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What Walker Zimmerman trade means for LAFC, Nashville and the future | Andrew Wiebe

Paul Tenorio dropped the Twitter bomb at 9 am ET on Tuesday morning: Best XI defender Walker Zimmerman was on the move, a blockbuster trade that came, in the words of multiple people I talked to about the deal, “out of the blue” for both the player and club personnel around Major League Soccer.

The details, in case you missed them: Zimmerman is off to expansion side Nashville SC in exchange for at least $950,000 in General Allocation Money and up to $1.25 million plus an international spot — assets that will help LAFC manage their salary cap situation, sign another player or two or, more likely, a little bit of both.

Those are the basics. Let’s sort through the fallout.

How much is allocation money are we talking here?

A historic amount.

Nashville paid more for Zimmerman ($950k in GAM that could, and almost surely will, rise to $1.25M based on incentives) than Minnesota United did for 2019 Defender of the Year Ike Opara one year ago ($900k TAM that could rise to $1M). It is the biggest trade for a defender in MLS history.

When it is all said and done, it may end up as the biggest trade outlay in league history as well. Here are some other blockbusters for context.

  • Darlington Nagbe to Atlanta United (base $1.05M, up to $1.65 with incentives)
  • Dom Dwyer to Orlando City (base $900k, up to $1.6M with incentives)
  • David Accam to Philadelphia ($1.2M)
  • Justin Meram to Orlando City ($1.05M)
  • Darlington Nagbe to Columbus Crew ($1.05M)
  • Ike Opara to Minnesota (base $900k, up to $1M with incentives)
  • Christian Ramirez to LAFC (base $800k, up to $1M with incentives)
  • Fanendo Adi to FC Cincinnati (base $850k, up to $950k with incentives)

So yeah, we’re talking big bucks here, the sort of move that sets the market.

Why did LAFC make the trade?

Because Nashville’s offer exceeded their valuation. That’s how professional sports work. Sometimes, no matter the player, an offer arrives that you can’t refuse.

More specifically, moving Zimmerman gives LAFC some wiggle room when it comes to their salary cap and roster situation ahead of the roster compliance date later this month. They opened a senior roster spot, shed more than $600,000 in 2020 salary from the books, added a 2020 international roster spot and gained $1.25M in GAM – I’m going to make a safe assumption Zimmerman hits the escalators – over the next two seasons. That’s valuable flexibility that can be used now or later.

But, more immediately, it’s also a Best XI and US men’s national team center back out the door. How is LAFC going to absorb that loss, especially with a Concacaf Champions League clash with Club Leon just a week away?

For now, Tristan Blackmon will step into the breach. General manager John Thorrington could pull the trigger on this trade because Blackmon, the No. 3 pick in the 2018 SuperDraft, developed into a better-than-average contributor both at right back and center back. Bob Bradley already knows what he has in Blackmon’s partnership with Eddie Segura. They played together in central defense seven times over the second half of last season, including in LAFC’s playoff victory against the Galaxy.

Blackmon is cheaper — he signed a new contract extension this offseason — and younger than Zimmerman. He’s also nowhere near as proven, which is why I think LAFC, given their ambitions for 2020, would be wise to add another starting-caliber player or two at center back and right back before the MLS primary transfer window closes in early May.

Thorrington, smartly, isn’t publicly committing to any impending moves, including picking up right back Andy Najar to fill Blackmon’s previous spot on the depth chart. Najar is currently training with the team, but would have to return to MLS via the Allocation Order. Perhaps Latif Blessing fills the hole at right back. Maybe they’ll wait for summer to pick up another central defender.

For LAFC, better to keep your hand hidden, lest the price rise with the publicity that comes from money in the coffers. But what if Segura or Blackmon go down? Danilo Silva is 33 and played 222 minutes last season. Dejan Jakovic is 34 and played 181 minutes. Neither appears to be more than a short-term injury fill-in. In the meantime, LAFC lost an emotional leader and one of the best central defenders in the league just days before they make their CCL debut.

The timing is a bit conspicuous, and I’ll be patiently waiting for another move or two in the coming days and weeks. LAFC have cultivated a reputation for being a step ahead of everyone else over the past two years. Only time will tell if that’s the case with this trade.

Why did Nashville SC make the trade?

Nashville believe they just landed their Matt Besler, their Chad Marshall, their Opara. For more than a year, Zimmerman’s name came up in trade discussions, and for more than a year LAFC said forget about it. That finally changed, and general manager Mike Jacobs made his move.

Zimmerman is the type of domestic cornerstone Nashville can build their team’s short-, medium- and even long-term future around. The 26-year-old is a Best XI and USMNT center back entering the prime of his career. When you get a chance to trade for that kind of player, you pull the trigger even if the price sets records. Expansion teams get more allocation money than everyone else for a reason. What’s the point of a war chest if you don’t ever spend it?

The way I look at it, Nashville’s ceiling as a team in 2020 is still very much TBD — no idea how that attack is going to shake out, quality depth could be an issue and this is a different league than the one Gary Smith won an MLS Cup in with Colorado — but by adding Zimmerman they’ve raised their floor considerably. Think about the Opara effect in Minnesota. Instead of waiting two years and setting defensive records for futility and THEN adding a proven MLS center back, Nashville got their guy before they played a game.

We’ll see if it pays off for them, but $1.25M seems like a reasonable amount to pay for a potential captain and big-time presence in the community. Meanwhile, Miguel Nazarit, Dave Romney, Jalil Anibaba and Ken Tribbett are going to fight it out for the other spot in central defense. Whoever wins it will have a Best XI partner to help make them look good.

Nashville won’t be Atlanta United or LAFC in Year 1, but it increasingly looks like they won’t be Minnesota or Cincinnati either. Somewhere in between is just fine.

What does it mean for Walker Zimmerman?

There’s a human component here. There always is, it’s just columns like these often focus on the nuts and bolts of team building and not the “What do you mean I have to uproot my life?” conversations like the one that took Zimmerman by surprise Monday night.

Zimmerman rejoined LAFC a week ago after spending January with the USMNT, starting and playing 90 minutes in the friendly win against Costa Rica that concluded the national team’s annual camp. Here’s what he told reporters on his return to his (now previous) club:

“I’m excited to be back with LAFC, excited to see all my friends and a lot of new faces as well. I’m trying to get to know them on a personal level. It’s a lot of culture-building conversations.”

Strike that. Time to build a new culture across the country with a new team. For the second time in two years, Zimmerman is preparing to embark on an expansion season. Only unlike his trade from FC Dallas to LAFC, this time the move was completely unexpected.

That’s the business. He gave everything he could to LAFC, culminating in a Supporters’ Shield and all-time points record. Best to take the positives and run with them. In Nashville, Zimmerman is closer to home and has a massive, new challenge in front of him. How he responds will help determine who won this trade in the years to come.

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