By Ridge Mahoney
Another friendly, another U.S. centerback stakes his claim to a long-term future.
Against Jamaica last week FC Dallas defender Walker Zimmerman played well enough in his debut to earn plaudits as the Americans posted their second straight shutout.
“I was extremely excited to get the opportunity and I thought we had a good performance as a team,” Zimmerman told ussoccer.com. “Ultimately, to put the effort in that we did and come away with a result, 1-0, it was perfect.”
Coupled with the strong showing of Chad Marshall in a 0-0 tie with Serbia Jan. 29, Zimmerman’s display alongside D.C. United’s Steve Birnbaum – the only defender to play all 90 minutes in both games -- gave head coach Bruce Arena much to ponder as he plans for a busy year of Hexagonal games and a Gold Cup.
Geoff Cameron is recovering from a knee injury and foreign-based regulars John Brooks and Omar Gonzalez missed the games because of club commitments. Brooks and Cameron had been the first-choice pairing towards the end of Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign as head coach, but injuries and the hiring of Arena has shuffled the deck at centerback. Marshall’s appearance was his first in a U.S. jersey since 2010. Matt Besler missed the camp to continue his recovery from offseason ankle surgery.
At FCD, Zimmerman usually plays with Matt Hedges, who made his U.S. debut after a January camp two years ago and left this one early with a sprained knee. Hedges won the MLS Defender of the Year Award in 2016 yet Arena regarded both FCD players as deserving of a callup, and Zimmerman took the same approach for his country as he does at the club level to form the cohesion so essential for a centerback tandem.
“A lot of it is on the field, having the practice reps, having the game reps with each other definitely helps the chemistry,” said Zimmerman during a training-camp interview in Southern California. “For us, we got into a groove where we were communicating very well with each other, and with our guys around us. We got to a point where we felt very confident that we could go out and get a shutout on any given day. That’s what you want from your back line and you keeper and defensive mids, so we’ve developed a very good chemistry.
“Off the field, starting to hang out a little more as well, whether that’s playing video games on-line together. We’re in a little unit there, it’s communication, ‘Hey, there’s a guy over your shoulder,” or “throw a grenade here,” that sort of thing.”
Against Jamaica, Zimmerman and Birnbaum swept the goalmouth clean of danger for most of the game. Jamaica took only four shots and none required saving by goalkeepers Luis Robles and David Bingham. “It’s obviously different with every player, every back line that you’re with,” Zimmerman said. “Steve and I had gotten a few reps together in camp, so we were just learning each other’s tendencies, communicating well and I think we just got better as the game went on.”
His first U.S. training camp offered Zimmerman several weeks to train, play, eat, and talk with players he battles regularly in MLS stadiums, and also exposed him to how some of them get to be as good as they are. “You see flashes in training of what makes them so special and that’s fun to see,” said Zimmerman, who left Furman after two college seasons. FCD took him in the first round of the 2013 SuperDraft.
“Every week you see the highlights and the goals they score in MLS, but to come out to the training field and see them try some tricks and flicks, you can see their skill. It’s a great group of guys to be around. Since it’s mainly domestic-based, it’s guys you play against and play with. It’s been nice to meet all of them.”
The bonding process transcends club histories. In the 2015 playoffs, a headed Zimmerman goal in the first minute of stoppage time tied the Western Conference semifinals with Seattle at 3-3 and forced penalty kicks. Zimmerman converted the final kick in a 4-2 FCD victory. Yet during U.S. camp, he enjoyed some great moments with Marshall, Brad Evans, and Jordan Morris a month after they’d rebounded to win the league title.
“The Seattle guys, I’ve gotten to hang out with them a little bit,” he says. “They’re just a classy, funny group of guys. They’re so much fun to be around, always jabbering at each other and with us. You get to know guys and learn about their families through meals. That connects you and you really get to feel that it’s a whole group and a unit.”
Perhaps buoyed by those playoff heroics, Zimmerman scored four goals in his 30 league appearances last year. FCD won all four games in which he scored. The key to responding to such situations is simple.
“It’s just pure desire,” he says. “I’ve always just wanted to win and to score goals and honestly, any set piece every time I go up I’m thinking, ‘This is it, this is the one.’ In soccer, a set piece, that’s kind of a defender’s time, one of their only chances. For me, it’s just wanting to put the ball in the back of the net.
“If you don’t have that mindset, it’s going to catch you off-guard. You might put it wide. Staying tuned in means you’re ready when the ball comes off the foot to attack it.”
That hunger probably stems from growing up in a household in Lawrenceville, Ga., with two older brothers. The oldest, Dawson, punted for Clemson and his other brother Carter, “was an intramural legend.” The Zimmerman house was also not a lone outpost for athletic achievement. You get street cred in this neighborhood you had to produce.
“Our whole street was full of collegiate athletes in all sports and I was the youngest of all of them,” he says. “Growing up, whatever sport it was, you were stepping up and trying to prove yourself against bigger, better, faster competition. That’s definitely played a role. Physically and mentally it ties in.”
FC Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja preaches the same mantra of intensity and defensive focus as does Arena. Only three teams conceded fewer goals than the 40 allowed by FCD last season.
"A big thing we’ve been kind of nailing on the past few seasons is our preventive defense," says Zimmerman, who played only 37 games his first three pro seasons but started all 30 of his appearances in 2016. "What are we doing when we have the ball? Just being organized, even when we have the ball, and staying tuned in every single minute has paid its dividends for us. It also helps to pin other teams in and if we’re all in the attacking half and we’re marked up well, it helps us maintain our possession and the flow of the game."
When Zimmerman left the U.S. team hotel after playing his first game for his country, he took with him a souvenir. As is the custom, Arena had presented him with a soccer ball signed by his teammates in commemoration of his first cap and confirmation of what all the hard work had accomplished.
“I think just realizing that you belong at this level is the main [takeaway],” he said. “Training with all these amazing players in camp, performing well in camp and in the game, all you can do is put your best foot forward and put the effort in and the rest is up to the coaching staff. I’m pleased with the body of work over the past month and now we’ll see what happens in the future.”