Nick Lima has played soccer for a long time, so he knows what it takes to get ready for a big game. In fact, the 22-year-old defender has a routine leading up to kick-off, down to the minute, which he’s always followed to be ready to play.
“The preparation, the pregame meal, the sleep that I do, the naps that I take, the music that I listen to: everything going up to the game, game day, the week before was the same that I’ve always done,” said Lima. “I didn’t change the way I did anything. I stuck with what got me here.”
But Saturday night was not like any other game the former Cal standout as played. Lima was featuring in his first professional match, as a starter no less, for the team he grew up following, the San Jose Earthquakes. That is was the MLS season opener only added to the pressure on the rookie defender.
And he wasn’t fazed. Not one bit.
“There were some added nerves, obviously, but it was a lot of fun,” said Lima. “This game meant a lot to me, and I am glad it ended the way it did. It is something to build off of, and I am super excited going forward.”
What Lima did against the Montreal Impact in the Quakes 1-0 victory at sold-out Avaya Stadium earned him MLS Team of the Week honors, and that it came from a guy making his first MLS start only adds to the impressive nature of his performance. The Earthquakes second-ever Homegrown Player shut down Montreal midfielder Ignacio Piatti, an MLS Best XI selection and MVP candidate last season, and he led all defenders on the field in many key defensive statistical categories.
“You really can’t let yourself be fazed,” said Lima. “I know I heard his name a lot this week: Piatti’s going to do this or that when he gets the ball. I knew going in that I could be more athletic than him, stronger than him, to be that constant pest on him. It was my goal, and I was able to do that throughout the game.
“There were a few times when I was pushing him in the back and getting into his head. There was one moment when he went down, and I made sure that he heard me in his ear, getting into his head the whole game, and I think it worked out. It was fun. Playing a guy of his quality, it was awesome to do that. At the end of the day, he is a phenomenal player, and I liked the challenge.”
Partnered with fellow Homegrown Player Tommy Thompson on the right side of the Quakes 4-4-2 formation, Lima was a force, dominating the Impact with key clearances and tackles. Piatti, the Montreal Designated Player who led the Impact to the cusp of MLS Cup last November, was limited to one shot and zero scoring chances created — not a single key pass all game.
“He knew a lot about Piatti before he stepped on the field,” said head coach Dominic Kinnear, “but in saying that, it is more difficult when you are up close and live then when you are watching on a computer screen. He was ready to play, and I don’t think he was overawed by the occasion.”
In total, Montreal had very few genuine scoring opportunities on the night, and goalkeeper David Bingham did not register a single save — that’s what happens when the opponent does not get a single shot on goal. Lima was joined in the MLS Team of the Week by center back Florian Jungwirth and defensive midfielder Anibal Godoy, so it wasn’t all due to the rookie. Still, the Castro Valley native and die-hard Quakes fan put forth an almost flawless performance, much to the delight of his head coach.
“You want a guy to thrive and succeed on his debut,” said Kinnear, “and to step out on the field with the spotlight as bright as it was, he came through with passing marks.”
With presumed starting right back Marvell Wynne sidelined indefinitely with an undisclosed heart condition, Lima is going to see a lot more playing time to start the Earthquakes season. Team captain Chris Wondolowski, who has seen Lima up close in past years when the Academy product guested at team training sessions, was quick to offer high praise following the rookie’s debut.
“To a man in this locker room, everyone believes in Nick,” said Wondolowski. “I have him on the shortlist for Rookie of the Year, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in January camp next year.”
The U.S. international knows a thing or two about what it takes to make the national team’s annual January camp, so Wondolowski’s words carry a lot of weight. On MLS opening weekend, Lima was one of only a handful of rookies to be handed their first start, and the confidence boost the 1-0 victory over the Impact provided should only help him improve even further.
“It was a good opportunity for me,” said Lima, “and I am glad we started with a win because it is good to see it is possible, and I can keep building off of that.”