SAN JOSE, Calif. – The bulk of practice had concluded Tuesday afternoon, and as the San Jose Earthquakes’ attackers prepared to run through some finishing drills, most of the club’s defenders were in the process of peeling off their cleats and heading back to the locker room at Avaya Stadium.
On the far side of San Jose’s practice field, however, there remained a trio of figures: assistant coach John Spencer, veteran Andres Imperiale and rookie Nick Lima. The threesome spent several minutes intently discussing one of the finer points of defending at the MLS level.
It was just another learning experience for Lima, a 22-year-old who signed a Homegrown contract with the Quakes in December. As a freshman at Cal in 2013, Lima was still playing at forward, his position coming up through the youth ranks. Three years of NCAA play as a right back had made him into an MLS prospect; now comes the part of refining Lima into an MLS starter.
“There’s stuff to learn every day,” Lima told MLSsoccer.com. “All the older guys, like Imperiale, they’re helping me. I’m just trying to take in as much information as I can and just learn more and more every day. That’s why we’re here, to get better. Just one percent a day, if you can. That’s my goal.”
Lima seems to be absorbing his lessons well, if the first two weeks’ worth of results are any indication. The Bay Area native, who grew up watching the Quakes and “idolizing” club captain Chris Wondolowski, has played all 180 minutes in San Jose’s first two matches – both victories. Lima scored his first MLS goal with a savvy run into the area and a clinical finish from Wondolowski’s layoff as part of the Quakes’ come-from-behind 3-2 victory against Vancouver on Saturday.
“Stepping in and playing the real thing, you definitely learn a lot from [the matches],” Lima said. “It’s been a little surreal at times, but you’ve got to be focused, and I’ve learned to keep my mind on the game and just keep going.”
Lima’s contributions have been even more important considering that the Quakes’ incumbent at right back, longtime MLS stalwart Marvell Wynne, was found in February to be suffering from a heart abnormality and is sidelined indefinitely due to the condition.
“We gave him a whole preseason and I thought he had a really good preseason, and that was what gave us the confidence to put him in the starting lineup,” Quakes coach Dominic Kinnear told MLSsoccer.com.
Lima’s ascension gives the Quakes a second Homegrown player alongside midfielder Tommy Thompson, who has also started in both victories this season. San Jose is hoping it’s only the first of many such additions; at halftime on Saturday, the club honored nine current or former academy players who are representing US national team youth sides, including midfielder Amir Bashti of Stanford and goalkeeper JT Marcinkowski of Georgetown.
Lima follows in the MLS footsteps of young defenders Keegan Rosenberry and Joshua Yaro of the Philadelphia Union and Brandon Vincent of the Chicago Fire. All three moved into starting roles as rookies in 2016; Rosenberry and Vincent were both named to the MLS All-Star team and featured in the league’s 2-1 loss to Arsenal.
The emergence of those players – especially Vincent, whom Lima saw in Pac-12 conference play – helped convince Lima “that it’s possible” to immediately jump into an MLS lineup. But there’s still a long way to go, as Lima himself points out. The MLS regular-season grind is roughly three times as long as the typical college season, with twice as many matches.
“I’ve done well for two games, but it’s two games,” Lima said. “There’s 32 games left in the regular season, and like one of the coaches told me, ‘You’ve got to treat it like a tryout, every day.’”