imbued with youthful grace off of it.
The plan was to watch Sands train with NYCFC at SUNY Purchase, then have an in depth interview with him the following week. But life is hectic when you're one of the best teenage soccer players in the country, and it turns out that the week of our scheduled interview, Sands needed to jet—literally—to India for the Under-17 World Cup. So instead, I found myself chatting with Sands at the ungodly hour of "before noon." The practice session was well underway when my photographer and I arrived to campus at 10 AM, and we had a chance to watch some of the world's finest players casually do physically improbable things such as keeping the ball in the air with their bodies across vast stretches of lawn, all the while chatting and laughing like they were at the pub and it was the coach's round. Sands himself was taking it all in with the confidence of a veteran, interacting with the players and staff with ease and spending time midfield, alone, juggling the soccer ball from knee to knee to head with casual fluidity. The only moment when Sands's body language indicated that he might be two decades younger than NYCFC's eldest player Andrea Pirlo—the 38-year-old Italian star who, similar to Sands, made his Serie A debut at 16, albeit in 1995—was when he let a ball drop, swung his arms around in embarrassed frustration, and sheepishly grinning at no one in particular, momentarily letting the endearing kid he still is shine through.
The club is extremely protective of James—and with good reason, given his age and abilities. In the lead-up to my conversation with Sands, NYCFC's Director of Communications amiably and persistently tries to feed me interview questions for him. On the pitch, my photographer is gently scolded for taking pictures from unsanctioned angles, while the club's head coach Patrick Vieira (who himself made his professional debut with Cannes at the age of 17, which should go to show that only in America do we irrationally cling to the purity and youth of our beloved Sports Teens) keeps a tight grip on the time his players spend in the sun. None of this a bother and none of it—except the sun thing—is warranted. Sands, who, before signing with NYCFC passed a pre-season tryout in front of 40,000 rabid soccer partisans in Ecuador with flying colors, is himself wildly unbothered. He's been playing since he was six, with his father as his coach, and, outside of a smattering of video games and listening to 50 Cent (or Green Day and AC/DC if he's with his dad), his life revolves around the world's favorite sport. Which is to say, Sands, quite reasonably, loves talking about soccer. As he plainly puts it, "It's just...it's my passion. It's what I've worked hard for."
I hadn't seen Sands play in person before going up to Purchase—not that I hadn't made an effort. He was held in reserve the previous Wednesday when I'd gone to Yankee Stadium to watch the NYCFC versus Kansas City match. It was pouring rain. I watched for James from the press box, populated by formidable men whose suits and ties made me, in my ragged Century 21 hoodie and barback-torn New Balances, feel like I was in that scene in Legally Blonde (or Bridget Jones' Diary) when Reese Witherspoon (or Renée Zellweger) shows up to the non-costume party dressed as a bunny. The whole experience felt outside of time, a sense that was validated when I left the arena and was accosted by a scruffy Adrien Grenier-ish fellow who asked what was happening at Yankee Stadium. "Soccer," I said, and he proceeded to tell me that he was from New York so he only watched Yankee games at Yankee Stadium. Then, he accused me of having "an accent."
Though I was happy to watch NYCFC win 2-1, I'd mainly attended to see Sands play, eager to witness his skills in action. (The week after I interviewed him, Sands got his first minutes in an MLS game against the Colorado Rapids.) It was understandable for the club to keep Sands in reserve as he develops, however. Nobody wants a repeat of Freddy Adu, the "next Pele" who many believe was signed too young and subsequently overplayed. The club clearly wants to be a support system for Sands, both out of a sense of responsibility and as the best way to take advantage of his many skills. Sands's presence on the team is a result of the MLS's Homegrown Player Rule, which rewards teams for setting up local development academies with the promise that they'll be able to sign their area's brightest future talents instead of simply relying on the crapshoot that is the MLS draft. The recent boom in Homegrown signees—along with an increasing sense among international superstars that the MLS isn't just a final destination for aging international legends looking for one last paycheck before retirement—represent efforts from both American soccer's top tier and its grass roots to achieve the noble and uphill quest of pushing soccer into the mainstream American consciousness.
Back at SUNY Purchase, I ask Sands about his life as a high-schooler. He's diplomatic in his responses, or maybe the truth is very mild. "[The school] kind of helped me make a [curriculum] so that I can do it in my free time. So, I'll go in; I'll meet with the teachers after training and everything's done. It's a flexible schedule." Beyond that, he keeps things general. People are generally nice to him, and his real friends are his real friends.
The Director of Communications wants me to ask what it's like to play with his heroes on the team, which is something I could not possibly care less about. I remember being 16 in theory, and if I'd become a professional soccer player at that age, my number one priority would have been converting my newfound sporting capital into awkward makeout sessions. Under the watchful eye of the NYCFC Director of Communications, however, this potential line of questioning turns into, "So, uh, are you dating?" He doesn't date, he says, and as long as our chaperone is around, I doubt he'll ever say otherwise. The director of communications says, "One of the things we were talking about…" as a prompt about Sands playing with his heroes. I am a broken man. I ask what it's like to play with his heroes. James says, "The first time I met them, I was nervous to be around them, just because of the places they've been [in global soccer], but they're such easy-going, easy-to-talk-to guys." He offers the example of David Villa, the NYCFC striker who is the Spanish National Team's all-time leading scorer and was last year's MLS MVP. "I remember this great goal that David scored when Barcelona played in the Champion's League final," in which Villa clinched victory against Manchester United with a piercing shot into the top corner of the net. "It was just amazing. And then meeting him, he's such a normal guy. It's pretty cool to see that balance." I should have asked him about his heroes in the first place.
In the debate of "nature versus nurture," Sands is no help. He says, about his laser-like focus on the field, "I would say it's probably more of a natural thing. That's something I've always been good at. I think definitely with some other people they kind of have to work on it more. But, it's always something that's been natural to me." His father is some sort of consultant, he tells me, but seems somewhat fuzzy on the details (as does NYCFC's publicist, so one can safely assume Sands' father is some sort of secret agent or costumed vigilante). His mother, he says, works for the Met Art Museum. He has a twin brother, Will, a striker who is also part of the NYCFC Academy and joined his brother this spring for the US Men's U-17 team's residency at IMG Academy in Florida but wasn't included on the U-17 World Cup roster (James seems confident that his brother will eventually also go pro); as well as two older sisters, all of whom he lovingly competes with in video games or family sports. When it comes to these intra-family face-offs, James usually teams with his youngest sister while his brother pairs up with the oldest. While his parents are clearly supportive of him, they do insist that he goes to college at some point, though from what I can tell that's the extent of any iron-willed control they hold over his career.
Neither Sands nor his handlers at NYCFC talk of him as some sort of prodigy, but rather a young man who has decided, above all else, to be great at soccer. Focus, confidence, determination: all earthy terms to describe a gifted athlete who every day makes the choice to get better. To Sands, the only difference between him and your average kid repetitively kicking a ball around in a suburban backyard are trivial externalities such as the location and the stakes. He says, "I think it plays into just how I play the game. If I'm super, kind of amped up, which is good sometimes, if I'm kind of too energetic then it'll kind of throw me off a little bit. I'll start rushing things or forcing bad decisions or whatever. But, if I'm calm I can kind of think clearly, and it just helps me get my rhythm going."
Sands is in New Delhi right now, playing in the Under-17 World Cup. The United States have advanced to the quarterfinals, fresh off the heels of a 5-0 upset against tournament favorite Paraguay. Along with D.C. United's Chris Durkin (another MLS Homegrown player, it should be noted), Sands has become an anchor of the U-17 team's defense; under their watch, three of the team's four opponents in the tournament have gone scoreless. His role as full on defender in the games give credence to the young man's ambition, hard work, and perseverance. Soft spoken, but honest in his aim, James Sands operates on the field as he does off; with an empirically earned confidence, he sets his goal, he moves towards it.