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Walker Zimmerman Made Himself Into a USMNT Mainstay

A little over a year ago, Zimmerman fielded a phone call from Gregg Berhalter explaining why he wasn’t invited to USMNT camp. Now he’s one of the most important players on Berhalter’s World Cup roster.

Jack C. Gregory

Walker Zimmerman paced around his Nashville home, anxious and distracted, unable to keep himself from checking his phone. It was September 2021, the late days of a Tennessee summer that usually stretches into early fall, and Zimmerman was waiting, impatiently, for a very important email.

“All day,” says Zimmerman’s wife, Sally, “he was so on edge.”

Here was the general rule in Gregg Berhalter’s tenure as head coach of the United States men’s national team. Good news arrived by email, bad news by phone. And so, every few months, whenever a national team camp approached, Zimmerman hoped to look down at his inbox and see a simple subject line: FINAL ROSTER, with the dates of the upcoming camp. If you got the email, that meant you’d been called into camp for the national team’s upcoming window. If you didn’t, well, you would probably soon be getting an unpleasant call.

Zimmerman asked around. He regularly texts with Cristian Roldán, Jordan Morris, and Aaron Long, his closest friends in the USMNT setup. He asked them and others whether they’d heard anything yet. A few had, and had begun preparations for upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Jamaica, Panama, and Costa Rica. Others hadn’t. Zimmerman kept waiting. “As it gets later in the day,” Zimmerman says, “you’re like, ‘Oh, this isn’t good.’” Zimmerman texted a team administrator who told him the roster hadn’t yet been finalized, to hang in there, he would hear soon. “It was a whole day,” says Sally, “of agony.”

And then, finally, right around dinnertime, Zimmerman’s phone lit up. Not with an email alert. With a phone call. The name on the screen: Gregg Berhalter. Says Zimmerman: “You’re like, no. Do not call me. Don’t answer. Maybe he’ll change his mind.”

The United States was 11 games from qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. Berhalter was 13 months from putting together the 26-man roster that would fly to Qatar. As a boy, Zimmerman slept on the bottom bunk of his bunk beds, and whenever he sat up in his bed, he saw a metal sign with the U.S. Soccer crest, leaning against the window as a reminder of his ultimate goal. Now in the prime of his career, a two-time MLS Defender of the Year, Zimmerman felt he was well on his way to making that dream reality. But then he looked at his phone and saw Berhalter’s name.

Zimmerman answered. “Hey,” Zimmerman remembers him saying, “we’re not going to bring you into this camp.”

Zimmerman was stunned, devastated, and once the shock wore off, he says, “pissed.” He explained why he thought he should be there. Sally sat on the steps in their home, listening, and she began to cry. “What can I do,” she remembers him asking Berhalter, “to prove to you that I deserve to be on this roster?” She could hear in his voice equal parts pain and determination. “I pictured him as his young boy self,” she says. “His dreams are flashing before his eyes.”

On the phone, Zimmerman listened as Berhalter told him why he hadn’t made the roster.

“You don’t have that much experience in big games for us,” Zimmerman remembers Berhalter saying.

“Honestly,” Zimmerman said, “that’s not my decision. You get to make that decision, and I’m just doing the most with every opportunity you give me.” Zimmerman hung up.

And then, just a couple of days later, Zimmerman got another call. Center back Tim Ream had to withdraw from camp for family reasons. Could Zimmerman replace him?

Zimmerman packed his bags and boarded a plane. Not long after, center back John Brooks also withdrew from camp, with a back problem. Berhalter threw Zimmerman directly into the starting lineup against Jamaica, where he helped keep a clean sheet in a 2-0 win. Next up, a qualifier away at Panama. Before the game, Zimmerman remembers talking with Berhalter in private. He explained how he was feeling. “Why I was pissed,” Zimmerman says. And did his best to assure Berhalter that he could help the team win games. “I want to be one of those guys,” Zimmerman remembers saying, “that you look at the team sheet, and you say, ‘I can’t take him off the field.’”

That night, Zimmerman led the team onto the field wearing the captain’s armband. Berhalter announced his final roster for Qatar two weeks ago. This time, there was no suspense.

In the past year, Zimmerman has done exactly what he told Berhalter he would do. He has made himself indispensable, his name tattooed in the Starting 11 for every match the United States plays. On Monday, he will take the field in Al-Rayyan for the United States’ first group stage match of the World Cup, against Wales. At 29 years old, Zimmerman is a veteran on one of the tournament’s youngest rosters.

The U.S. has spent the past year auditioning partners for Zimmerman in central defense. First Atlanta United’s Miles Robinson, who ruptured his Achilles in May. Then Crystal Palace’s Chris Richards, who will miss the tournament with a hamstring injury, now likely to be either Ream or Zimmerman’s close friend Long. Throughout, Zimmerman has remained a steadying presence on a talented but at-times-unsteady team. “He’s a good veteran leader in this group,” Berhalter has said. “And we really need him.”

It’s true. They do. The USMNT is the youngest team going to Qatar, with an average age of 25 years, 175 days. Even that number, though, is pulled upward by veterans unlikely to play critical roles. The U.S. appears likely to start 24-year-old Christian Pulisic and 20-year-old Gio Reyna on the wings, while choosing between 22-year-old Josh Sargent and 21-year-old Jesús Ferreira at striker. The write-their-names-in-pen midfield will be Weston McKennie (24), Tyler Adams (23), and Yunus Musah (19); with Sergiño Dest (22) and Antonee Robinson (25) likely locked into starting positions at right and left back. It is, perhaps, the most talented assemblage of men’s soccer talent the United States has ever produced. But not since 1990, when the USMNT drew largely from college players, has there been an American team this young.

Except at center back. Zimmerman is 29. He’ll likely start next to Long (30) or Ream (35), with Cameron Carter-Vickers (24) on the bench. Zimmerman, who has rotated wearing the captain’s armband with Adams and Pulisic in recent windows, will be called upon as a steadying, veteran presence. “He’s always had the ability to lead teams,” McKennie recently told Fox Sports. “Whenever we’re struggling, even off the field, that’s someone you can go and talk to.”

In October, I spent a morning at Nashville SC’s training facility, just south of town. It was a light day, with players still recovering from a weekend game, but Zimmerman bounded around the training ground, playful and energetic, seeming to make a point of connection with everyone he encountered. “Whenever you’re playing next to Walker,” Nashville center back Jack Maher tells me, “you have this feeling that regardless of if we go down or if we’re winning, we’re going to end up winning the game. It’s this calming presence.”

Zimmerman joined Nashville in advance of its expansion season in 2020, after being traded here from LAFC. Upon arrival, he immediately asked NSC’s general manager for Maher’s phone number, so he could begin mentoring the then-rookie defender. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” says Maher.

Zimmerman has helped to lead Nashville to the playoffs in each of its first three years in MLS, a rarity for an expansion franchise. He was named MLS Defender of the Year in 2020 and 2021. While the USMNT’s talent is unquestioned, many of the club’s other regulars have dealt with club instability. Pulisic was often buried on the bench by former Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel and has yet to cement a regular place in the 11 under new manager Graham Potter. Dest moved to AC Milan this summer after Barcelona manager Xavi informed him that he would not be a part of the club’s plans. Reyna and Weah have both missed significant time to injury, though each has lately rounded into health and form. Sargent struggled at the Premier League level for Norwich last season, often playing on the wing instead of at striker. He’s beginning to bang in goals this season following Norwich’s relegation to the Championship. McKennie has been a fixture for Juventus—but Juventus has lately appeared a shell of its typically dominant self. One goalkeeper, Matt Turner, serves as a backup for Arsenal, while another, Zack Steffen, asked for a move from Manchester City to Middlesbrough for more playing time, only to end up missing the World Cup roster altogether.

And then there’s Zimmerman. A rock in the back for Nashville, he may be the only MLS player to start for the United States against Wales. (That depends on who Berhalter chooses up front, Norwich’s Sargent or FC Dallas’s Ferreira.) When I ask whether his club stability has helped him to establish his place with the national team, though, Zimmerman doesn’t take the chance to draw a sharp contrast between himself and others. “It’s definitely been a good thing for me to have been at Nashville the past couple of years and continue to grow my game,” he says. “But there is something about those guys getting to play at the highest level.” Zimmerman has said several times that he’d be open to a move to Europe, though his newly signed designated player contract, paying him $2.3 million per year, might make such a move expensive for a European club. When I ask about his U.S. teammates’ instability abroad, he says, “That’s tough, mentally and physically. It’s hard to get in the rhythm, it’s hard to find that consistency. So I feel for them. But quite frankly, as we approach the World Cup, how can you push yourself every day to make sure you’re ready? So I think a lot of them will have stuff to prove, chips on their shoulder if they aren’t getting that time.”

International Friendly”Japan v United States of America” Photo by ANP via Getty Images

Zimmerman grew up in Lawrenceville, Georgia, just northeast of Atlanta, the youngest of three boys. His family tells the typical origin stories of a hypercompetitive professional athlete, about Zimmerman turning mundane tasks into intense competition, going outside each afternoon and demanding to be included in games of basketball or wiffle ball with older neighborhood boys. “Even as the youngest, he was crawling all over his brothers,” says his mother, Becky. “He couldn’t help himself.”

In a world of youth sports specialization, Zimmerman played everything, focusing most intensely on basketball, baseball, and soccer. “He would make other kids cry on the basketball court,” Becky says. “Not being mean to them. He was just so much better than them.” Zimmerman announced, at a young age, that someday he would be a professional athlete. He just wasn’t sure in which sport.

A turning point arrived in middle school. After sixth grade, Zimmerman went to basketball camp at Georgia Tech and dominated. “I sweep the awards,” he says. “One-v-one champion, MVP, team champions. I just balled out.” Then he went back to school, played his other sports in the fall and spring, basketball only in the winter. By the time he went back to Georgia Tech’s camp the next summer, he says, “It was a huge shift.” Other kids had hit growth spurts and worked longer and harder to hone their skills. “While I was still competitive, I wasn’t the best.”

In soccer, though, he was. At least the best in Georgia, and among the best in America in his age bracket. Zimmerman started getting called into U.S. Olympic Development Program national team camps by the time he hit eighth grade. Soccer, he realized, was his best shot at becoming a professional athlete. “I decided to hang up everything else.”

Even as he narrowed his focus, giving up all other sports, Zimmerman still took an old-fashioned path forward in his development. Rather than fast-track his path to the pros by moving abroad or seeking out an MLS academy deal as a teen, Zimmerman went to college. He committed to Furman University in South Carolina, alma mater of USMNT legend Clint Dempsey. Again, among this current USMNT core, this is a rarity. Pulisic and Reyna both moved to Germany as teens, coming up through the academy at Borussia Dortmund. Ferreira and McKennie trained with FC Dallas’s youth academy, the former signing with Dallas’s MLS team and the latter moving at 18 to Schalke 04. Sargent came up through an independent club in St. Louis but signed with Werder Bremen soon after turning 18. Lately, the U.S. model of development has pushed prospects to follow the same path as their international counterparts. Save school for later. Go pro, as young as you possibly can.

But there’s a generational mini-gap on the 2022 World Cup squad. The players born in the late ’90s or early aughts followed hypercharged development paths. Those born in the early ’90s (or in Ream’s case, the late ’80s) took a more traditionally American approach. “We were kind of at the age where MLS academies hadn’t really come about as much,” says Zimmerman. “It was more rare for kids to go straight into their academy team.” Yedlin, the only player on this roster ever to play in a World Cup, played a year at Akron before joining the Seattle Sounders. Turner and Long played four years of college soccer before languishing in the USL on their way up to MLS, and in Turner’s case, eventually, the Premier League. Morris earned his first USMNT call-up while still in school at Stanford, becoming the first college player to be capped since 1999.

Zimmerman met Sally in his first year at Furman. She remembers seeing him around campus, tall and angular and blonde and blue-eyed, and confiding in a friend that she had a crush on him. Then one day that friend texted her a winky face, and minutes later, he and Zimmerman knocked on the door of her dorm. “I completely freaked out,” she says. Once she composed herself, she managed to make light conversation, and Zimmerman launched quickly into a detailed explanation of his goals. Someday he would go pro. Hopefully he would make the under-23 roster for the Olympics (a tournament for which the U.S. ultimately failed to qualify). Sally had never watched a soccer game in her life, so she just nodded along, confused but enraptured. But she remembered one sentence that Zimmerman spoke with an earnest determination. “The World Cup,” he told her, “is my dream.”

After his sophomore year, he entered the MLS SuperDraft and was chosen by FC Dallas. He worked his way into the Starting 11, and by 2016, he’d become a critical player on one of the best teams in the league. That led to his first national team cap in January 2017, under then-coach Bruce Arena. Zimmerman was officially in the national team picture. But over the course of a qualifying cycle, dozens of players found their way into the picture. Only a few remained in frame. After getting called back that March for a couple of World Cup qualifiers, Zimmerman remembers wondering whether this was how it would always be, getting regular call-ups and helping the USMNT qualify for Russia 2018. “OK,” he remembers thinking. “Am I going to get called in now? Is this a thing?”

Not quite. Zimmerman tore his MCL before the 2017 Gold Cup. The U.S. failed to qualify for Russia. From 2017 to 2021, he endured the regular cycle of checking his phone as each national team window approached, wondering whether he would get the thrilling email or the devastating call.

As the 2022 qualification process wore on, though, Zimmerman realized he no longer had anything to fear. Starting with that window last October, when he was called in to replace Ream, he has consistently been recognized as one of the United States’ most consistent performers. “He’s a warrior,” Berhalter said this September. “I think that’s what you want in center backs, as a starting point.”

Zimmerman leans into the description. He’s 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, with the same athleticism that once made him dominant on the basketball court and the baseball diamond now applied in the box. He celebrates goals by emulating Thor, swinging his hammer. He seeks and relishes contact, bullying strikers on one end, and leaping over set-piece defenders on the other. “A key quality that he has is [he’s] exceptional in the air,” Berhalter added. “There’s not many people that you see that are that good at heading.”

In this way, he represents a long-standing American soccer archetype: the tough and athletic center back, game built on heart and fast-twitch muscle. Alexi Lalas but blond, Oguchi Onyewu but white, Carlos Bocanegra but taller. “It’s a really important position to have someone who is willing to put their body on the line at every single play, every single game, and consistently be challenging other guys around them to do the same,” Zimmerman says. He pushes back, though, on the notion his obvious toughness and athleticism are all that make him successful. “There’s a stereotype that’s like, ‘Oh, he is just a big oaf back there,’” Zimmerman says. He points to an overly simplistic narrative that sometimes takes hold among U.S. soccer fans and media, that the skilled Americans play in Europe and the gritty ones stay in MLS. “It’s pretty funny to me,” he says.

Zimmerman’s Nashville teammate, Dave Romney, later picks up this thread. “If he didn’t have great feet and the ability to play a long ball and stuff like that, he wouldn’t be on the field in Berhalter’s system,” Romney says. “Because Berhalter is huge on playing the ball out of the back. And whether it’s hitting a diagonal or knowing when to play short and long, I think his feet are exceptional for a center back.”

One question for Qatar: Who will play next to him? Long has similar strength and athleticism, but he’s lost a step after rupturing his Achilles and struggles at times with his feet. Ream is excellent in distribution and highly effective when defending in tight spaces, but lacks the quickness to be effective in Berhalter’s favored high press. Carter-Vickers shares Zimmerman’s penchant for aerial dominance, but he’s the least experienced of the group and seems likely to remain a backup option. Romney, who has partnered with Zimmerman in nearly every game since they both arrived in Nashville in 2020, says that whoever lines up next to him will be well served by giving him the freedom to fully unleash his instincts and athleticism. “Look, be as aggressive as you want,” Romney says, imitating his message to Zimmerman. “It’s easy to play with him if I can tell him to be aggressive. Because he’s going to win the ball back, most of the time.”

When we talk, Zimmerman has just returned from the USMNT’s final pre–World Cup friendlies, a 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia and a 2-0 loss to Japan. Among the U.S. Soccer fan base, the mood, for the moment, is bleak. “Internally,” Zimmerman says, “we weren’t satisfied with the performances in the last window. We have a lot to reevaluate.” He points to the games as a refresher on the pace and intensity of international soccer, a reminder for the team to ask itself, “What are the things we do well?” For much of qualifying, that’s been initiating scoring chances down the wing, maintaining midfield solidity whenever the Musah-McKennie-Adams trio has started together, and, with Zimmerman as the anchor, limiting damage in their own final third. “I think we have a really good group,” Zimmerman says. “I think we have guys that are going to be ready to prove everyone wrong, have that chip on their shoulder. That’s always been the American soccer mentality. I think that this team can embody that as well as the others.”

Finally, I ask if he can picture it. November 21, at 10 p.m. local time, on the pitch in Al-Rayyan, kicking off a World Cup match against Wales. The moment he imagined as a boy, sitting up on that bunkbed and staring at that sign. The moment he declared he’d one day experience, on that night in college when he first met the woman who would become his wife. The moment that felt like it might be slipping out of his grasp on that evening last September, when Berhalter left him off the qualifying roster. It’s almost here. Had he allowed himself to look ahead?

“For sure,” Zimmerman says. But he doesn’t get wistful. He doesn’t express wonder or awe over the path his life has taken. Instead he describes “going through visualization of myself being successful, and breaking down the opponent, winning challenges, scoring goals. I’m already visualizing all that prior to going there.” Sally later tells me that sometimes she wishes he would slow down, for just a moment, and allow himself to enjoy each dream fulfilled. But for now, at least, Zimmerman isn’t thinking in those terms. “It’s going to be just another starting point,” he says. “Another stepping stone. I want to only go up from here.”

He laughs, a little, at the notion that he should be awed. “People ask, ‘Oh, this is a dream come true. Did you ever imagine yourself being here?’ It’s like, ‘Yeah. I sure as hell did. Because if it’s not me, who else is it going to be?’” He’s getting animated now, voice charged with seriousness and intent.

“I’m destined for this moment,” he says. “Destined for playing this World Cup for this team.” And here, whether intentional or not, he brings it back to one of the reasons he made this team in the first place, for his ability to lead a room full of wildly talented but inexperienced young men, to help corral them into a sense of shared purpose from the moment they step off the plane. “That’s what I want to have everyone else on this team realize. ‘Hey, you were created to be here in this moment. And together, we can all believe.

“We’re going to do something pretty great.’”

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