The San Jose Earthquakes announced today, via press release, that 22-year-old Cal fullback Nick Lima has officially signed the second Homegrown contract in club history.
The move had been rumored for quite some time, with the only major holdup being an eligibility challenge (later resolved) alluded to here in the first public report of the deal nearly two weeks ago, from the Twitter handle best connected to the Academy:
NEWS: Hearing from multiple sources that the Quakes are forming a case to sign Nick Lima to a HG contract.— Quakes⚡️ (@QuakesForever) December 7, 2016
Two MLS teams are protesting.
Ultimately, MLS ruled that his time spent with the Academy and Burlingame Dragons (the Quakes U-23 Amateur affiliate), in conjunction with his time training with the Quakes first team and reserves, made Lima eligible.
The news was greeted with some glowing praise from several national soccer writers, including Ives Galarcep and Matthew Doyle:
Yes. Very good RB - potential Day 1 starter. Tony Beltran-esquehttps://t.co/G0LlZZhxM5— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) December 21, 2016
From my perspective, Lima is a player who has the potential to be an MLS starter. He’s right-footed, but has played on both sides of the pitch quite comfortably. Noteworthy is the fact that he’s a converted forward, so his attacking skill set is unusually refined for a fullback. In those senses, he cuts a similar mold to Kip Colvey from last year’s draft, but I think he’s actually a touch better of a prospect: he’s had seasoning at a higher level of college ball and has a better build, both of which should allow him a bit easier of a transition to professional game on the defensive side. I’d wouldn’t rate his overall upside as any higher than “MLS Starter” because of a lack of truly elite athleticism/size, but his overall skillset is very solid, giving him a very high “floor” of production.
Regardless, I don’t think reaching that upside should be the fan expectation for his first professional year. As of Day One, I’d choose Shaun Francis and Kofi Sarkodie above him as starters on their respective sides, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the club attempted to improve on both of those options in the offseason. Colvey, after a year of professional seasoning, is probably above him on the depth chart too.
That leaves him in a bit of an interesting place: he’s probably not yet ready to be the number one option on either side, but he’s spent enough time at the NCAA and USL-PDL levels that a year in Reno with USL-Pro isn’t as necessary as it would be for a rawer prospect like Colvey or Matheus Silva when they were signed. The ideal scenario, for him, is for the Quakes not to go out and get a major upgrade at either position and for him to work his way into the two-deep on either side, where he’d serve as the primary backup in 2017 with an eye toward starting later on. If instead he gets crowded out with an influx of talent, a year in USL would be a productive use of his time, and would position him at the very least to be a backup in 2018.
The Quakes definitely know what they have in him, having seen him in the academy, in Burlingame, with the reserves, training with the first team, and four years at Cal. This is definitely not a speculative shot in the dark. They know what they have in the prospect. Unfortunately, for those of you who haven’t gone to Cal or Dragons games (as I have), finding highlight reels is tough. But to allow you a bit of scouting for yourself, the first video is a “get to know you” tape from Cal that includes some clips of his play:
...and here is a full-game tape from a Dragons match, which includes an excellent run and whipped cross that leads to a goal in the 60th minute (he’s playing left-back, number 6):
Beyond his direct impact on the pitch, this is a savvy move from a club that was second-to-last in both lifetime and current Homegrown signings, with just one. Last place? NYCFC, which only came into existence in 2015. In fact, Atlanta United, which hasn’t even played a single game in the league, has already inked two Homegrowns.
Part of the problem that creates is in the roster and on the pitch: Homegrown players don’t count against the salary cap and therefore can create a major competitive advantage for the clubs that develop and sign good ones. The other part is in the academy itself: if youngsters in the Bay Area don’t see a viable path from their U-18 play to the pros, they’ll be tempted to look elsewhere. This signing alleviates a bit of those problems, and if it is followed in coming years by Josh Morton, J.T. Marcinkowski, and Amir Bashti, the Quakes will have fully corrected the problem.
One final trivia note: I believe Lima will be the first player to sign an MLS contract from the Burlingame Dragons, a huge milestone for that affiliate club that just came into being in 2015.