Nick Lima reached, perhaps, the apex of his young professional soccer career in January.
One of the brightest stars from the US national team January camp, Lima made his USMNT debut in a hybrid right back/central midfield role that captured the curiosity of the American soccer world. The skillset required to execute such a duty at the international level is one that few players can achieve. Effectively, he needed the technical ability of a central midfielder, the defensive aptness of a fullback, a tactical understanding of the highest order and the tenacity of a player with something to prove.
The 24-year-old exhibited all of the above – with less than a month of training to familiarize himself with new head coach Gregg Berhalter's tactics, lest we forget – expertly. He was doused in praise by those who may not have known his name prior to his USMNT debut. The two games were his national star-turn.
Two months later, though, things weren't going quite to plan for Lima. The San Jose Earthquakes got off to a putrid start under new boss Matias Almeyda and Lima, who started all 34 matches last year and the first three in 2019, found himself on the bench for three straight games as the Quakes sought to reverse fortunes.
“It wasn’t something I was happy about, but at the same time, it wasn’t something that would deter me," Lima told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday. "If anything, it was just a challenge. I enjoy those.”
It's going to take more than that to halt Lima's ascent.
After that trio of games on the bench, Lima returned to the starting XI against Sporting Kansas City, this time at left back. It's a position the versatile defender had played occasionally in his career, though has featured predominantly on the right side of defense.
No matter, of course. Lima excelled and has played every minute of the club's next four matches, in which the Quakes are suddenly rolling, jumping from the bottom of the league to above the playoff line in rapid time.
Since day one of preseason, the Quakes have deployed a unique man-marking system, meaning an Almeyda fullback is a vastly different task to a Berhalter fullback. In theory it's the same position, but in practice, there are few similarities.
“It took some time, trying to get as much instruction as I could," Lima said. "It was definitely a 180. There was instinct coming from one to the other that you have to break the mold of quickly and adapt.”
One constant, he said, was work rate. For Almeyda's system to be successful, you have to outwork your opponent. If you get beat or outrun, the whole tactical enterprise crumbles.
Not a problem for Lima. In a system which creates duels all over the pitch, he thrives on a Me vs. You mentality.
“Sticking to our guy, on their back the whole game and getting under their skin, I love it." Lima said. “It’s becoming one of my favorite roles because the athleticism and smarts, trying to think a step or two in front of the guy and just always be there the whole game, as a competitor you love it. It’s a battle that I think I do very well.
“It’s very intense for the players," Lima added. "You can’t hide in this system, you’re going to be exploited."
In short order, Lima has progressed from the University of California, to signing a Homegrown deal with the Quakes, to becoming a vital member of the club, to earning his national team debut. He continues to set goals and achieve them, so he doesn't know what the future holds, but he hopes it includes the 2019 Gold Cup this summer.
“It’s a goal of mine, of course, but it’s not my decision," Lima said of national team duty. "All I can do is hopefully put some in the back of the net, and help the team as much as I can. Getting a couple wins along the way can never hurt.”