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James Sands signs first homegrown extension in NYCFC history

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James Sands placed the ball on the penalty spot, took eight steps back and waited for the whistle.

“One of the hallmarks of James’ development over the last years,” NYCFC sporting director David Lee told The Post, “has been kind of rising to whatever occasion has been put in front of him.”

With his team on the precipice of a trophy, Sands sauntered up to the ball, smashed it into the net and kicked it back in one more time for good measure. The NYCFC U19s were U.S. Soccer Development Academy national champions, and Sands was the matchwinner.

That moment was nearly three years ago and Sands’ pro career was barely underway.

Now, Sands is embracing a different type of occasion, one that distinguishes him within the club’s short history.

Sands, 20, has signed an extension with NYCFC, making him the first homegrown player to do so with the club. The extension is for five years.

“It’s just an amazing feeling all around for me, because it’s a reward for all of the hard work I’ve put in in the past couple seasons,” Sands told The Post in an exclusive interview.

“And I think this extension also shows how they want me to grow in the future and I think that’s being more of a leader, so that’s the next step I’m going to take for this club.”

Sands’ growth has accelerated over the last couple seasons.

James Sands
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After signing his first professional contract in 2017 and being sent out on loan the next year, the Rye native emerged as a starter in 2019 and has since been a stalwart in the center of the park. His play last season led to him being ranked No. 6 on MLS’ 22 under 22 list, and even convinced NYCFC they’d be fine jettisoning club captain (and fellow defensive midfielder) Alex Ring to expansion outfit Austin FC.

Sands’ ascendancy improves the club’s chances of lifting its first trophy, but means his extension will likely serve more as a price-raiser than a blood pact. European clubs are already circling around Sands, and he’ll move when the right offer comes through.

“I’ve expressed my interest in playing in Europe, and the coaches, the club they all understand that,” he said. “And I think they’ve been great about getting young players over to Europe… now it’s just about finding the right team and the right club where I can really succeed.”

Fellow homegrown Joe Scally hadn’t yet played a professional game when the club agreed to sell him to Borussia Mönchengladbach in 2019. Gio Reyna jumped straight from the academy to Borussia Dortmund at age 16. Sands’ lengthy new deal looks like an outlier compared to those paths, even with the caveat that he likely won’t see out the entire extension.

Still, NYCFC have secured a pivotal player for at least the short-term future, and the importance of Sands’ re-up won’t be lost on a club so fixated on developing young talent. Five players have been signed to homegrown contracts through just six seasons, and seven more academy players are expected to make the trip to Orlando for the preseason camp on March 8. The pathway is clearly there if you’re good enough.

“Just personally for me, being a homegrown, coming from the academy, I feel like it’s a little bit of my responsibility to kinda pave the way for the next homegrowns,” Sands said. … “So it’s a little bit of pressure on my shoulders, but it’s pressure I’m really happy to accept and deal with.”

James Sands NYCFC
Sands has emerged as a starter over the last couple of seasons.
NYCFC

Sands is no stranger to that feeling. The youngster who would sit in the front of academy meetings and draw winces from his crunching tackles was thrust into a first team squad when first signed four years ago. A team that featured European luminaries Andrea Pirlo and David Villa and was manned by Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira at coach. A reserved teenager needed to make an impression.

“He’s a quiet person,” said Sands’ former academy coach Matt Pilkington. “But he doesn’t play that way.”

That assertiveness took time to manifest. Early games featured a skittishness on the ball, Sands said, as he tried to juggle typical nerves and the fear of messing up in front of his elder, more decorated European teammates.

“I looked a little rattled,” he says now of his start to pro life.

You wouldn’t know that now. He’s amassed 34 league starts in the past two seasons (it would’ve been more last season if not for a broken foot), and now feels more comfortable directing traffic in his holding mid position. You may even see him bomb forward a bit more in 2021, but that missing piece is precisely what illustrates his potential.

Sands has never scored in the league, seldom touches the ball in the opponents’ box and lags behind the defensive midfield elite in terms of his upfield passing. And yet, his coaches have fiercely trusted him, and a move to a higher level seems inevitable.

“He’s become a really important player for both [ex-coach] Dome [Torrent] and for [head coach] Ronny [Deila], and I think that’s a testament to him,” Lee said.

European clubs (reportedly from Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, at least) will likely target Sands regardless of where his offensive game ends up.

That complicates Lee’s job of building a competitive roster, though he told The Post he’s “delighted” when players earn big moves and tries to “work collaboratively with all of our players” to understand their goals.

Until then, Sands will work to correct the club’s postseason woes. And the club will be preparing for his departure.

“It’s just become a part of the job,” Lee said. “…The continual work to hopefully produce the next James is already ongoing.”

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Bulls’ Zach LaVine called cops on ‘obsessed’ fan at his home

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Zach LaVine had an unwanted visitor.

The Chicago Bulls star had to call the police after an “allegedly obsessed” woman showed up to his Chicago home and refused to leave on Thursday night, according to TMZ. 

The woman reportedly traveled from out of state, demanding to speak with the first-time All-Star, who was home at the time.

Police took her a local hospital for mental evaluation, and she has not been formally arrested or charged with a crime.

LaVine, 25, wrapped up first-half action with the Bulls on Wednesday and was drafted to Kevin Durant’s All-Star side for Sunday’s festivities in Atlanta.

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Blake Griffin a free agent after Pistons buyout

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Blake Griffin will be free to sign with the Nets or another interested NBA team after agreeing to a contract buyout with the Detroit Pistons.

The six-time All-Star forward “has interest from most of the NBA’s top playoff contenders and is expected to make a decision on his next team after conversations with prospective teams,” ESPN reported.

The Nets, Lakers, Heat, Warriors and Clippers – his former team — are among those that have expressed interest, according to the New York Times. ESPN.com added that the Blazers are interested

The 31-year-old Griffin hasn’t played since Feb. 12 while the Pistons attempted to trade him before the March 25 deadline, but they found no takers due to the remainder of his $36.6 million salary for this season and the $39 million he’s owed for 2021-22.

Blake Griffin was released by the Pistons on March 5, 2021
Blake Griffin was released by the Pistons on March 5, 2021
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Griffin is averaging a career-low 12.3 points and 5.2 rebounds in 20 games this season. He was dealt by the Clippers to Detroit in 2018, during the first season of a five-year extension worth $171 million.



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Broncos send a pretty strong warning to Drew Lock

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Drew Lock is no lock to remain the Denver Broncos’ starting quarterback in 2021.

General manager George Paton and coach Vic Fangio both said Thursday that the team expects to bring in competition for Lock, possibly with the ninth pick in the NFL Draft.

“Obviously we’re always looking to bring in players at all positions that can raise the level of competition, and the quarterback is no different in that regard,” Fangio said, according to the team’s website.

“Until we get or until Drew proves to be the next great quarterback, like the ones that the Denver franchise has been used to in years past or certain teams around the league … are used to, we’re going to always try and bring in competition. But I have confidence that Drew can continue to improve.”

Lock made 13 starts in 2020 and tied with Carson Wentz for the league lead with 15 interceptions. He finished 32nd in the league among qualifying quarterbacks with a 75.4 passer rating, ahead of only Dwayne Haskins, Wentz and Sam Darnold.

Drew Lock faces the Patriots on October 18, 2020.
Drew Lock faces the Patriots on October 18, 2020.
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“Very talented, was inconsistent at times, has a lot to work on,” Paton said Thursday. “But I’ve spoken with Drew, I see him every day. He’s here early. He’s working. He really wants to be great. And we’re always going to try to bring in competition at every position, and quarterback as well. But I like the track that Drew’s on.”

Lock, the Broncos’ second-round pick in 2019 out of Missouri, had started five games as a rookie, winning four of them. Denver went 4-9 with him as the starter last season.

“I’m confident that Drew’s going to continue to improve,” Fangio said. “Drew’s had a great offseason up to this point. There’s not a lot you can do, but he’s working hard on his own, coming over here and getting workouts, and I know he’s doing a lot at home by himself, watching video by himself. He’s got a good setup over there. And he’s doing anything and everything he can to improve, even in February and now in March.”

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