By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 26, 2018) US Soccer Players - 29 players took part in this year’s USMNT January camp, a call-up that’s an honor and opportunity unto itself. For all of them, the goal over the past two weeks is clear. They want a place on the game day roster for Sunday’s friendly vs Bosnia & Herzegovina at StubHub Center (9:30pm ET - FS1).
The simple experience of being part of the USMNT’s daily working environment is valuable. Being a part of that game day group, however, means wearing the game day uniform and being in the mix for actual minutes on the field. History shows it’s a milestone that can kick a career into high gear, for country and club alike.
Even among that list of would-be debutantes, most have taken part in other USMNT activities in the past, whether youth national team duty or prior January camps. Not so for Nick Lima, though. This is the first international opportunity of any kind, at any level, for the San Jose Earthquakes fullback, one of Major League Soccer’s top rookies last season. So he’s soaking up everything he can.
“It’s going really well so far,” Lima told USSoccerPlayers.com. “I’m just trying to take in as much information as I can and bring to the table what I have all year. From that standpoint I’ve got to do what got me here, be calm and relaxed, but it’s a very good experience. The quality is super-high.”
Lima faces stiff competition for a slot on Sunday’s squad. More familiar faces like Justin Morrow, Matt Polster. Danny Acosta, Brandon Vincent, and perhaps even the versatile Tyler Adams also in the mix for playing time at outside back. Considering how Lima reached this point, though, even a spot on the USMNT bench represents a striking signpost for the Castro Valley, California native. His story reflects how the American developmental path can be tortuous even in MLS academies.
Despite unexpectedly taking the starting right back job for the Quakes’ last year, Lima has only been playing that position since the early stages of his college career at Cal. Up to that point he’d been a goalscorer, a scampering striker who idolized Cristiano Ronaldo as he dreamed of a future in the pros. So when Golden Bears coach Kevin Grimes approached him about a move to a marauding fullback role, he faced a steep learning curve in a compressed time frame.
“There was a certain style we played at Cal and we had a lot of players, and there were a few pieces of the puzzle missing,” Lima recalled. “The transition was tough right away, because I knew I wanted to be a professional player and it’s a big transition when I felt like I was so close – being in college you only have a few years there and you really want to develop. But I think the mindset stayed the same. I had to buckle down a little harder because it was so new to me. But I think with my attributes and strengths, I was able to adjust.”
His odds of making it to the next level as a 5-foot-8 #9 were probably remote. So he embraced the idea more quickly than those closest to him.
“My parents, my family said ‘oh, you’re a forward, you’re not a right back,’ but I was on board pretty quickly because I saw myself being there,” said Lima. “It was tough in the moment, but quickly I realized it and grabbed and was like ‘yeah, I can be the best player at right back’ for the kind of player I was. So far it’s worked out.”
Lima didn’t even finish his youth soccer career in the club’s academy system. Though San Jose have more recently stepped up their focus on growing their own talent from the rich Bay Area youth scene, their system was not up to snuff when he was rising through the pipeline. Halfway through high school, he elected to leave the Quakes for local youth rivals De Anza Force, a club led by former Quakes player Jeff Baicher.
Lima continued to train with the Earthquakes’ senior squad whenever possible. With aerial service to hulking target men like Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon the default option during the club’s “Goonies never say die” era under veteran coach Dominic Kinnear, Lima could be forgiven for questioning his place in the Quakes’ future plans.
“When I was first there [the academy] was still far separated from the first team,” Lima said. “It wasn’t really the same. But you’d love watching those guys, I mean, in the academy you’re like hey, we’re in this team’s academy, that’s the ultimate goal, right? You want to be on the first team of the academy you’re playing for. I remember watching Steven Lenhart and those guys, the Bash Brothers, it was fun to watch.”
When Lima was ready to turn pro after four NCAA seasons, his connection to the Earthquakes was tenuous enough that other MLS clubs challenged San Jose’s Homegrown claim, hoping to get a crack at him in the SuperDraft. As it turned out, logging PDL time with the Quakes’ affiliate Burlingame Dragons likely safeguarded the club’s rights to his signature, making him just the second Homegrown in franchise history.
Now he finds himself at the center of a dramatic, multi-layered overhaul of the way San Jose operates, orchestrated by second-year general manager Jesse Fioranelli and incoming Swedish head coach Mikael Stahre. Their challenge is not unlike that of the USMNT in recent years: Add some sophistication without losing the grit.
“I think we have an identity as a team that can compete. Like we saw last year we can make playoffs and we can beat some of the best teams,” said Lima, while acknowledging a need to “keep raising the quality” at his club. “San Jose as an organization has always had that identity of ‘grind it out,’ like we have done in the last multiple years, as long as I can remember, getting those 90th-minute equalizers or winners.
“It’s definitely on the right track. There will be a lot of players that come out from the academy, because yeah, the Bay Area is such a dense community of talented young players,” he added. “There’s a lot that comes through at least for a minute or so, the Quakes system. Just keeping them there and letting them develop, because if you incorporate the first-team philosophy or the philosophy of how you want them to play through the system from top to bottom, then I think it will be fun to watch a lot of players come out of the academy and do big things for the club. Because that’s what you want, to develop them young and keep them through your own organization – at least for me, that would be my goal. I think that’s what Jesse Fioranelli, our GM, has said, that he wants that youth system to really make an impact on the first team in the future.”
Whether his USMNT debut is close at hand or not, Lima will do his best to dodge MLS’ recurring “sophomore slump” tradition and help his club team progress in 2018. Whatever that looks like in the long run, January camp has provided an invaluable kickstart to the campaign ahead.
“Each practice, get a little bit better. Pick a skill, pick a thing that I failed on in film and make it better, each and every game,” he said of his mindset going forward. “I think it starts with January camp here, getting my first opportunity with the national team here, making an impact, making it known that I deserve to be here and take what skills and leadership that I learn from this camp and take that level of play back to my club.”
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