Why Walker Zimmerman is the leader the USMNT needs at World Cup 2022

 

Did Walker Zimmerman manifest this?

As a 9-year-old, Zimmerman watched highlights on repeat during the 2002 World Cup. He remembers the United States reaching the quarterfinal match against Germany. His parents threw a World Cup party on their street and kids ran around draped in American flags with their faces painted red, white and blue.

When he was 12, he had a USMNT sign in his bedroom window that his mother, Becky, says he could see when he lay down on the bottom bunk bed.

“He said, ‘I put it there, Mom, so I could see it and remember what my goal is,'” Becky says. “He took it to college and put a U.S. flag on his wall, too.”

CLICK HERE FOR MORE SPORTS COVERAGE ON FOXNEWS.COM

Walker Zimmerman of United States poses during the official FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 portrait session at on November 15, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.
(Patrick Smith – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Now Zimmerman, a two-time MLS defender of the year for Nashville SC, will start at center back for the U.S. at the World Cup in Qatar, which begins Nov. 20.

“I don’t think it was clicking yet, the magnitude of it,” Zimmerman says as he prepares to play in his first World Cup. “It’s right where I hoped I would be ever since I was a kid. And quite frankly, it’s where I expected myself to be. And I think that belief has been very important to my journey, to have confidence in yourself and make sure you put in the work to get to where you want to be.”

At 29, Zimmerman is one of the older players on Gregg Berhalter’s roster, which has a challenging path out of Group B, facing Wales, England and Iran. With a team that has a lot of big-game experience but essentially zero World Cup experience, players will lean on the bonds they’ve built and look for leaders in the locker room to stoke confidence.

That’s where Zimmerman comes in.

He’s one of the team’s greatest leaders and will be called upon to act as such. Doug Allison, his coach at Furman University, says Zimmerman is “the Tim Tebow of soccer” because of his leadership and commitment to his faith. He also “loves the idea that it’s honorable to represent your country,” says his father, David.

“If someone is doing something wrong, he’s pointing it out, and if someone scores, he’s the first to jump on him,” Allison says.

During the group stage, Zimmerman will have his hands full, as he will go up directly against players like Gareth Bale and Harry Kane, though Allison says, “He’s not going to be intimidated by the names.”

“It’s like in ‘Braveheart,’ ‘Now who’s with me?’ Well, Walker is not doing his hair for nothing,” Allison continues, a reference to Zimmerman’s Thor-like long blonde hair. “He’s going to go into battle and you want to go with him. That’s what he brings.”

*** *** ***

WORLD CUP 2022: US MEN’S SOCCER TEAM RECEIVES SUPPORTIVE ‘TED LASSO’ LETTERS

His mother says Zimmerman was “a scrapper from the beginning.”

He was the youngest of three brothers and the youngest of nine boys who lived in the cul-de-sac on Vendue Drive in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He always tried to get in on whatever the older kids were up to, even when he was too small. At 9 months old, he stood up and walked across an 8-by-11 rug in the living room straight to his mom. No baby steps, just got up and walked. “It was crazy,” Becky says.

Walker Zimmerman #25 of Nashville SC during the MLS Cup Round of 16 match against Los Angeles Galaxy at the Dignity Health Sports Park on October 15, 2022 in Carson, California.
(Shaun Clark/Getty Images)

When his brothers Dawson and Carter wanted to have a neighborhood lemonade stand, they recruited 2-year-old Walker to be their promoter. A team player from the beginning, he sat on top of the cooler, shirtless, with cowboy boots on.

“Who’s gonna pass up a little boy sitting there advertising?” David says. “Everybody stopped.”

Zimmerman followed his brothers into sports. They played everything, from soccer to baseball to basketball. When he was 12, Zimmerman said he would play professional sports, though at the time didn’t know which one. A year later, playing for the U14 youth national team, he committed to soccer.

“I felt real strongly that he was going to play professionally,” Becky says. “All my boys were athletic, but he had this real passion. The kind you hear about where guys stay late, and you look out the window and they’re shooting baskets continually, juggling the ball and ‘Mom, come out and throw the ball so I can volley it against the house!’ I mean it was just constant. You can’t teach that. There was a hunger.”

Zimmerman played for local club GSA, and when he was 14, he went to Argentina with the regional Olympic Development Program team. Allison, who was the coach, recalls seeing the potential in a tall, slim player who was playing right back more than center back then. But what he remembers more than his performance on the field is how he acted away from it.

“You’re looking for things off the field at that age for kids and hoping they behave themselves so far away from home,” Allison says, noting that Zimmerman was a positive influence others were drawn to. “He was always surrounded by the other guys in the lobby of the hotel.

“Then after the trip, I remember him sending me a letter with laminated pictures of himself saying that he’s going to make the national team someday. He was so determined. I think that was a big thing. The vision he had of himself. He could see himself hopefully one day playing in the professional ranks. I was like, wow, this guy has got some incredible goals.”

Zimmerman was persistent. He sent Allison more laminated pictures of himself playing with the U14, U15 and U16 national teams inside a booklet that also included extracurriculars like being a group leader and mentor for youth groups of his church, in which his parents were pastors and missionaries. Allison recruited him to play at Furman and once Zimmerman committed, he recruited friends and teammates to join him there. Ranked 15th in the country in the 2011 class, Zimmerman became the centerpiece and helped Allison compile a top-20 group.

Zimmerman graduated from high school early to enroll at Furman in the spring of 2011. In his two seasons — before being selected No. 7 overall by FC Dallas in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft — he was named All-American, scored 11 goals and helped the Paladins make the NCAA Tournament.

Walker Zimmerman of USA looks on during the international friendly match between Japan and United States at Merkur Spiel-Arena on September 23, 2022 in Duesseldorf, Germany.
(Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Allison, who coached Clint Dempsey at Furman from 2001-03, says Zimmerman reminds him of the former USMNT star because of a shared competitiveness and desire to play at the highest level.

“He doesn’t want to lose at ping-pong, he doesn’t want to lose putting his socks on,” Allison says. “You can ask Sally, his wife. It must get really old sometimes. I’m sure with [their son] Tucker, it’s who can put the diaper on fastest? He is so competitive, but fun with it. You see the leadership qualities straight away. He’s always talking on the field. He’s always pointing. He’s always telling guys where to be. He wants to get better, he wants to challenge himself.”

With the USMNT, Zimmerman has been quick to take on any responsibility. He’s a players’ association representative who played a part in bringing his team together earlier this year to forge a historic collective bargaining agreement with the U.S. women’s side to ensure equal pay. To help get the deal done, he encouraged his teammates, sometimes in difficult conversations, to get on Zoom calls from all over the world.

WORLD CUP 2022: UNITED STATES MEN’S NATIONAL TEAM ROSTER REVEALED

“To be the first [U.S. men’s team] to say, ‘Yeah, we’ll share equal prize money at the World Cup,’ is a big deal,” Zimmerman says. “We’re excited about that, being on the front foot of being the change. That’s the motto we’ve had for a couple years now, and it applies to multiple things, and so I’m really proud of the group. It’s not easy until you are the ones who are doing it. I don’t want that to be undervalued and don’t want to take away everything the women have had to go through.

“I’m really proud to be part of it and felt like I was in a position to be more upfront about it and be more of a spokesperson and that’s just through conversations with guys on the team.”

Zimmerman, a family man who brings his 1-year-old son Tucker to camp whenever possible, also prioritizes making connections. He still attends a small men’s bible study and hosts church community groups with his wife, Sally. The couple recently endowed a scholarship for the Furman men’s soccer team. One time, a Furman alum asked Allison if his 10-year-old son could meet Zimmerman after a Nashville SC-New York Red Bulls game in New York. Allison told Zimmerman about the request and the star defender remembered to say hello to the young fan and his friends afterward.

“You text him after a game, you call him and he always answers the phone, he always replies to a text,” Allison says. “When he’s talking to our guys here, they’ll get his number and text him and he’ll text back in five minutes. He’s accessible to us.

“… That sums up Walker right there.”

*** *** ***

Walker Zimmerman of Team USA gesture during the international friendly match between Japan and United States at Merkur Spiel-Arena on September 23, 2022 in Duesseldorf, Germany.
(Lars Baron/Getty Images)

In April, Zimmerman signed a designated player contract with Nashville SC — $10 million guaranteed over four years — that made him one of the top-paid defenders in MLS history. General manager Mike Jacobs called him “our Tom Brady.”

But before that, there were times Zimmerman struggled to make rosters. He didn’t make the USMNT before the 2012 London Olympics (the team didn’t qualify anyway) or the 2013 U20 World Cup. There were times he didn’t play for FC Dallas. He’s been through injuries, like the hamstring that kept him out of the 2021 Gold Cup. He missed a penalty kick during MLS playoffs last season. He uses his experiences to help others.

“He told our whole team about that,” Allison says. “He said, ‘Look, I’ve failed. But it made me stronger. A lot of guys can’t persevere because there are lots of lonely days when you go home and didn’t make a roster. So what do you do? Sit there and let it mentally affect you?’

“He’s always like, What do I need to do to get better? What do I need to do to be the best? Not just make the roster, but start? A lot of lesser characters would have completely crumbled, but there’s a rock in there, a foundation.”

His U.S. teammates agree. Tyler Adams calls him “an intense player” and a leader; Weston McKennie, who also played with him at FC Dallas, says “he’s just a rock in the back.”

“He’s always had the ability to lead teams,” McKennie continues. “Whenever we’re struggling, even off the field, that’s someone you can go and talk to.”

Zimmerman is also solid on the field, of course.

He’s “exceptional in the air,” says Berhalter, and is one of the USMNT’s best passers out of the back.

WHITE HOUSE TO SEND OFFICIAL US DELEGATION TO WORLD CUP, DESPITE QATAR HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSE CLAIMS

“You can count on him to win aerial duels, you can count on him to sacrifice his body in front of a shot,” McKennie says. “Those are center backs that players normally don’t want to play against, and it’s always good to have someone like that in your corner.”

Zimmerman, who has 33 caps for the national team, made his debut in early 2017 but wasn’t rostered the night the U.S. was stunned by Trinidad and Tobago and failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. He finally became a regular in October 2021 for another round of World Cup qualifiers. He’s played in 10 games for the USMNT in 2022, which is tied for the most of any player (Adams, Christian Pulisic, Jedi Robinson and Jesus Ferreira also have 10), and has captained the team six times.

“What you see is what you get,” Berhalter says. “He wears his heart on his sleeve. He goes out and competes every single day. He’s a warrior and that’s what you want in center backs and that’s what you want as a teammate. Guys can rely on him to give 100% in everything he’s gonna do.”

Zimmerman has not ruled out playing in Europe at some point. He hasn’t been completely overlooked — he did have overseas offers after his All-American freshman year at Furman, but had just met Sally, so he stayed back. A strong showing in Qatar could earn him another shot to take that next step.

“I’m looking at some of the center backs playing in the Premier League and am like, Walker can do that, Walker can do that,” Allison says. “This will be a really important chance for him with his team.

“Especially when you’re playing against Wales, that’s not an easy game. Gareth Bale could show up at any moment. Then Harry Kane at England, maybe Mason Mount. Those guys play for top Premier League teams. He’s got a chance. Clint Dempsey really took that chance and then ended up with Fulham and Tottenham.”

Zimmerman is focused on leading the U.S. as far as possible in Qatar. After all, he’s been preparing his whole life for this moment.

CLICK HERE TO GET THE FOX NEWS APP

“There’s a lot of good pros out there, but to be a good pro and a good person are different things,” Allison says. “He remembers his club coach, he remembers his college coach. You sit down to dinner with him and that smile comes back from that 14-year-old boy in the lobby in Argentina. He’s never lost it.

“It’s not just surface value with his haircuts and stuff. There’s a lot of depth to Walker Zimmerman. And there’s a lot about Walker that’s still to come.”