The pairing seemingly came out of necessity.
Last August, New York City FC had a problem in attack with several players injured, out of favor or in poor form. Head coach Ronny Deila’s solution involved filling the offensive gap with his captain Alex Ring, a defensive midfielder for the large part of his four MLS seasons.
Ring performed adequately as he moved forward, giving the team a bit of composure in the final third and contributing to a handful of goals. But the move didn’t allow Ring to be the best version of himself on the field, nor did it allow NYCFC to get the most out of a normally valuable position.
What it did allow was a window for NYCFC to peek into its future at midfield, an opportunity fully seized by the pairing of youngsters Keaton Parks and James Sands. That future looked pretty bright for NYCFC, and following Ring’s trade to Austin FC, the duo now is the club’s present.
"Last year, I think James and I became a big part of the team. I think it's going to be very similar," Parks said of the coming season. "I think James and I are going to lead that midfield, with people around us, of course, but I expect it to be very similar to what it was last year when James and I were starting consecutive games."
NYCFC’s roster still has plenty of question marks as preseason progresses, but the emergence of the Parks-Sands duo could make the club’s midfield among the best in the league.
Parks, 23, already a veteran of sorts after a stint in Portugal early in his career, has developed a personal and professional bond with Sands, 20, NYCFC’s first homegrown signing.
The players have become good friends outside the lines, Parks said, testing each other's skills in the board game Catan and card games during downtime on the road, and have since carried that chemistry to the pitch. Before last September, both players had become regulars in the NYCFC lineup but not typically side-by-side. One often occupied a spot beside Ring, with Parks giving a more progressive option over Sands’ defensive sensibilities. Sands also saw a fair share of time thanks to his versatility, featuring at centerback in multiple formations.
Eventually, a Parks-Sands combination became the center of a successful run for NYCFC after poor results to open a hectic MLS 2020 season. Over a nine-match stretch in September and October, they started together on eight occasions, going 5-2-1 for 16 of a possible 24 points. The run only ended when Sands suffered a season-ending foot fracture.
"I think we just cover a lot of bases between the both of us," Sands said. "And I think whether it's because we're close off the field, I think we just have good chemistry on the field."
Sands said the pairing worked because of how well the players’ natural instincts on the pitch complement each other, utilizing different approaches to a similar position.
"I think It's not that we're totally yin and yang, but I think he's good at the things I'm not so good at, and I'm good at the things that he's not great at," Sands said. "For example, I've always been a bit of a defender first and more conservative with my passing and that sort of thing, and I think that's where Keaton really excels, he's very forward thinking, always driving at the opponent."
Parks echoed that sentiment, saying their slightly different styles deep in midfield help balance and drive a unit headlined by Maxi Moralez in the attacking role.
"I think that how we play is similar, but then we each have those specialties that we can contribute to the game that really help us find that balance in the midfield," Parks said. "I think having that talent in Maxi in front of us and being able to trust him and trust what he can do really helps us and gives us more confidence."
Barring injuries, which have impacted both Sands and Parks during their NYCFC careers, the duo should only develop further. Sands recently signed a five-year extension to stay with his hometown club, while Parks said his contract runs through 2024.
"I love to see that," Parks said of Sands signing long-term. "I love playing with him, he really brings that defensive presence in the midfield, that’s something I’ve been working on as a player, but with him on the field I can focus even more on the attacking aspect. I love having him on the field and playing beside him."
Perhaps the biggest risk to their continued rise is the allure of Europe’s larger clubs. Upon signing his new deal amid reports of European interest, Sands made it clear he still had ambitions of heading overseas at some point in his career. And while Parks spent the early part of his professional days in Portugal with Varzim S.C. and powerhouse S.L. Benfica, a return to the sport’s largest stage still would appeal to him.
"I think if we both stick around here for that long, we’re just going to get better and better," Parks said. "At the same time, if he could get to Europe or if I could get to Europe, I think we would both want that. But if we could play together for five years or 10 years, I would greatly enjoy that as well."