Walker Zimmerman’s USMNT journey How religion and fortitude helped him turn out to be America’s greatest center-back

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The rainfall is biblical, a discordant symphony towards automotive hoods and pavement. Past the trembling Geodis Park overhangs, lightning spiderwebs an onyx sky. Shirtless youngsters puddle-jump down Bransford Avenue, their soaked tees helicoptering above their heads in improvisational defiance.

Huddling within the Nashville SC locker room, 2020 and 2021 MLS Defender of the Yr Walker Zimmerman, 29, waits like a bottled firefly. He is 6-foot-3 and ropy, with the shaggy facial hair and hazel-flecked blues of a misplaced Hemsworth. A 3-hour climate delay — towards rival Atlanta United and for a sellout crowd of 31,109, no much less — belies his unrelenting movement.

His mother and father, David and Becky, flew in from Athens, Georgia. Walker was certain for USMNT camp in per week, so that they drove north with buddies and their two boys, who had designs on Walker signing their Zimmerman jerseys. Becky’s sisters had been inbound, too, excited for the pyrotechnics and Johnny Money’s “God’s Gonna Minimize You Down” previous the nationwide anthem and their household’s quasi-reunion.

Zimmerman and his spouse, Sally, supplied to host brunch the next morning, however nature is obstinate. Journalists rely lightning strikes and stream the NBA playoffs within the press field. A speedy pitch-invader will get blindsided by a steward round 9 p.m. native time, however within the bowels of the stadium, Zimmerman waits, the uncommon center-back who’s bruising and affected person in equal measure.

To this point, Zimmerman has performed his total skilled profession within the United States. When drafted by FC Dallas in 2013, he beamed about going the place he was needed most. He had abroad provides after his All-American freshman season at Furman College, however the timing felt off. He’d simply met Sally and that felt substantial, so he stayed and starred at Dallas and LAFC earlier than changing into Nashville SC’s linchpin and the uncommon defending MLS designated participant.

Now, with lower than six months earlier than a pivotal World Cup for the U.S. Males’s Nationwide Workforce, Zimmerman seems to be more and more like a beginning heart again in Qatar.

His renown will not be restricted to Main League Soccer for for much longer. In Nashville, there is a sense of pleasure and unease that the 2022 World Cup might be Zimmerman’s long-awaited activate the largest stage. From there, he would possibly turn out to be the cornerstone of one other group’s protection — and considerably farther from house, too.

David — a longtime minister who now trains minsters getting into the religion — and Becky knew that when Walker first watched “Chariots of Fireplace,” at 6 years previous, the youngest of their three sons had a contact of future. When he heard the road God made me for a objective [and] once I run, I really feel His pleasure, Zimmerman jumped off the sofa and exclaimed, “I’ll play professional sports activities.” He did not even know which sport, however he was firm.

Earlier than a guitar riff performer who kicks off each match can shred a be aware, David says that soccer is the car for Walker’s God-ordained objective, whether or not it is in Nashville, Dallas, Los Angeles and even Europe sooner or later.

“As we have at all times performed,” Becky says, “let’s have a look at how life unfolds.”

So Zimmerman waits.



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Off Hillsboro Highway in Brentwood, encircled by lush panorama and horse stables, sits the tony, 83-acre Currey Ingram Academy, a $70,000-per-year boarding faculty that doubles as Nashville SC’s observe facility and academy headquarters. Two days after a decisive 2-1 victory over Montreal, surrounded by unceasing columns of Adidas cleats and group swag, Zimmerman leans ahead in an workplace chair like a coiled spring.

“You hear about pastor’s youngsters going one or two methods,” he smirks. “There was loads of stress, however I grew into it and made my religion my very own. I really feel a way of objective to make use of my platform to glorify God, to mirror that again on Him.”

In April, when Zimmerman inked the designated participant contract that made him one of many wealthiest defenders in MLS historical past — every group is allowed as much as three gamers, generally thought of the league’s greatest, who do not rely towards the wage cap — Nashville’s common supervisor Mike Jacobs referred to as him “our Tom Brady.” Regardless of getting $10 million over 4 years and lengthening via the 2025 season, there wasn’t an oz. of solipsism in sight.

“[Whether it’s] the contract or a rise in pay, one of many first issues we do is say, ‘How can we give this cash?’ ‘How can we bless individuals?'” Zimmerman says. “That is one of many largest joys of this job and what I get to do: the capability to bless others.”

That capability to bless is a Zimmerman calling card. When he was contemporary out of Furman in Dallas, he obtained concerned in a brand new church and took up youth outreach. On the finish of 1 season, he invited his household out and youth from the church over. He gathered his FC Dallas gear — personalised cleats, warm-ups, jerseys — and gave every little thing away, a bit at a time. At LAFC — the place he doubled as a volunteer assistant coach with UCLA males’s soccer — as Christmas inched nearer, he would mete out checks for individuals who labored in craft companies.

His commerce to Nashville was introduced February 2020; weeks later, tornadoes killed not less than 25 and brought on greater than $1 billion in harm. Zimmerman has barely unpacked his baggage, however he started working serving to town rebuild.

Zimmerman is not comfy with these tales being on the market. Altruism is not about attribution.

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Even earlier than Nashville made him a DP, Zimmerman and Sally created the Walker and Sally Tucker Zimmerman Endowed Scholarship for Males’s Soccer at Furman. “[Furman head coach] Doug Allison has constructed one thing particular. It is a small faculty that has remained aggressive amid all of the modifications throughout the NCAA: recruiting, the [inability] to stack scholarships anymore,” Zimmerman says. “It was essential to me that this system stays aggressive and once more, simply to offer again [to Furman] and say, ‘Hey, thanks for what you probably did for me and my spouse.'”

In 2011, Walker and Sally moved to the two,700-student campus in Greenville, South Carolina beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains. Walker was on the under-18 males’s nationwide group and the centerpiece of the fifth-best recruiting class within the nation. Sally (nee Tucker), from Maryland, was the daughter of Dr. Andrew Tucker, the Baltimore Ravens’ head doctor because the group’s inception, certain for bachelor’s and grasp’s levels in training. At an orientation picnic, Zimmerman, with a group bonding-induced shaved head, observed Sally and requested teammates concerning the woman within the pink polka dot costume. It wasn’t till November that they met — “You put on the headbands, proper?” Sally requested — and have become inseparable.



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Zimmerman had simply pushed Furman to a Southern Convention semifinal — a 1-0 loss to Elon, through which he performed towards Daniel Lovitz, now his teammate at Nashville SC — and the college’s first NCAA match look in 4 seasons. Europe was calling, however Walker was hesitant to commit. He had hopes for the 2012 Summer time Olympics in London, which featured repeated odes to his beloved “Chariots of Fireplace,” however he wasn’t chosen and the U.S. males did not qualify anyway.

“Sally requested, ‘How can this be?'” Zimmerman says. “‘How can I meet somebody who I actually wish to spend time with and so they’re simply going to go away?’ A giant a part of our story is staying for that spring, then the subsequent fall, then rising sufficient to the place we had been dedicated to one another.”

“Issues occur once they’re imagined to,” his mom, Becky, says. “That is been an enormous a part of our religion journey with soccer.”

By the point Zimmerman signed a Era Adidas contract after his sophomore season — a second-team All-American displaying this time — Sally and Walker had began making selections collectively. “She really has been there each step of the way in which,” Zimmerman says. They dated long-distance for 4 years whereas Walker was developing with FC Dallas and Sally completed her training. In 2016, he proposed at Furman Lake and, later that 12 months, they had been married at Grace Church Downtown, 8 miles southeast of campus.

Between the 2015 and 2016 MLS seasons, Zimmerman was considered one of solely 12 defenders with 4,000 minutes performed, 200 aerials received and 50 clearances. Nobody in that group received the next proportion of aerial duels than Zimmerman’s 73.2%. He was in bloom, ranked eleventh on MLS’ 24 Beneath 24 checklist in 2016.

However internationally not less than, Zimmerman remained neglected. He was left off the U20 2013 FIFA World Cup roster that noticed the US drawn with eventual champion France, anchored by Paul Pogba, and permit the second-most targets on the match. “I at all times have a chip on my shoulder any time I am not chosen for a roster,” Zimmerman says. “I wish to be on the sector, enjoying each minute. I used to be pissed off, but it surely fuels me to proceed to show whoever incorrect.”

The senior U.S. nationwide group did not name him up till early 2017 after Jurgen Klinsmann, who all however demanded prime American expertise play abroad, was fired. That fateful night time in Couva, when the USMNT had been shocked by Trinidad & Tobago and missed out on the 2018 World Cup, Zimmerman wasn’t rostered.

“[MLS] has developed tremendously during the last 5 or 6 years,” says Nashville’s head coach Gary Smith, a former Arsenal scout who coached Colorado to a 2010 MLS Cup title. “Walker takes loads of satisfaction in enjoying for his nation, in his nation, and being one of many prime — if not the very best — central defenders on this league.”

Smith additionally notes that Zimmerman is considerably of a unicorn amongst defenders: Few can begin assaults and break traces, execute high quality distribution over quite a lot of ranges, defend one-on-one and within the air and be an offensive weapon on set items — the very state of affairs through which Zimmerman scored Nashville’s first objective as an MLS franchise in 2020.

“You do not see guys like Walker loads,” Smith says. “He is adequate to be enjoying within the Premier League proper now.”

Jack Maher, 22, was Nashville’s second general choose within the 2020 MLS SuperDraft. Two months later, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the world in its tracks. Like Zimmerman, Maher was an All-American who signed a Era Adidas contract and was bounds for MLS earlier than turning 21, however his introduction was derailed by a once-in-a-century international occasion. Zimmerman, whom Maher likens to an enormous brother, took it upon himself to rectify that.

“Walker and Sally needed to make that day particular for me,” remembers Maher, who turned 21 that October. “They’d a small get-together — some guys on the group, their wives and girlfriends — for a Jack Travels the World Day with different-themed drinks and video games.”

A focal piece was cornhole or, because the Illinois-born Maher calls it, “baggage” — “I am from the Midwest,” he says with a smile. “I’ve performed baggage fairly a number of occasions, fancy myself in it.”

Zimmerman took it as a problem, asking Maher if the gap between boards was 26 or 27 ft. (It is 27, based on the American Cornhole Group.) Zimmerman frantically looked for a tape measure. “If somebody asks for the tape measure,” Maher says, “you are about to get your butt kicked; he completely skunked — I imply destroys — me.”

Whether or not it is Monopoly, fantasy soccer, golf and even shopping for a brand new meat smoker for get-togethers, Zimmerman merely does not have an off change. “He is singularly targeted,” Lovitz says. “He is aware of everybody’s strikes and he does every little thing full throttle. He competes in a method the place he is aware of he is proficient … however he does not take something as a right. That steadiness is admittedly exhausting to seek out.”



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Dax McCarty, who will quickly turn out to be considered one of solely six MLS gamers all-time with 36,000 minutes performed, calls Zimmerman “a real competitor on the highest stage.”

“He is a gamer. He is at all times prepared to guide and to play in no matter function is requested of him,” McCarty says. “[USMNT head coach] Gregg Berhalter and Gary Smith are asking various things of him, however he is been in a position to seamlessly transition [and adapt] … his versatility, willingness to adapt, his aggressive will to win, all of that’s on the highest stage that you would be able to presumably think about.”

“He is at all times seeking to be as constructive and as artistic as may be,” Smith provides. “Extra so, I am maintaining the reins on him as a result of now we have a barely totally different type than the nationwide group.”

David and Becky smile once I point out Walker’s famend aggressive streak across the group. “Walker is the sort of boy, rising up,” David says, “[who] at all times thinks he can ship the win for the group. By no means guess towards him: I’ve seen it occur time and again.” Becky agrees: “He at all times thinks he’ll win.” On household drives, a preteen Zimmerman was so ruthlessly aggressive that he would research the digital clock on the dashboard and make everybody guess once they’d arrive house. Pit stops for gasoline? What is going to it value to replenish? A basketball courtroom close by? Trick shot extravaganza.

“We had cube in the home to roll for chores,” Becky remembers. “We needed to show the boys to comb and clear the kitchen. You roll: When you lose, you do your brother’s chores.” Excessive threat, excessive reward. “However he’d win,” Becky says. “Loads. His brothers would say, ‘God, Walker, you are so fortunate!'”

“Over and time and again,” David says.

Zimmerman hasn’t at all times been fortunate, although, and typically want is not any match for circumstance. Final summer season, he was headed to July’s Gold Cup with Sally attributable to give delivery in August. They’d simply gotten a pet, Bear, in February, too. “I entered into chaos,” Zimmerman says. Sally went into labor seven weeks early. Their son, Tucker, spent 9 days within the NICU; Walker thanked God on Instagram for Tucker getting Sally as a mother.

“We might gotten him house for 2 days earlier than I left,” Zimmerman says. “That was robust.”

His grandmother died whereas he was on Gold Cup obligation after which, quarter-hour into the USMNT’s last Group A match towards Canada, Zimmerman (who’d taken up the captain mantle) got here off injured with a strained hamstring. It did not look like it on the time, however because the Zimmermans typically say, issues occur once they’re imagined to.

“I felt that sense of abandonment leaving my household,” Zimmerman says. “To get again earlier was … a pleasant shock. I can go to my grandmother’s funeral, I get to spend extra time with Tucker and Sally.”

Certainly cosmic — maybe even divine — intervention should have slowed Zimmerman down, proper? Becky and David chuckle. They watched their son go down, the grimace that flushed his face, and knew it’d kill him to not assist his group, his nation, on the Gold Cup. “When that occurred,” Becky says, “his thoughts was already going: what stage the pressure was, counting the times he’d need to get again.”

David straightens up. He considers the adversities which have structured his son’s life and profession — the accidents, the slights, even the trades he was blindsided by — imperturbably. “I do not assume any of that adversity is wasted,” he says. “We now have a saying within the ministry… ‘Generally our core wounding shapes our core calling.'”

“Walker is aware of ‘That is my time. That is my time to make an impression in my world.'”

At 10:06 p.m. native time, Atlanta and Nashville lastly resume play. It is Zimmerman’s two hundredth MLS recreation. After the prolonged break, Nashville scores twice in seven minutes, however squanders the three factors on a stoppage-time equalizer from Dom Dwyer.

Strolling off the pitch, Zimmerman and Lovitz are apoplectic. They’re mum on speaking factors, however their passionate hand motions rival an Easter supper on Arthur Avenue. As they close to the participant tunnel beneath part 133, no matter dialog fades into skinny air.

“I’ve at all times performed an excellent job at having the ability to shift shortly,” Zimmerman says. “Within the second, I am a competitor and an absolute S.O.B. on the sector. Within the second, you wish to determine it out — What went properly? What did not? Have been you there on that play? Might I’ve performed you as an alternative? — when it is contemporary. You then come house and flip the change, whether or not it is dad or husband. Compartmentalization.”

At midfield, a few of Zimmerman’s teammates jersey swap with Atlanta gamers. Zimmerman, nonetheless, heads for the touchline the place a bevy of soaked and spent supporters — a roiling sea of gold and black — wait. He says good day to his mother and father and indicators the shirts of his household pal’s kids. “They grew up collectively, so Walker needs to honor [his] youngsters,” David says. “He at all times needs the expertise to be exceptional for others.”

He shakes and high-fives the palms held out towards him. He stops for maybe half a dozen photographs from quite a lot of angles with out a syllable of dissent. Simply earlier than he enters the tunnel, Zimmerman provides the very shirt off his again to a younger fan, who white-knuckles the dear supplies.

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With Qatar 2022 on the horizon, Zimmerman is giddy. “I am trying ahead to the World Cup as the subsequent step I must take as a participant,” he stated. “Let’s examine the way you do towards the very best of the very best, you already know? Let’s do it towards England and Iran and whoever else we play.”

“Can it hurry up already?” Zimmerman says, grinning.

“Most gamers wish to take a look at themselves on the highest stage, and there is not any higher platform to try this than the World Cup,” Smith says. “I could not personally see a world the place [Walker’s] not at Nashville: he is a foundational piece of this group, and I hope he stays right here the remainder of his profession.

“Worst-case situation, what would I do if he [went to Europe]? That is a tricky, robust query. England will at all times be our religious house, however Nashville is our second and we would like to be right here an terrible lot longer,” Smith says. “Walker might need one thing to say on that; he’ll be a key think about whether or not I’m or not.”

David and Becky see a World Cup as the last word problem. “His complete life, Walker has devoted himself to getting higher and proving to himself that he is among the many better of the very best,” David says. “Nevertheless that may occur — Qatar is as a lot of a problem as he’ll ever want — that is what strikes Walker.”

The Zimmermans will go away it as much as Him. Life unfolds as it can.

As Zimmerman enters the tunnel, his black participant monitoring vest and yellow Nashville shorts are swallowed by shadow. He is each flush amid a legacy and on the precipice of one thing wholly new. Come November, if all goes based on plan, his title can be on the lips of roughly half the planet’s residents. However not but.

First, he’ll seize sleep, if solely only a wink. In any case, he promised to make brunch.

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