SAN JOSE, Calif. — In what was a happy homecoming for Nick Lima, the San Jose Earthquakes defender returned to the training field he has known so well over his two-plus MLS seasons. He was wearing the U.S. soccer crest on his jersey, sweating in the Bay Area sunshine as the national team prepared for its upcoming friendly against Costa Rica at Avaya Stadium.
“Obviously, it has a lot of meaning for me, just being out here on the training field, I can feel it,” Lima said. “But, I’ve always approached every game, whether it be a debut or another MLS season game, it’s just a game. You’ve got to go out, and it’s business first.”
Lima is coming off a Man-of-the-Match performance against Panama last Sunday, where he notched an assist and played the full 90 minutes of a comprehensive 3-0 victory. The Castro Valley native earned his first cap that evening, something that has been a goal of his from his first days playing soccer.
“When I was a little kid, I dreamed I wanted to play for the national team in a World Cup,” he said. “That was the biggest goal I set for myself. But everything else is the day-to-day focus, following each goal you set each day, staying in line with the mission, and you take it one step at a time. But being here, yes, is something you dream of, and something I dream to continue happening.”
After a solid rookie season in 2017, Lima was invited to participate in last year’s U.S. men’s national team training camp, but he did not see any playing time in the team’s two friendlies that followed it. Following his Defender of the Year season with the Quakes in 2018, he was a no-brainer for the 2019 squad dominated by MLS players, and he has excelled under the tutelage of new head coach Gregg Berhalter.
“Yeah, it’s a new system,” Lima said. “Gregg wants to play a certain style and it takes more than what we have here in these four weeks to get used to it, so it’s going to continue as time goes on for months and years to come for the national team.”
That new system was on display against Panama, and it featured much more ball control, especially out of the back, with added responsibilities of the fullbacks to take charge farther up the field. With San Jose, Lima is consistently looking to push past the midfield on overlapping runs.
In Berhalter’s system, however, he is required to pinch in more centrally, often sliding into a defensive midfielder position as part of the build up in possession. It was a new role for Lima to learn, but he entered camp with a commitment to do what it takes to further his development. And following countless reps in training, he proved he belonged on the field against Panama.
“It was just a matter of us being to able to assess him in training, put him situations in training where we could visualize how it would look in a game,” Berhalter said. “In all the possession exercises, we put him in the middle to see, and then compared him with the other guys, getting a few weeks of data to go by, to see if he’d work out.
“Nick, I’ve always admired his skillset, and I like his competitive attitude. He proved that he’s open to trying things and learning, and he did a great job.”
Lima welcomed the challenge with open arms and the determination that helped him rise from the ranks of the local youth club soccer scene to a successful collegiate career at nearby California, and a solid spell with the Quakes Academy. Not one to refuse such an assignment, he took on the tasks Berhalter demanded and made sure his hard work paid off.
“Because I want to play,” Lima quipped. “If you are not going to abide by his system and play along those lines and adapt to it, you are not going to get playing time. But also, you want to be part of the team, you want to fit in, you want to help as well, so a lot of film, a lot of practice, learning tactics, talks, board work, so it’s all a part of it.
“There’s been good encouragement, but there’s also been constructive criticism. We need that as a group because we have to play as a unit for this system to succeed. And so that’s a majority of the conversation.”
In the lead up to the game against Panama, Lima went through a mix of emotions, both at the prospects of earning his first cap and taking on a new responsibility. He had earned the trust of Berhalter and his teammates, and he stepped onto the field at State Farm Stadium in Arizona with a maze of thoughts going through his mind.
“A little bit of everything,” he confessed. “You do what you can on the field, and to get an opportunity like that, yeah, I am not going to shy away from it. I’m going to go out there and give it my best.”
He looked comfortable from the opening whistle in his hybrid fullback/midfielder position, venturing up the field to support the attack, but never ceded space in defense. He got off a thundering shot on goal in the first half that was expertly saved, something fans of the Earthquakes have seen on occasion over the past two years. His assist on Walker Zimmerman’s goal in the second half was a perfect cross following an ambitious takeaway.
Corey Baird, who also earned his first national team cap in the 3-0 victory against Panama, shared the right side of the field with Lima. The former Stanford star played against Lima back in college and was his teammate with the local PDL Burlingame Dragons during the collegiate offseason. The current MLS Rookie of the Year with Real Salt Lake was impressed with Lima’s performance in Arizona.
“I thought Nick was fantastic,” Baird said. “Over the last three weeks, he’s really grown into that position where at the beginning, he, maybe, wasn’t 100 percent confident there, but you can see his confidence now. He really showed how much he’s learned, how much he’s grown, even over these three weeks.”
Lima’s family was there as well, celebrating his first national team camp with him and looking forward to many more. For the game at Avaya Stadium, his professional club home, Lima is expecting more than four times as many of his most staunch supporters cheering him on.
“All my close family and relatives, and I’m sure a lot of friends too,” he laughed. “Everyone close to me will be here, and I’ll get them all tickets.”
The game against Costa Rica will mark the end of the annual U.S. January camp, but Lima hopes it will not mark the end of his call-ups to the national team. He is determined to continue his trajectory with both club and country, and doing whatever it takes to keep on Berhalter’s list will drive him every day.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It is a special opportunity to be here at the beginning of the first camp, to learn and be part of the foundation that’s being built. And if I can fit in with that, hopefully I can be part of the core moving forward.”
And it won’t be all about himself, either. Lima, acutely aware of the current malaise surrounding the men’s program following it’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, wants to be a part of the U.S. Soccer renaissance in the new World Cup qualifying cycle.
“Our goal is to improve upon everything U.S. Soccer has done and change the way the world views American soccer,” he said. “Yeah, that’s collective goal, and that comes with winning tournaments here, like the Gold Cup, qualifying for Confederations Cup, qualifying for the World Cup, doing as well as we can, and winning it.”
It will be a journey that, as the cliche goes, takes one game at a time, but Lima hopes to be there every step of the way.