SAN JOSE, Calif. – When Cal men’s soccer coach Kevin Grimes tuned into the US national team debut of former Golden Bears star Nick Lima last weekend, he might have been one of the few people who wasn’t bowled over by the sight of Lima covering ground in the middle of the pitch as a part-time defensive midfielder.
After all, Grimes had used Lima in that role before.
“His senior year at Cal, we had a four- or five-game stretch where we played him at the 6, because we were tinkering a little bit and we were thinking Nick’s leadership, his senior mentality, maybe we need to get him in the center of the field,” Grimes told MLSsoccer.com by phone this week. “He was great there.”
Ultimately, Cal’s defensive lapses meant Lima had to return to his post on the back line – but the experience likely came in handy when US coach Gregg Berhalter tasked him with a dual role in a 3-0 win against Panama on Sunday.
Lima, typically a more conventional (if attack-minded) right back for the San Jose Earthquakes, served in that capacity on defense for the USMNT. Yet when the Americans were in possession, Lima didn’t stay out wide, instead taking up a position near Michael Bradley at the base of the US midfield.
Lima turned in a man-of-the-match-level performance, helping post a clean sheet at one end while snuffing out a nascent Panama break and turning the ensuing turnover into a picture-perfect assist on Walker Zimmerman’s 80th-minute goal.
Lima’s club fans await a chance to potentially see him work on his new role when the USMNT host Costa Rica at Avaya Stadium on Saturday afternoon (3:30 pm ET | FOX).
“I played the 6, so it was different,” Lima said of the Panama game after training on Tuesday. “I think there were moments in the game that allowed me to be myself and what I’m used to doing. … You do what you can to get on the field. To get an opportunity like that, I’m not going to shy away from it. I’m going to go out and give it my best.”
Berhalter said his staff had been working Lima in the middle of the team’s possession exercises throughout this month’s camp to see if the plan would work.
“Nick, I’ve always admired his skill set and I like his competitive attitude,” Berhalter said. “I think he proved that he’s open to trying things and learning and he did a great job.”
That comes as no surprise to Grimes, the man responsible for turning Lima from a youth player who worked primarily as a forward and winger into a right back who could key Cal’s offense with his thrusts into the final third.
“You could just see that his skill set, how good he was going forward when he faced forward, that you almost said, ‘My gosh, this is the perfect prototypical outside back that we saw in Brazil over the years,’ with Cafu and Roberto Carlos, Dani Alves in more recent years,” said Grimes, who sold Lima on the move midway through his freshman season.
“I remember a spring game he played against San Jose State. He was just an incredible attacking outside back. Everything that we thought would come to light came to light.”
After signing a Homegrown contract with the Quakes before the 2017 season, Lima immediately stepped into the starting lineup, only to be slowed by injury in the final two months. Last year, he started every league match and subbed off only once en route to a team-high 3,049 minutes.
Lima was brought into the US camp under acting coach Dave Sarachan in January 2018, but didn’t make an appearance. That all changed last weekend, completing a boyhood goal for Lima, who said he took several moments during the Panama match to soak in the experience.
“You’re just in the moment and you feel the most calm you’ve ever felt,” Lima said. “The first dream, when I was a little kid, was playing for the national team in a World Cup. That’s the first one, the biggest one that I set for myself. … You take it one step at a time, but being here, it’s definitely something that you dream of and something I dream to continue happening.”