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Crew rookie Will Sands is prepared for a potential Hell is Real Derby start

There’s no lack of confidence from the Black & Gold reserve left back.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

In the 27th minute of the Columbus Crew’s 2-2 draw against Atlanta United, fullback Pedro Santos left the field with a hamstring injury. Before rookie defender Will Sands entered the match for the Black & Gold, the irony of the moment wasn’t lost on head coach Caleb Porter.

Nearly three months prior, in the 24th minute, Santos left the match again with an injury. It was Sands’ second appearance in MLS, but his first substantial minutes against an opposing first team in league play.

Before crossing the sideline Sunday, Porter reminded the rookie of the moment of déjà vu before sending Sands out for an impressive performance.

With Santos now recovering from a right thigh injury, Sands’ number will be called again, but now in potentially his first start.

That could cause some worry for supporters and team alike. After all, playing a rookie on an established side of veterans could cause an easy target for FC Cincinnati in Saturday’s Hell is Real Derby. But that worry is alleviated pretty quickly because of how well Sands has played.

“He’s been prepared to step in and I think you saw that every time he’s been given the chance to go in,” Porter said this week. “Is there going to be a tougher matchup than an (Atlanta’s Luiz Araújo)? I don’t think so. That guy’s one of the most dangerous players in the league in my opinion and two games he’s gone against him and he’s done extremely well.”

Araújo, the Brazilian winger who has four goals and five assists for the Five Stripes this year, was held to no assists or goals in the over 120 minutes played against Sands. The Crew brought Sands into the team for a reason.

In his first professional season after finishing a collegiate career with Georgetown, Sands has been nothing close to amateur. Although Sands has logged only 193 MLS regular season minutes, all as substitutes, he isn’t a stranger to competing for the Black & Gold

Sands started in the U.S. Open Cup against Detroit City on April 19 and in five starts with Crew 2, the fullback has two assists. Now Sands has the chance to replicate solid performances with the senior team, starting in Cincinnati.

Against FC Cincy, Sands will have to fill space to close out a much-improved Cincinnati attack. Out wide, the home side will have Álvaro Barreal or Ray Gaddis down Sands’ side, with Barreal scoring four and assisting on five so far in 2022.

Sands will be tasked with not allowing space for Barreal or Gaddis to connect with three attacking threats who lead the league, as a trio, in goal production. Forwards Brandon Vazquez and Brenner and midfielder Luciano Acosta are all formidable attacking threats that, if defended correctly on the wings, are less of a threat.

The Crew performed well against Cincinnati in that department on July 17, holding the visitors to no goals, a feat only achieved five times in 26 matches, and hasn’t been done again since that Black & Gold victory at Field. Next to Sands on defense will likely be center back Miloš Degenek, who isn’t concerned at the prospect of playing with a rookie, but has advice for him.

“I think it’s more or less just about soaking the atmosphere the first few minutes,” said Degenek. “But not letting that overwhelm you and then kind of drain you and just about enjoying the game.”

It definitely looks like Sands is enjoying the game. In his college career, which includes a 2019 College Cup trophy, Sands a quiet player who isn’t ruffled easily. A “go with the flow” kind of personality from a family overflowing with soccer ability.

Currently, Sands’ twin brother James Sands plays for Scottish Premiership side Rangers. While the Crew’s Sands hasn’t had a ton of conversation around the game with his brother, due to a five-hour time difference, their success is evident on the soccer field. Even then, as a rookie, Sands has areas where he’s looking to grow.

“I think it’s just playing a bit more confidently settling in a little bit more,” said Sands. “I feel like if you haven’t had quite as many minutes, you kind of play safe at times. And I feel like as more minutes come, I kind of want to push forward more and kind of take more chances and risks.”

Nothing is more evident of that growth on the field than Sunday’s draw. Sands initially sat back after coming in for Santos in the first half. In 72nd minute, those risks turned into a reward. Sands went up against a defender, won a ball and proceeded to dribble past two additional United players before sending a perfectly placed pass to forward Cucho Hernández to put Columbus up 2-1.

Although the Crew didn’t hold onto the lead, the performance from Sands creates excitement around the future of the Balck & Gold fullback spot.

With three matches in the next seven days, Sands is likely going to have plenty of minutes to continue his professional development with Santos out. This begins with Cincinnati in the Hell is Real Derby, which is nothing that Sands isn’t already prepared to tackle.

“I think as can be seen in Atlanta, anything can happen,” said Sands. “Injuries can happen early so you always have to be prepared to go a full 90 even if you’re not projected to start. So, I don’t think anything changes, just kind of got to keep the routine and stay with it.”