His résumé indicates an all-time MLS great, an elite defender at the peak of his powers. He’s the second-highest-paid center back in the league, the face of his club and a World Cup veteran. He and his wife Sally welcomed their second child, Belle Morris, to the world in August, a little sister for their charismatic 2-year-old son Tucker.

Yet despite earning a spot in the MLS Best XI presented by Continental Tire for five years running, an honor he shares with just one other player in history, Walker Zimmerman uses terms like “brutal,” “war,” “survival” and “absolute dogfight” to describe his injury-wracked 2023, which has exerted a knock-on effect for his US men’s national team prospects in the coming months.

And his club, Nashville SC, are in the midst of a soul-searching winter, haunted by a razor-thin shootout loss to Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami CF in the Leagues Cup final and a subsequent late-season swoon that made their Audi MLS Cup Playoffs stay a brief one.

“Getting so close, Leagues Cup obviously is the one that comes to mind. Losing in PKs [on an 11-round shootout that went] all the way to goalkeepers, at home, with all the narratives going on with Messi's arrival,” Zimmerman told MLSsoccer.com during a wide-ranging conversation at MLS media day in Miami last week. “That was pretty brutal.

“That was one of the most painful losses that we've had. Because it was such a good opportunity that was in front of us and it would have culminated our best stretch of playing, from a playing standpoint, that we've had.”

Reaching another level

As solid as the first four years of MLS life were for Nashville SC and their talismanic captain – they’ve christened a glittering new stadium, charmed legions of new fans and are one of only four expansion teams to qualify for the postseason in their first four campaigns – all that respectability has only made the elusiveness of excellence that much more frustrating for them.

The Coyotes long to be great, not merely good.

“You look at our success as a club and you'd say, ‘Oh, they’re an expansion team and four straight years in the playoffs, and that's all great.’ But we as players have the ambition and the drive that we want to win," Zimmerman said.

“We want trophies.”

NSC’s defense was joint-best in MLS last season in terms of goals conceded (32). The dynamism of the attack, however, has been a running concern for quite some time. Despite the continuing effervescence of star playmaker Hany Mukhtar, head coach Gary Smith and his staff seemed to run out of ideas at some key moments, with Nashville shut out in four of their five final regular-season matches and both of their playoff games, twin 1-0 losses to Orlando City SC. A couple of hard-running wingers have been acquired and there are hopes of a resurgence from incumbents like Randall Leal and club-record transfer Sam Surridge, in addition to some systemic and/or philosophical changes hinted at by Smith.

“I look at the acquisitions that we made in the offseason already and it's very much geared towards the attack and how we can improve,” said Zimmerman. “Tyler Boyd's obviously the one that's going to jump off as a really important signing. The health of Randall Leal is huge for us, so getting him back healthy will be big. McKinze Gaines, the speed that he's going to bring to our team out wide, and then to have him and \[Jacob\] Shaffelburg, and then central midfielder\] [Dru Yearwood coming in from Red Bulls.

“We certainly want to talk to, and talk through, how we can be a little bit more aggressive,” he added. “What does that look like? We know defensively we've been pretty solid for four years. How can we give us a little bit more responsibility that frees up more people to join into the attack?”

Walker Zimmerman NSH 1

"Absolute dogfight"

Lately, anchoring NSC’s back line has been a great deal more arduous for Zimmerman than in the past. The Georgia native played with pain throughout the back half of the season, plagued by an Achilles problem that eventually required substantial rehabilitation and a spell in a walking boot that kept him out of the USMNT’s January camp and made this a preseason of careful healing.

“Since June it was an absolute dogfight. It was war mentally, physically to make it through,” recalled Zimmerman. “Not a lot of training, a lot of just trying to survive and get through a game and then manage it the entire week of training, try and survive another game, hopefully make it through.

“So yeah, I got some stuff done in the offseason. I'll be a delayed start to preseason for sure on the side, but it was what we saw as a club, just a window of opportunity not having had rest in, realistically, about four years. Given the nature of the national team, December and January camps, it's pretty much been nonstop for four years and it just kind of caught up with me. Hopefully I'll feel a little bit better in a few weeks as we finish up this rehab phase and start integrating back into training.”

Since his trade from LAFC ahead of the 2020 MLS season, Zimmerman has played 31 USMNT games and appeared in 119 matches for Nashville, with the compressed 2022 World Cup cycle a particular drain on the calendar. Last year Achilles tendinopathy, an inflammation of the tendon that causes pain, swelling and stiffness, set in, forcing him and NSC’s medical staff to manage a chronic condition through one of the busiest stretches in MLS history.

“My Achilles just had a lot of tendinopathy going on. There was some degenerative tissue and slight kind of tears in the Achilles, like small fibers,” explained the center back. “So you can imagine, just the consistent playing and pounding and running and load adds up. I just needed to calm that down and get it sorted out.”

Walker Zimmerman - Hany Mukhtar - Nashville SC

USMNT objectives

Zimmerman still logged 33 overall appearances and was particularly imperious in Nashville’s Leagues Cup run, which featured wins over Club América, CF Monterrey and FC Cincinnati. He senses a higher caliber of tactical awareness and passing incision settling in alongside the physical power, aerial dominance and communications skills he’s long possessed.

“The more that you play, the more experience that you have, the game slows down. I've noticed,” he said. “It feels like it’s coming to me a lot easier and I can see things well in advance of maybe where I would have five to 10 years ago.

“When the game slows down, I feel like you can make better decisions, you can put people in better spots. And I feel like just my understanding of how to organize the guys around me to prevent opportunities for the other team is at a really high level, and then with that comes confidence.”

Once he regains full fitness, his goal is to prove he’s got another echelon or two still in him. Doing so doesn’t necessarily require him to be a regular starter on the national team again, though there would almost certainly be mutual benefit in both directions.

He’s set his sights on winning back a key role for this summer’s much-anticipated Copa América on US soil or, perhaps more intriguingly, being selected as one of the three overage selections on the predominantly Under-23 squad that will represent the United States at the Summer Olympics in France. In the bigger picture, his defensive colleague and fellow manbun appreciator Tim Ream, still thriving in the English Premier League at age 36, offers an inspirational role model of longevity.

“Obviously I have sights set on Copa América, on the Olympics, if that's ever a possibility on being an overage guy, which would be really great,” Zimmerman noted. “So just trying to put myself in a position where in the summer I make it impossible for them not to pick me for one of those two things.

“A large part of that comes down to health and physically peaking at that time, which I think is kind of the plan with all of us on the same page: myself, Nashville, national team. Get it right, return to your form, stay healthy and let's rock and roll.”

Walker Zimmerman USMNT 1

Veteran wisdom

Many encounter deeper perspectives as they enter their fourth decade of life and so it is for Zimmerman, who turns 31 in May.

Fatherhood has added new contours to his life, and also intersected with his on-field career in moving ways. In 2022 he and Sally brought Tucker to USMNT camp, making history as the first on the men’s side to utilize a childcare provision in the collective bargaining agreement long a central tenet of the women’s national team’s labor arrangement with U.S. Soccer.

Tucker’s blossoming personality presents him with a beautiful new facet of parenting, and with Belle on board that adventure becomes that much more testing, and rewarding.

“That's a huge life transition and it's kind of crazy to think about, makes me feel a little bit older,” said Zimmerman. “But it's been so fun, the differences and what that can bring out in yourself, in your marriage and just a new side of you being a dad. The highs, the lows – they're incredibly high, they can be incredibly low and frustrating.

“The joy that you experience,” he added, “there's so many different examples with your kid, whether it's watching them experience something for the first time and see that true joy. Even Santa Claus this year, amazing – watching his face when he reacts to hitting a good golf shot or scoring a goal in the backyard, it's jubilation for him. And that makes me so happy to see that. He's having so much joy.”

Zimmerman has already built an iconic career, whatever happens from here. A fifth Best XI nod put him in an exclusive fraternity alongside Landon Donovan (seven Bext XIs), Dwayne De Rosario (six), Chris Armas (five), Robin Fraser (five) and Jaime Moreno (five). The idea of racking up three more to break Donovan’s record provides him with a timely motivational target as he rolls into the next phase of his journey.

“It's about setting your sights,” he said, with Nashville opening their 2024 slate on Feb. 25 vs. RBNY (5 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). “Can I pass Landon and can I get to eight? And in order to do that, you just have to continue that grind and not be complacent about where you are, and set new goals and new targets.

“Slowing down this offseason, I've gotten the chance to kind of appreciate [the achievements]. But as I did that I recognized, oh man, I don't want to get complacent. I want to make sure that I have the same drive that I think has played a huge role in getting me to where I am now, and where I've come from. I’m taking it season by season and doing all that I can to try and keep climbing up that chart.”

Walker Zimmerman with son