The U.S. U-20 national team began its quest for a World Cup championship Friday without one of the principal performers for New York City FC in 2019 and arguably one of the top centerbacks in MLS through the first third of the season – 18-year-old James Sands.
Sands, a regular at both right and left central back at the U-17 World Cup in 2017, was not selected by U-20 coach Tab Ramos.
In the opening match of Group D on Friday, Aboubacar Kaita and Chris Richards started at central defense in a 2-1 loss to Ukraine.
In addition to Kaita and Richards, Ramos also preferred a pair of Philadelphia Union Homegrowns — Mark McKenzie and Matt Real, who were on the bench — ahead of Sands, a Rye, New York, native.
Real, 19, has not played with the Union’s first team at all this season. He has eight appearances with second-tier USL Championship side Bethlehem Steel.
McKenzie, 20, has 12 minutes in one reserve appearance for the Union.
Meanwhile, Sands has been a full-time performer for the Pigeons and has been lauded in the Bronx for stabilizing the back line in a three-back system that has alleviated the stress of some early season woes.
City has won four of its last five games and is on a league-leading unbeaten streak of seven games after failing to earn a victory in the opening six games of the year.
Sands was puzzled when the subject of his U-20 World Cup absence was addressed after NYCFC training Thursday.
“I’m not exactly sure to be honest,” Sands said. “I can’t say what they’re looking at. I think I’ve done a good job here.”
McKenzie was a regular for the Union in 2018 and was a finalist for MLS Rookie of the Year. He captained the U-20s to the Concacaf championship and was named captain of the World Cup team by Ramos.
Real was the more curious choice ahead of Sands – although Ramos had an explanation.
“We have two centerbacks that we selected, plus Matt Real, who could potentially be a left-sided centerback, who played against France at left-sided centerback,” Ramos said to a group of reporters at a roundtable discussion in lower Manhattan after the 21-player squad was announced. “I feel like if you can do well in France, you can pretty much do well against anyone.”
Nonetheless, the critical criteria of current form favored Sands – by a wide margin over Real.
“He’s playing like he’s played in the top league in Europe for the last 10 years today,” Swedish wing back, Anton Tinnerholm said after a recent road win over D.C. United.
“I’m one of the few kids my age who is playing pretty consistently,” said Sands, who graduated from high school less than two weeks ago. “I think that would look good for me, but they obviously have different ideas. Hopefully, in the future it will happen.”
New York City FC head coach Dome Torrent praised Sands’ contributions to the MLS team this season, but said he was not stunned by the teenager’s omission from the U-20 group.
“Every single coach has their idea – it’s not a surprise,” Torrent said “Maybe the coach decides to play with other players and like other qualities – I respect that. Jimmy can play two or three different positions and he’s important for us. Maybe for our system he’s the right player and the national team has other ideas.”
The next U.S. match is against Nigeria on Monday, and the team closes the group stage against Qatar May 30. The Americans were eliminated in the quarterfinals in 2015 and 2017.