On the outside, it could seem like both San Jose Earthquakes and U.S. Men’s National Team fullback Nick Lima and Earthquakes’ head coach Matias Almeyda didn’t get along.
Or maybe, Lima wasn’t a fit for Almeyda’s new system.
In the first three games of the season, Almeyda subbed Lima out after the hour mark in favor of Tommy Thompson, who was just developing at right back. Thompson eventually took Lima’s spot in the Starting XI beginning with their loss against LAFC on March 30th and started in place of Lima in San Jose’s next two matches against the Portland Timbers and at the Houston Dynamo.
Both Almeyda and Lima downplayed suggestions that there might be any issues between the two because of Lima’s lack of regular playing time.
“I don’t have problems with football players,” Almeyda said. “I have a lot of communication with them. To me, football players are human beings. If they get mad that I take them off, that’s one thing.
“But that’s not worrying me. I want the best for every football player.”
Although Lima isn’t used to getting benched or coming on as a sub, his return to the Starting XI on Saturday – his first start since their mid-March loss at the Red Bulls – was business as usual for the Quakes’ third-year Homegrown fullback.
“You prepare the same way,” Lima explained. “Whether I’m starting or not playing, I’ll just be ready.”
Lima was subbed out just once through 2018 season due to an injury late in the 3-3 draw against the L.A. Galaxy on July 1, and in the 22 matches he played in his 2017 rookie year, Lima spent just four matches on the bench and subbed in twice. He only played in one of the Quakes final 10 games in 2017 because of injury.
Lima showed glimpses that he was ready to claim his spot back when he came off the bench against Portland earlier this month, subbing in for Thompson. The right-back found the back of the net on a golazo to the far post, two minutes after stepping onto the pitch. However, the goal did not stand as VAR deemed the play offside. Even though it wasn’t a goal, it was a reminder of what Lima could do.
Along with the rest of the Earthquakes, Lima put on a solid 90-minute display in Saturday’s win over Sporting Kansas City and earned back his place in Almeyda’s lineup.
At least, for now.
“[Saturday’s win] was his best game so far,” Almeyda said. “He showed a level where now he can’t go below that level. If he does go below, maybe a teammate will take over that spot.”
Although many San Jose fans and media alike saw Lima’s potential in his first two seasons with the club, and in the last USMNT January camp, Lima initially struggled to adapt to Almeyda’s man-marking system, much like the rest of the team did.
Lima showed signs of improvement in San Jose’s win against Sporting Kansas City, impressing Almeyda with his growth in the team’s new system.
“In this last game, he didn’t commit mistakes,” Almeyda said. “All the other games, he made mistakes. We talked about it with him and corrected them and I think it’s something he had to improve on in this system.
“Nick and a lot of his teammates were used to playing a different style of football where they marked with a flat line and they marked zone. Playing that way, you can’t see your mistakes. In our system that we implement, it leaves you exposed with the good, and very exposed with the bad.”
Lima is the first player to return to the lineup after losing his spot in the Starting XI. Two of the three others who were benched – Vako and Chris Wondolowski – have only returned as late-game subs. Guram Kashia, who has been out with a leg injury since the loss to LAFC, has yet to return to the pitch.
From becoming the talk of the USMNT after January camp, to the early season struggles, to getting benched, and now returning to the pitch, Lima has gone about his business like he always has. But even he knows that his third season in MLS is in the spotlight and under a microscope.
“All of [the seasons] are different in their own ways, with their own individual struggles and successes and I think [this season] is no different, it’s just showing in a different way,” Lima explained. “Maybe people take notice a little more because it is my third season, so I’ve been here for a little while.
“But, you just keep going with it and keep fighting or working as hard as you can every day and that’s never going to change.
“I think my role continues to grow from the first day to today and as we keep going. In that, there’s becoming a leader on and off the field and just going out and prove it every day that I can help the team and be a part of the success and do what I can when I get the opportunity.”
After Saturday’s performance, Lima should get more opportunities under Almeyda, who says he is a fan of Nick Lima, even though Lima hasn’t been a regular starter for him.
“When I first arrived [the media] asked me about Nick Lima,” Almeyda explained. “It called my attention because I’ve never seen so much energy, especially for a fullback.
“I like him. I have a great relationship with him and I hope I spoke about this with him, but I hope he [reaches] a European level and hopefully doesn’t [get comfortable] just because he played once or twice with the national team.
“He could improve his level like he did in the last game. Physically, he could run back and forth 12 times each half. But the day he convinces himself that he can do it and doesn’t [get comfortable] with what he already has, he’ll be a great fullback.”