SAN JOSE, Calif. — When the San Jose Earthquakes face the Montreal Impact this weekend at Avaya Stadium in the MLS season opener for both teams, defender Nick Lima will have a singular focus for the hosts: erase the memories of a disappointing 2018 and ensure a positive start to the new campaign.
“It’s been a work in progress, obviously, from the beginning of preseason,” Lima told Pro Soccer USA this week. “It’s been a new everything in this organization, and we want to forget about last year and start fresh. It’s been fun so far, and I’m exciting to see what the final piece will be for the first game, the beginning of a long road. We are all looking forward to Saturday.”
Montreal stumbled out of the gate last season, losing 10 of its first 13 games, but rallied to finish in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, one spot shy of making the MLS Cup playoffs. Head coach Remi Garde will look to start 2019 off on the right foot with a result in San Jose, and he has the firepower, with team MVP Ignacio Piatti leading the charge, to make it happen.
“They have a lot of good attacking players,” Lima said. “We have to go in and implement our system — high marking, high press, with a lot of energy and high work rate very early — and let them know, ‘Hey, you might think that we’ll be a walk in the park as you thought before, but we’re a different animal now.’ That’s the tone we have to set from the start, and let the rest of the league know as well.”
Lima will also face a familiar foe. He and Impact defender Daniel Lovitz recently spent nearly a month together as part of the U.S. men’s national team’s January training camp. Both fullbacks impressed new head coach Gregg Berhalter and earned their first caps in friendly games against Panama and Costa Rica, with Lima on the right and Lovitz on the left. Now, back in club colors, they’ll be opponents, engaging along the same sideline Saturday at Avaya Stadium.
“This is my team here, and we go out and compete every game,” Lima said. “Just because we were teammates doesn’t change the way I’m going to go in and play him. Sure, there will be an occasional laugh or joke, but that will be off the field.
“He’s a good guy, and, obviously, he’s a heck of a player. He deserves the minutes he got in January camp. It’s going to be a tough matchup, but also that’s a tough left side, with both Piatti and him, and I’m going to have my work cut out for me.”
Two years ago, in the first game of his rookie season, Lima turned heads with his performance defending Piatti. The Earthquakes earned a 1-0 victory against the visiting Impact on opening night. He’s always enjoyed the challenge of facing the league’s best attacking players, and his growth as a fullback has received attention on the international level.
Lima completed a training stint with Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin in the MLS offseason and spent a month with the USMNT. His stock has certainly elevated. The Quakes defensive MVP last season isn’t complacent, however, and he knows he’ll need to perform at a high level week in and week out to advance his standing, and it continues Saturday against Lovitz and the rest of the Impact.
“What gets you the minutes with the national team is the quality and the work rate,” Lima said. “I am going to have to be on my toes for him, combining with Piatti and the other guys, and together with my guys be ready.”
The U.S. will play two international friendlies later this month, hosting both Ecuador and Chile, and Berhalter is expected to announce his roster by March 12. Lima, Lovitz, and the rest of the January camp standouts will be in the mix for selection, though the squad is expected to consist primarily of the eligible European-based players.
Lima has yet to hear from Berhalter or his staff about his prospects to make the roster, but he knows his performances with the Earthquakes will go a long way to determining his fate.
“The game on Saturday is the only thing on my radar,” he said. “I have to play well in that to get a start in the next game, and, then maybe I’ll get the call. The game on Saturday is my priority.”
San Jose’s struggles in 2018 left a black mark on the franchise, but the offseason has given everyone a chance to reflect and heal. Lima’s own experience, with the various training stints and the more recent preseason with his Quakes’ teammates, leaves him optimistic for what the team can accomplish, and he’s excited for the new campaign to begin.
“The beautiful thing about sports, is you play one game, then you’ve got another right away. That’s the way it is with seasons as well,” Lima said. “We’ve received a lot of support, from the fans, the coaching staff, and the organization, to really turn this around. I’m looking forward to showing everyone what this team is about, how we could get hit pretty hard last year, but make a huge comeback.”
● Chris Wondolowski enters the 2019 season just one goal back of Landon Donovan on the MLS all-time scoring list, and “Wondo Watch” will be back in full effect on Saturday. The captain is expected to start for the Quakes, and after scoring three times in the preseason, two from the penalty spot, he is eager to break the record sooner than later. San Jose plays four of its first five games of the season at Avaya Stadium, so the odds are it will happen in front of his home fans.
● Danny Hoesen missed the middle of preseason camp as he was working on securing his Green Card, but he returned to training with the team this week. The Earthquakes must be roster compliant ahead of the season opener, but they currently are two over the limit for international slots as the Friday deadline looms. Gaining domestic status for Hoesen was a priority for general manager Jesse Fioranelli this offseason, and an announcement of his status is expected soon.
● The Quakes currently have 30 players listed on their roster, which is the league limit. Fioranelli and head coach Matias Almeyda can lower that number by sending some of those players on loan to USL Championship affiliate Reno 1868 FC. Four of the players on the current squad are goalkeepers, so one or more is likely slated to join Reno in the coming days. 2019 MLS second round draft pick Sergio Rivas remains unsigned, and there’s no update on his status heading into the start of the season.
When: March 2, 7:00 p.m. Pacific Time
Where: Avaya Stadium, San Jose, CA.
Broadcast: NBC Sports California, KNBR 1050
Live Stream: ESPN+
Earthquakes injury report: Out: Kevin Partida (knee surgery).