James Sands: We are expecting a deep run
Imagine being 16 and impressing the World Cup-winning coach of the club whose academy you play with, enough for him to draft you as the first homegrown player of that club in your country's top division.
Imagine being then named in the squad for your club alongside two other World Cup winners, and being an option for coming on in midfield in place of one of the most influential playmakers of his generation.
And also imagine, less than a month on, leading your country's defensive line at the U-17 World Cup, an event your country has never won despite missing just one edition.
If you are USA's James Sands, life as a professional soccer player doesn't get much better than this at age 17.
A month after featuring on the bench in the Patrick Vieira-coached New York City FC's 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City in the MLS -- with Italy's Andrea Pirlo and Spain's David Villa starting -- Sands has been instrumental in keeping USA's defence one of the more miserly ones at the World Cup, with two clean sheets.
"I played a couple of sports when I was little, but my siblings all played soccer, so I kind of took it from them. It was just something I enjoyed and I pursued it at a high level. I started at the [NYCFC] academy, and I am the first signing from there who plays with the first team," says Sands, a self-confessed fan of an English club that wears a similar shade of blue as NYCFC. "I was a big Man City fan, so I really enjoyed watching Yaya Toure. He was just someone who could do everything, and watching him on TV I just tried to learn as much as I could. He's just a special player."
Sands himself has been instrumental in forging a strong partnership at the back for the USA with Chris Durkin, but they face their toughest test yet on Monday against Paraguay -- an opposition that has scored a minimum of three goals in each of their matches at the World Cup thus far -- in their round of 16 game. Another South American nation, Colombia, had also scored three in USA's last game, though Sands was one of the few regular starters who wasn't rested that day by coach John Hackworth. Sands believes the experience of having come to India for the AIFF (All India Football Federation) Youth Cup in the summer of 2016 will come in handy for the team.
"It was an eye-opening experience. I had never been to India before, and it was just so different than the US. It definitely helped me out and now obviously I feel better prepared and looking forward to these games," says Sands.
Being a player who can double as both defender and midfielder, Sands offers Hackworth the opportunity of tweaking his lineup and fielding an extra defensive player if he thinks that could help keep Paraguay at bay. Sands himself knows where his greatest scope for improvement as a player is, saying, "What I can work on is the physical aspects of my game. Being a centre-back, you have to be big and fast. So I could improve on that a little bit."
Sands says the obvious dream for any soccer player is to eventually play in Europe and get a chance to play the UEFA Champions League, but for the moment he's enjoying the opportunity to serve NYCFC and learn from a 1998 World Cup winner as coach, and two senior teammates who emulated their coach in 2006 and 2010.
"It's definitely incredible to learn from him [Vieira] because of the level that he played at with Arsenal. Just being able to learn everything from him, and then obviously Pirlo and David Villa -- learning from them every day is just absolutely special."
With 15 previous appearances thus far yielding a best result of a fourth-place finish in 1999 at the U-17 World Cup, are the US expecting their best finish this time?
"I would say we're all confident of what we can do. We are expecting a deep run, but obviously in soccer anything can happen," says Sands.