FRISCO, Texas – Zach Loyd has been a rock at the back for FC Dallas in 2015. Only three players on his team earned more regular-season starts, and only four logged more minutes.
But on Sunday morning, he and fellow center back Walker Zimmerman got a fateful text message from coach Oscar Pareja. The younger Zimmerman would get the start in place of Loyd alongside MLS Best XI selection Matt Hedges in the second leg of the Western Conference Championship against the Portland Timbers.
After Timbers striker Fanendo Adi gave Loyd fits with his size and power in leg one, Pareja preferred the larger, more aerially dominant Zimmerman for Sunday's do-or-die matchup.
“Adi gave us problems in the last game in Portland,” Pareja explained after the heart-stopping 2-2 draw. “I chose to have that physicality with Walker Zimmerman. I knew with our pressure and our urgency we were going to receive a lot of long balls trying to look for Adi. I'd rather have Zimmerman, who is our best header and somebody who can control that player.
“So that was one of the reasons," he continued. "The other one was I wanted to use that energy that Walker brings into our set pieces [and] plays offensively. And I really think he did a fantastic job today.”
Sure enough, the game's most influential moment hinged on a battle between Adi and Zimmerman. But Portland's opening goal arrived not via air, but on a daisy-cutting cross from Diego Valeri. And as the two men wrestled for position in the Dallas goalmouth, Zimmerman sprawled to the turf, giving Adi the window of time and space he needed to pivot onto his left foot and lace a shot past goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez for a 1-0 Timbers lead.
“I was on his back, thought I had him marked up pretty good,” said Zimmerman. “I have to look at the video–I thought I got fouled, I was pretty upset about it. I feel like I got hooked and pulled down. So it was frustrating to not get the call. At the same time I just tried to get back up and block the shot–it went right under me and by Jesse–he got a hand on it.
“That was a tough one to swallow. You're going to get calls sometimes, and sometimes you're not.”
Did Adi commit a foul? Referee Ismail Elfath didn't think so. Pareja hesitated to state his opinion, but eventually relented.
“I promised before the game that I was not going to talk about those decisions much,” said Dallas' boss in his post-game press conference. “But you ask me if it was a foul, and indeed it was.”
Such are the razor-thin margins by which playoff games are often decided–rendering Zimmerman's overall solid performance a footnote, especially after Lucas Melano's late clincher, which he dubbed “a dagger” as FCD retained hopes of an extra time-forcing third goal even into injury time.
“I thought I performed well. I think our back line did a pretty solid job,” he said. “We hate to see the turnover on the first goal, just gave it away in a bad spot. The second goal, obviously we're pushing forward, but at the same time, we felt we were still in it, even with two or three minutes left.
“I thought I matched up well with Adi. He's a big, physical player, he does a great job with how he plays. He knows his style, he knows how to hold the ball up and create some chances for other guys around him, running off of him. But I thought I did well physically, matched up really well, won some balls in the air. I thought me and Hedges were sound together.”
Zimmerman, who is entering an option year with Dallas, retained a measure of optimism despite the gut-wrenching result, and hopes to remain a part of Pareja's youth movement in 2016.
“It's something that we'll address in the off-season. I love it here, I love being a part of this team and can see the future with these guys,” he said. “Hopefully I'll be around.”