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SAN JOSE, Calif. — It’s been a tough couple of weeks for San Jose Earthquakes defender Nick Lima, but he’s not letting any recent disappointments on the field slow him down.
Lima barely had time to digest the Quakes’ disappointing end to the 2019 Major League Soccer season, a Decision Day 3-1 loss at the Portland Timbers that eliminated San Jose from the MLS Cup playoffs chase, before he was on a plane to join up with the U.S. men’s national team for a pair of Concacaf Nations League matches.
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The USA beat Cuba convincingly in their tournament debut but followed that up with a dispiriting 2-0 loss on the road against Canada, the first time in 34 years they’d lost to their northern neighbors. Lima played a role of the bench in Toronto after not seeing the field against Cuba, but he could do little to help the U.S. avoid defeat.
A day later, after traveling cross continent, Lima was finally back in the Bay Area, reunited with his Earthquakes’ teammates and taking part in the team’s Thursday morning training session. Blocking out the vitriol that spewed forth after the Canada loss, he was already looking ahead to what is next for both club and country.
“Clearly, we weren’t happy with the result,” Lima said from the Avaya Stadium press room, “but going forward there’s stuff you can control in a game. We go forward and we know what we can control, and that’s our effort and what we put into the field.”
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With the Earthquakes beginning a three-month off-season, Lima’s full attention is with the national team, and he expects to be called up by head coach Gregg Berhalter in November for two more Nations League games against the same two opponents. If the USMNT wins both, defeating Canada by at least two goals when they face off November 15 in Orlando, they’ll advance to the semifinal round of the tournament next June. Lima feels the defeat to Canada provides plenty of lessons for him and his countrymen.
“You know, eleven guys working as a unit, as a team, follow the tactics and then just go out and execute the next game,” Lima said. “But we have to execute it with 110% from everyone, and I think it’s something that we can easily fix. Guys are willing, guys are hungry, so it’s a bump in the road for sure, but I think that it is a group that is resilient and will be able to make some good out of it.”
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Berhalter has received the brunt of the criticism following the defeat to Canada, especially as he works to instill a specific system of play within the group. There are concerns that the coach’s ambitions may be too grand for a roster that spends such limited time together, but Lima is not buying it, especially since Berhalter communicates regularly with every player. He does feel that more games together, including those in November and friendlies expected to be scheduled early in 2020, are what is necessary for the team’s development.
“Gregg breaks it down in a way that is understandable for each player,” Lima said. “He’s good with communication and talking guys when they have questions, seeing their confusion on the field without them having to say anything. He analyzes it very well, players and tactics, and I think guys are learning. Yeah, it’s a process and it’s going to take time for guys to really get full confidence, and hopefully this turns around sooner than later. It will take time.”
Trusting the process is nothing new for Lima, as he’s been going through the same trials and tribulations at the club level throughout 2019. He was the Earthquakes’ Defensive Player of the Year in 2018 and one of the few bright spots during a lost MLS season, earning the attention of the soccer public heading into the new year. His call-up to Berhalter’s first camp in charge of the men’s national team was heralded as the next step in his professional development, and following an impressive debut against Panama, followed closely by another strong performance against Costa Rica, Lima was touted as a favorite to be the U.S. right back for years to come.
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Big, meaningful victories have become scarce for the US national team over the last couple years, but they definitely scored one when Ajax right back revelation Sergino Dest announced that he would continue his international soccer in red, white and blue.
The 18-year-old son of a Dutch mother and a Surinamese-American father, who earned his first two senior caps in October, was eligible to make a one-time switch to the Netherlands. Though Dest has come up through the youth international ranks in a US shirt, Oranje boss Ronald Koeman made a late bid to turn his head on behalf of the country of his birth. He took a spell to think it all over, setting off sweat glands at Soccer House and across our soccer bubble.
In the end, Dest opted to stick with the USMNT instead of teaming up with the Dutch, who have reached three World Cup finals and routinely boast one of the most talented squads in the world. Now that the sighs of relief have passed, we can all take stock of what his decision means for the Nats, both now and in the years to come.
The obvious factor relates to what Dest adds to the team on the field. The youngster greatly improves and deepens Gregg Berhalter’s right back pool, if not also providing the manager with a starting-caliber choice for the left side.
Dest is more comfortable on his natural right side, but possesses enough adaptable quality to make it work on the opposite flank. Whether working starboard or port, the youngster display some wizardly moves rushing in to attack. He already has four assists in just 16 games for Ajax and can also threaten with long-range shots. He largely defends well, especially when facing up to a ball-carrier, but can certainly gain more savvy to eliminate mistakes.
On the right-back depth chart, Dest is in a dogfight with the likes of Reggie Cannon, Nick Lima and the presumed top pick, fit-again Newcastle United man DeAndre Yedlin. However, it can be well-argued that he instantly becomes the best option on the left.
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But upon joining his Quakes teammates in preseason, two weeks later than everyone else, he had a tough transition under another new head coach, Matias Almeyda, and suddenly his position upon the pedestal he had ascended was in peril. The Argentine coach had his own grand tactical plans he was implementing, and they seemed almost orthogonal to those Lima had been groomed with under Berhalter. It was a challenge.
“I think it was a learning experience for us all,” Lima said. “We had the opportunity to come in and learn from a different system. We had so much to work on coming off of last year. We started off slow, but then as time went on, we gained confidence, and then it was up and down, and I think through it, we put ourselves in positions we wanted to be.”
Lima, perhaps more than others on the team, seemed to struggle under the guidance of Almeyda during the first two months of the season. He had lost his starting role as the Earthquakes right back to Tommy Thompson, the role he also featured at with the USA, and was finding his minutes limited to left back. It was a big adjustment for Lima, but it was not one he shied away from in making his presence felt on the field.
“It was different, you know, from playing on the right, but it is just not thinking about it,” Lima said. “You go out and read the game and try to put myself and teammates in positions they want to be in. You still go out with full confidence, but work more on the training pitch, ask questions, look at film. … It is different, but at the same time, you are still playing, and it’s soccer, and I know how to do that.”
After a season in which he started all 34 games for the Earthquakes, Lima featured in only 24 games in 2019. With Thompson established at right back, Lima battled with newcomer Marcos Lopez for time on the left. By season’s end, he had bested the Peruvian international and was Almeyda’s every game starter. Accordingly to the underlying numbers, Lima’s last four games were his best for the Quakes all season, and it was a tough pill to swallow to not see San Jose make the MLS Cup playoffs.
“By the end of the season, we dipped a little bit and we, unfortunately, didn’t make it,” Lima said, “but I think there is a lot of good that we take away from it. We have the knowledge going into the off-season for what we need to do to be ready for, in terms of workload, practices, the preseason. When the season starts to not still be learning something that is brand new, and I think we are in a good spot to move forward.”
2019 has been a learning experience at the club and country level like no other for Lima, and he showed no signs of being worn down by the process. Rather, the 24-year-old defender, with 9 national team caps and counting this year and a new on-field responsibility with the Earthquakes, knows exactly what he needs to do in the coming months to continue his growth for both teams.
“It goes without being said, you bring your top level when you go into the off-season and get ready,” Lima said. “There’s another camp in November, so stay ready for next month. And then, it starts in early January and you keep going and come in and bring a level of quality to the guys, improved fitness, speed, endurance, strength, a little bit of everything. That’s what the off-season is for. It’s enjoyable in that aspect because I get to train in ways that I don’t normally get to in the season.”
For Lima and his development as a professional, 2018 might have provided the awards, but 2019 has been even more rewarding. And given his drive and determination, 2020 promises to be, whether he’s donning Quakes’ black and blue or the colors of the USA, his best year ever.