One of the things that makes January Camp worth watching is the players getting a shot at making the U.S. Men’s National Team when some of the top names are unavailable. Several young players got just that chance in Sunday’s 3-0 win over Panama and they didn’t disappoint.
Nick Lima was the Man of the Match thanks to his defensive responsibility, timely overlapping runs, and pinpoint passing. Djordje Mihailovic did well to get into space and scored his first international goal because of it. Corey Baird provided the assist on said goal because of his fearless runs down the right flank and his ability to spot runs like Mihailovic’s. Finally, Christian Ramirez popped on as a sub and was able to put himself in the perfect position for a tap-in finish at the end of the game.
Lima was the clear standout among the debutantes. He was asked to do just about everything on the pitch. He had defensive responsibilities against Panama’s wide players. He facilitated moves going forward both by creating plays in the center of the park and providing crosses from the wings. His vast and varied responsibilities earned head coach Gregg Berhalter’s praise after the game.
“He got the coach’s man of the match and it was because of that complication of what we asked him to do and how he dealt with it,” Berhalter said about Lima. “It’s not easy to ask your right back to get the ball with his back to goal sometimes, not easy to ask him to pivot in midfield to create space for other people but he did a good job of that. He competed on every play. The second goal is a great example of his competing in transition and then winning the ball and serving a great ball in.”
Lima himself was pleased with his performance individually and of the team as a whole. He took a lot from his experience in last January Camp. He was called into Dave Sarachan’s team, but despite hard work in training, he never made it into a game. Thanks to another strong camp, his name showed up in the starting lineup and he performed better than anyone could have asked.
“It feels good,” Lima said after the match. “There’s a lot of learning moments from last year and not getting to play. There’s certain things that I take away individually, what I can do as part of the team.”
While right back is his normal position with the San Jose Earthquakes, his responsibilities on Sunday night were not typical. Even so, he took the unfamiliarity in stride and did what he knew he had to do.
“There’s times where it felt a little uncomfortable playing a different position but I know, for the most part, what I was supposed to do under [Berhalter],” Lima said. “He’s very clear and very tactical and it’s very helpful. Being there, I took that learning opportunity in the past couple weeks and was just able to play and be calm. That’s what it was. Be in the moment, not overthinking, and it worked out a little bit tonight.”
Lima, of course, didn’t do the job by himself. Fellow first-timer Djordje Mihailovic scored a goal, as did Ramirez thanks to an assist from Jonathan Lewis, another USMNT player seeing his first action and earning the boss’s praise.
“When you look at Baird and Mihailovic, two new first cap guys scoring points and you look at Lewis and Ramirez, same thing,” Berhalter said. “It’s just nice. It’s nice to put in the work over and extended period of time and then get a reward like that. I think they guys should be proud of themselves. They’ve really worked hard in San Diego and it’s nice when you can see that paying off.”
Mihailovic couldn’t have asked for more from his debut, but he’s also trying to keep a level head with his eye on moving forward with both the USMNT and the Chicago Fire.
“It’s definitely a dream,” Mihailovic said. “I owe a lot to my team for getting me involved in that goal. Corey played me a great ball. I think I’m just more excited about the first win of 2019 and getting things going.”
Mihailovic and the rest of these guys may struggle to contribute once the full squad is together, but their strong debuts are a positive sign for the potential depth of the side. Every team needs role players and every team needs the right players ready to step in and fill any role at any time. Perhaps guys like Lima, Mihailovic, and others can be just that type of person.