Welcome to What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal, a regular series in which Defector selects a name from the myriad number of exciting young American soccer men playing in Europe and answers the question: What is this USMNT guy’s deal?
Though he is neither “young” nor “exciting” (not his fault) nor “playing in Europe,” and would therefore be ineligible for this series if we were rigid nomenclaturists or otherwise not up for breaking some of our own rules, Walker Zimmerman is going to play a ton of minutes for the United States Men’s National Team in Qatar, so here in this blog post his deal will be explained to you.
He plays for Nashville, his third MLS team after Dallas and LAFC. Zimmerman has come close to making the eastward move to Europe a few times—he “explored options” in Scandinavia in 2016 and was linked to “clubs in Ligue 1, the Bundesliga, and the English Premier League”—though he has opted to stay put in MLS rather than really push for a move.
Zimmerman took a few years to find his footing in MLS and with the youth national team after getting drafted seventh overall by Dallas in 2013. He made 22 first-team appearances in his first two years, a period that also coincided with a late cut from the 2013 U-20 World Cup roster. He broke out in 2016 for a dominant FC Dallas side, though, again, an invitation to the 2017 USMNT January camp only resulted in one friendly appearance, and he was not part of the doomed qualification campaign at all. While the program churned, Zimmerman kept getting better, and he made his first Best XI in 2019. When Nashville joined MLS in 2020, they brought in Zimmerman to anchor their team, and he’s been the best defender in MLS since.
Meanwhile, his emergence for the full-ass national team came as slowly and steadily as ever. He was hurt for the first trio of World Cup qualifiers, then only made the roster for the second round after veterans Tim Ream and John Brooks had to drop out late. Zimmerman seized his moment with some good games alongside Miles Robinson before cementing his place with a strong showing in the 2-0 win over Mexico. Ream and Brooks haven’t been part of the program since. Robinson is now super mega-injured. In one year, Zimmerman has moved up from fringe guy to locked-in starter.
The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?
He’s a big athletic center back who fucks people up in the sky. With the caveat that we’ve only seen him play against non-MLS opposition a few times, Zimmerman is a gifted positional defender with the athleticism to scramble back to make late blocks or rise up over most attackers and pick the ball out of the air. The USMNT wants to play with their fullbacks forward, leaving a bunch of space for Zimmerman and his partner to close down. Very few forwards can outmuscle Zimmerman, and though he’s not as quick or shifty on his feet as the best players in the world, he knows where to stand. When the system is working, as it was against Mexico last November, it works because Zimmerman can defend in space and close down moves early. He can also smack some tasty long balls, as he did against Morocco in June.
The Wonderteen Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will assume the title of Wonderteen.
Zimmerman is 29, has never played in Europe, and is a center back, so, 50 out of 121.
It may be too late in Zimmerman’s career for a big money move to Europe, though he probably has the talent to hack it. His Nashville manager Gary Smith used to scout for Arsenal, and he told ESPN last year that Zimmerman had Premier League talent. Either way, he’s clearly the best and most important MLS-based player on the national team, he’s in his prime, and he has the juice to be a big contributor in Qatar. Unlike most of the guys we’ve profiled in this series, Zimmerman is a player for right now. He’s not fully formed by any means, though he’s closer to it than anyone else who will grace the starting XI.
The U.S.’s European corps is absolutely silly with right backs, enough to stock a full XI. And so it is important to determine whether or not the USMNT guy of the week can play the position.
In a March 2021 interview with MLS’s The Call Up show, Walker Zimmerman gave a long answer about going to a USYNT camp and being asked what position he played, and instead of saying center back, he made a “spur of the moment decision” and said he played right back. He went through the whole U-14 camp as a right back before eventually transitioning over to the center. Sounds to me like someone who broke into the youth national team picture as a right back even though he now plays elsewhere not only can play right back but has played right back.
He’s a starter!