Walker Zimmerman was, in his own words, “pissed.”
After injuring his hamstring during this summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup group stage, the Nashville SC center back had worked ferociously to recover his fitness and form in time to be considered for the US men’s national team’s fall World Cup qualifying matches. Though September’s window arrived too soon, he thought he’d made a strong case for games against Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica in October, only to receive news he didn’t want from Gregg Berhalter.
“This is one of these difficult things,” explained Berhalter in Monday’s press conference ahead of the USMNT’s Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier at Jamaica (5 pm ET | Paramount+, Universo). “When we're plotting a roster for the window, we're very specific on what type of profiles we're looking for, based on the opponent and based on what we're looking to achieve against each opponent. And it turned out in that one window, Walker wasn't part of it.”
Safe to say Zimmerman saw things a little differently from his national team coach.
“Coming on the back of not playing in September, it was kind of like, well, I didn't really get a chance. Let me prove to you that I can be a key player for this team,” he recalled on Monday. “So I was frustrated for sure. We had a very honest conversation on the phone.”
According to Berhalter: “We had other guys that we thought were ahead of him at the time. And we also were planning substitutes, what the potential substitutions could bring for us; we're looking at our opponent, one was Honduras, really good transition speed, so we were a little bit concerned about that. But the conversation with Walker was really up-front and really open.”
The initial October roster dropped on Sept. 29, containing a center-back corps of John Brooks, Mark McKenzie, Tim Ream, Chris Richards and Miles Robinson. In short order, however, things started to change. Ream bowed out of his call-up for family reasons, leading Berhalter to ring Zimmerman back and ask him to catch a flight to Austin.
The picture changed again in a matter of hours. John Brooks, a locked-on starter entering the Octagonal, withdrew due to a back problem, a development that went public on Oct. 4.
Suddenly the center-back group was McKenzie, Richards, Robinson and Zimmerman, the latter the oldest and most experienced of the bunch. Berhalter and his staff liked what they saw on the training ground enough that Zimmerman found himself starting against Jamaica four days after that.
“He calls back 24 hours later like, ‘Hey, how quickly things change, I’m going to bring you to camp,’” said Zimmerman of Berhalter. “I was like, alright, alright, sounds good. I'll be ready.’”
And he performed.
“I just came in with, I think the same mindset that a lot of our players have here, which is what makes this team special: Whenever you get your chance, you’ve got to be ready,” said the Georgia native. “So I certainly was very excited to get that opportunity, that he could have the confidence to switch like that and play me in those games.”
He got a second consecutive start on the visit to Panama, and while nobody played exceedingly well in that sobering 1-0 loss, Zimmerman was widely rated best of the lot. Now, after an excellent all-around outing in Friday’s 2-0 win over Mexico – which featured a late ejection for his central partner Miles Robinson – he’s something closer to essential, checking the boxes on Berhalter’s demanding list of expectations for the position he once played.
“Walker was one of those guys that got his opportunity and really thrived, and really played a great game against Jamaica in that first game. And then played a very solid game against Mexico as well,” said the coach. “So, really happy for Walker, he's a great guy off the field. He's a good veteran leader in this group. And we really need him. … He gives us a good aerial presence and does well in build-up, and was able to defend transition moments really well also.”
A commanding presence and key on set pieces at both ends, perceived doubts about Zimmerman’s ability to distribute incisively out of defense – “the narratives always get tossed around,” he noted ruefully on Monday – earlier in his career have dwindled of late. While Zimmerman maintains that he’s not thinking or doing anything dramatically different these days, he seems to have grown and developed from his stint in LAFC’s proactive system as well as his role as a foundational piece in Nashville’s expansion project.
“Beginning at LAFC, where it was a possession-based team, I obviously worked on that. When Gregg took over for the national team that was a big emphasis, and so that's when it started,” said Zimmerman, “really focusing on making line-breaking passes, challenging myself in that area of my game.
“So I don't think it's anything where I'm coming into camp thinking ‘Oh, I need to make some line-breaking passes to earn a spot on the team!’ It's just playing my game and trying to be consistent, trying to play within my strengths.”
He’s aware, and amused, that the USMNT’s extremely youthful composition makes him relatively grizzled at age 28, with 21 caps, a perspective Berhalter values. On track to earn his sixth start of the year in Tuesday's rematch with the Reggae Boyz, the superb timing of his current form certainly carries the air of a savvy veteran.
“It’s kind of funny even to say ‘older guys,’” Zimmerman noted, “looking at Zack [Steffen], DeAndre [Yedlin] and myself as the older guys, and we aren't even 30. So it's tossed around like we're old, but we're still feeling great, in the prime of our careers, and now it's just about getting the collective together. And the talent is certainly deep at this point in time and we’ve got to capitalize on that.”