SAN JOSE, Calif. — As he settled into the comfortable chair at the head of the San Jose Earthquakes press conference studio, Nick Lima cracked wise on the extra attention.
The defender had just completed another busy training session, his mind focused on his club’s upcoming game against the New York Red Bulls, but he willingly acknowledged that his call-up to the U.S. men’s national team for a pair of games against Ecuador and Chile was gratifying.
“It’s exciting. It’s an honor,” Lima said. “Every time, it’s another step forward, and I know there is still a lot to learn.”
USA head coach Gregg Berhalter selected Lima, who excelled with the team back in January’s nearly month-long training camp and earned his first two caps in wins against Panama and Costa Rica, in a sign the Quakes defender is in the mix to be an important player for the program’s future.
“For us, this camp represents step two in our evaluation process,” Berhalter said in a conference call this week. “We want to continue making progress building a strong team. Our goal is to keep this group moving forward as well continue to build on our style of play and building a team culture.”
Lima is one of 14 players in the current roster who participated in the January camp, Berhalter’s first in charge since taking over the program late last year. He will be joined by 10 new players, most from European leagues, that will be looking for their own opportunities to impress the new coach.
“January camp was a good foundation for the mindset, the culture, and the style of play,” Lima said. “It showcased it a little bit, but it’s got to be another step or two steps forward to continue to show I’m coachable. Obviously, it’s a different group with a lot of talent, so I’ll be going in and learning as much as I can.”
The U.S. will face two quality opponents in quick succession during the upcoming FIFA mandated 10-day break in league play, taking on Ecuador in Orlando on March 21 and Chile in Houston on March 26, but Berhalter is not fazed by the short time frame.
“This will be the most challenging two games we’ll have together as a group, and it will because of this short runway,” Berhalter said. “So I’m excited. The way I look at it is that it is a good challenge, it’s not something to be intimidated by, and we’re only going to learn from this.”
Earthquakes head coach Matias Almeyda, who made 35 appearances for the Argentinian national team during his own playing career, is no stranger to the international soccer scene. He is acutely aware of the many challenges involved with juggling responsibilities for both club and country, and he was pleased to learn of Lima’s call-up.
“It’s always important having the opportunity to defend your home jersey,” Almeyda said through a translator. “Representing your country as an athlete is one of the greatest honors you can have. Nick is a young player, and this is an important step up to be called to the national team again. It is a different pressure than playing for your club, and it will allow him to keep growing and maturing as a player.”
Almeyda has named Lima to his starting lineup in games against Montreal and Minnesota to open the season, though the coach has substituted him off both times. Lima will join the team in Florida on Monday, two days after the Earthquakes take on New York at Red Bull Arena, ready to take on whatever Berhalter has in store for him.
“I’m going to go in and play my game to the best of my ability, to continue to improve, to continue to learn,” Lima said.
He’ll certainly face some competition for minutes in the two friendlies from Deandre Yedlin, who features at right back with Newcastle United in the English Premier League. Yedlin, only 25 years old, has already earned 57 caps for the U.S. — second-most on the current roster to only Michael Bradley — while Lima has just two. Still, he’s ready for the mixture of competition and camaraderie which the next week will feature.
“I’m hoping to learn from a guy like Deandre Yedlin, to be honest,” Lima said. “He’s been so successful and is currently. But at the end of the day, I’m going to play my game, Deandre is going to play his game, and no matter if we are playing the same position or different positions, it will be up to Gregg what he wants.”
Another invitee may also be asked by Berhalter to audition at right back in the upcoming camp, as Tyler Adams, normally a midfielder, has the skill set to thrive in the role the coach wants his fullbacks to follow. Lima displayed his competence in the right back position in the wins against Panama and Costa Rica, setting a high bar for the others to clear.
Two players that have previous experience with the U.S. and could still be factors at right back moving forward are Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson. Berhalter has discussed their national team futures with both players, not ruling them out for future call-ups, though he did say that with qualifying for the 2022 World Cup the priority, both veterans are borderline to make that potential squad in Qatar.
“This roster is made up of guys we think can potentially play in 2022,” Berhalter said. “For us, again, it’s steps through the evaluation process, getting eyes on all these players, and still balancing out experience versus inexperience versus core players. It’s a balancing act with this roster.”
Following the March friendlies, the next games for the U.S. will come as part of this summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup, the first meaningful games in Berhalter’s tenure in charge. Lima will want to put in a good ten days with the national team, whether he features against Ecuador and Chile or not, to keep his name in the mix for the upcoming regional tournament. Berhalter and his coaching staff will be looking at how players respond to his instructions in training sessions and the two friendlies in order to measure everyone’s progress.
“First of all is the players’ openness to learn. That’s going to be really important,” Berhalter said. “We know it’s not going to be perfect, but how much of that information is absorbed and executed upon, that’s what we are going to be looking for. I want to see what we can get in in this short period of time and what it can look like.”
The opportunity for Lima to impress Berhalter, especially with incumbent right back Yedlin in camp as well, is one he is mentally and physically ready to seize.
The Earthquakes will see five other players, all starters for Almeyda, also get call-ups to their respective national teams during the March break.
Marcos Lopez, who was acquired in the offseason to play left back for the Quakes, will join Peru for games against Paraguay and El Salvador. Harold Cummings and Anibal Godoy, veterans of Panama’s 2018 World Cup roster, are set to fly to Portugal for a friendly against Brazil. Lastly, Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili and Guram Kashia are expected to start for Georgia in its first two games, versus Switzerland and Ireland, in the qualifying round of the 2020 UEFA European Championships.
“It always gives us happiness to have our players selected to their national teams,” Almeyda said. “It would be nice to have all of our players called up, but that is up to their managers.”
More than half the Quakes starting eleven is a boastful number in its own right, and Almeyda will be busy watching their games from afar. Lima and the rest of the international call-ups will return to San Jose following their respective friendlies. The Earthquakes host Monterrey of Liga MX in a friendly during the break and return to MLS action against LAFC on Saturday March 30 at Avaya Stadium.