The U.S. national team program radar spotted Walker Zimmerman at age 13 in 2006. The boy’s extraordinary athletic ability was impossible to ignore. Of course, especially with central defenders, physically impressive players are likely to dominate the youth game.
But the players who excel because they’re fleetingly bigger, stronger or faster tend to fade away. Soccer at the highest levels requires so much more than athleticism.
Athletic prowess runs in the Walker Zimmerman family – including great grandfather Howell “Shorty” Long and grandad Jimmy Long, who captained University of Auburn football teams – but soccer was new to the family when Walker discovered its joys with Gwinnett Soccer Association (GSA), where he played from rec to U-19s.
He also excelled in basketball and baseball when GSA technical director Campbell Chapman assured Becky Zimmerman that the soccer path would suit Walker well.
GSA’s Nuno Piteira started coaching Zimmerman as he entered his teens and has a soccer philosophy rooted in his native Portugal, whose over-achievement in the soccer world for a nation of its modest size can be attributed partly to its emphasis on skillful, well-rounded defenders.
While coaching Zimmerman, Piteira not only had the team play plenty of futsal in the gym, they played with a futsal ball on the grass – eliminating the long-ball option. He also took Zimmerman’s U-15 team to Lisbon, where they lost 12-0 to their Sporting counterparts. The experience served to further motivate Zimmerman.
“He reacted in the best possible way,” says Piteira. “All players that age talk about being pros. But he walked the walk. … Every time he went on a trip like that, and with the youth national teams, he came back more focused.
“Technically, with us he wasn’t 100 percent clean on playing out of tight spaces but he didn’t have problems thanks to his athleticism. Whenever he came back from a youth national team trip, he was sharper, and more focused on mastering his touches.”
Zimmerman, before starting his MLS career with FC Dallas in 2013, played two years at Furman University under Doug Allison, who as an ODP Region 3 coach traveled with Zimmerman to Argentina.
“He was a tall, gangly attack-minded defender trying to grow into his body, but you could tell he had a maturity to him,” said Allison, who started tracking Zimmerman around the time Clint Dempsey and Ricardo Clark starred for his Furman Paladins.
Piteira played Zimmerman upfront in his last season ahead of college – resulting in loads of goals -- and throughout his youth career Piteira created scenarios to challenge him in ways unsolvable by athleticism alone. Besides creating street-soccer environments with small-sided futsal to challenge players to maneuver with deft touches and clever passes, Piteira says he was fortunate to have an exceptionally talented center forward to spar with Zimmerman.
Piteira would tell Zimmerman to shut down the forward and play out of the back with ball when he won it. He’d tell the forward, “You can’t let Walker build out of the back and do whatever heck wants, so make sure to pressure him.”
Zimmerman, heading into his fifth MLS season, debuted for the USA in friendly against Jamaica in February 2017 at age 23 under Coach Bruce Arena. Another year elapsed before he returned to the field with the USA, playing friendlies under interim coach Dave Sarachan in 2018.
Zimmerman’s first appearances in official competition came at the 2019 Gold Cup under Gregg Berhalter. Zimmermann captained two 2021 Gold Cup group games and was on the bench for the first three Octagonal World Cup qualifiers in the September window.
Berhalter left him off the initial roster for the three-game October window, then Tim Ream withdrew for family seasons.
“Like any other player, I was pretty pissed off and disappointed,” Zimmerman said. “Then he calls back 24 hours later. How quickly things change!”
When John Brooks also pulled out, due to back problems, Zimmerman went from left-out to starter in a 2-0 win over Jamaica on Oct. 8. His impressive performance in Friday’s 2-0 win over Mexico marked the first time he appeared in four straight games for the USA.
“Walker was one of those players who got his opportunity and really thrived,” Berhalter said. “He gives us a good aerial presence. Does well in buildup and is able to defend in transitional moments as well.”
Berhalter has been fielding a remarkably young team. National team coaches around the world have failed by relying on aging, waning veterans to provide guidance for integrating young players. Berhalter's elder statesmen -- the 28-year-old Zimmerman and DeAndre Yedlin, also 28, and also part of the 2006 U.S. U-14 Manny Schellscheidt-run camp – are in their prime.
“He's a great guy off the field,” says Berhalter. “He's a veteran leader in this group. And we really need him.”
Allison recalls how at Furman, Zimmerman organized extra training and successfully convinced teammates to attend. “He wasn’t an in-the-face leader,” Allison says. “He led by encouraging.”
Piteira undoubtedly helped Zimmerman become the refined defender who’s now one of MLS’s best and a key to USA success, but …
"I learned a whole lot more from him than I think he ever learned from me,” Piteira says. “The kid is a natural-born leader.”
Observing how Zimmerman inspired teammates made Piteira measure his own approach.
"You can talk about his athleticism, his technique to play out of the back, but he's also a unique individual," Piteira says. "The way he communicated, how he de-stressed a team, took ownership, it is something second to none.”
Nice article!!! Gives good insight relative to the relationship between his youth coach and the player today...
Happy for the young man that he's getting a chance and being recognized. He is same birth year as Yedlin, 1993, turning 28 this year. We do not have a lot of MNT caps for players in that period. Keep it going!