MLS Spotlight: Nick Lima's rookie season is off to a dream start

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San Jose Earthquakes fullback Nick Lima is one of the few rookies in MLS with a regular starting role, and he's used it to help San Jose start 2-0.

Nick Lima loved to score goals. That's a trait shared by pretty much all soccer players but especially forwards, which is the position Lima played growing up. That love led him all the way to Pac-12 power California, but it didn't take his college coach long to see a different future for Lima – one that would be centered more around preventing goals than scoring them.

When Cal head coach Kevin Grimes told Lima he saw a future for him at right back, Lima wasn't sure the switch was a good idea. When he saw the possibilities, though, Lima jumped in with both feet and now, less than four years later, the change has helped him realize his dream of playing as a professional for his hometown San Jose Earthquakes. 

"It was hard to grasp at first, but it only took a few days to understand why he did it," Lima told Goal of the position change that shifted the course of his destiny. "Kevin Grimes is a phenomenal coach and a smart guy and I was up for the challenge. It took a couple of months, but by the start of my sophomore year I had embraced it. Obviously the skill set, and getting comfortable with the position takes a while. I'm still learning. There's still stuff to learn every day, especially when you make the jump to the next level."

Lima has made the jump to the pros look easier than most do. He has grabbed the starting right back spot with the Earthquakes and turned heads across the league as one of the most impressive rookies in the early part of the 2017 season. In his pro debut, Lima had the task of facing off against Montreal Impact star Ignacio Piatti, widely regarded as the best left winger in MLS. Lima helped shut down Piatti, who failed to register a single shot on goal or successful cross in a 1-0 Earthquakes victory.

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Lima's second pro game didn't go quite as smoothly. He was beaten on a goal sequence that put the Earthquakes in a 2-0 hole against Vancouver, and he committed a handful of turnovers. His night changed quickly though, as San Jose rallied after a Whitecaps red card. Lima tied the score with the first goal of his career and San Jose went on to win 3-2. In just his second pro game, Lima earned man of the match honors.

“I think he’s playing pretty well,” Earthquakes coach Dominic Kinnear said of Lima. “We are encouraging him to get forward because we think that’s a good part of his game. There’s just a little bit of spotlight on him because he’s a young guy and he’s playing well and he scored a nice goal for us.”

Lima's early success has him looking like a strong Rookie of the Year candidate, and has the Earthquakes excited about a homegrown player signing who has spent much of his young life rooting for the Earthquakes and playing in their academy. It was six years ago when Lima was one of four Earthquakes academy players who traveled with the first team to training camp in England.

Nick Lima San Jose Earthquakes Academy Tottenham

Lima's lengthy history in the Earthquakes academy didn't stop some MLS teams from disputing San Jose's homegrown claim in an attempt to have Lima made available in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. Those disputes were ultimately tossed out, paving the way for San Jose to make Lima the second homegrown player signing in team history, joining Tommy Thompson.

So what has Lima enjoying such a smooth transition to the pros? Earthquakes technical director Chris Leitch, who signed Lima last fall, and who spent 10 seasons playing as a right back in MLS, sees a player with all the qualities to be an elite-level player at the position.

"First and foremost he's a competitor," Leitch told Goal. "The kid can out-jump most anyone, and speed wise you're not going to outdo him. Those things are going to make sure he can compete in this league, but the thing that's going to make him shine is that he also has really good quality on the ball. He's got a midfielder's touch and vision, a forward's shot, and he can cross like an out-and-out winger."

The Earthquakes almost didn't get the chance to sign Lima if he had chosen to go the European route, which was an option. He spent a large part of last summer training in Europe, and Norwegian power Molde was very interested, with one source telling Goal that the club extended a contract offer. 

"There was interest when I was there, in the summer heading into my senior year, but I had heard that there was an opportunity for the homegrown route to work in San Jose," Lima said. "I considered making Molde work, but the biggest thing was graduating and finishing out my degree, and also getting a full college season in. I wanted to come back and finish that off, and see where the homegrown route went.

"it's my home, and that's where I grew up. I wanted to be a part of this growth in MLS, in my home country. I couldn't be more happy."

Lima counts several mentors as being key to his development as a player, and one might surprise people. He was a teammate at Cal of U.S. Under-20 national team goalkeeper Jonathan Klinsmann, and the two have become close friends. Along the way, Jonathan's father, former U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, has helped mentor Lima.

"Jurgen is one of the nicest guys I've ever met, and he's been just instrumental in helping me and mentoring me in my career," Lima said. "He's guided me along the process, told me pros and cons for each choice. For a guy like him, who's been through it all at the highest levels, it's good to get his perspective on things, and what to do, and how to interact with the team, with the community off the field, along with what to do performance wise."

Nick Lima San Jose MLS 03112017

Lima's impressive start has already started to generate buzz about his U.S. national team future, and earned him some comparisons to Philadelphia Union right back Keegan Rosenberry, who enjoyed a standout season as a rookie in 2016 and earned a national team call-up in January.

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"I've seen what (Rosenberry has) done, obviously hats off to him, he's a phenomenal player," Lima said. "I've always dreamt as a kid of being on the national team. If I keep performing, and if I get the opportunity and get lucky enough to get a call, I'd be ecstatic for that, but my main focus is San Jose, and worry about that stuff rolls around."

Lima is modest about his potential, but isn't nearly as modest when talking about the Earthquakes, who are one of three MLS teams to start the season 2-0 (The Houston Dynamo and the New York Red Bulls are the others).

"This is a talented team, and a new team, and winning an MLS Cup is definitely a possibility," Lima said. "There's something special in San Jose this year. We just have to keep getting better, but it's something we can do. I know it's a long season, and there'll be hiccups, but the goal is to get back into the playoffs, and making it back to MLS Cup, where San Jose has some history."

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