Walker Zimmerman photo courtesy Nashville SC.
Before he was the MLS defender of the year for Nashville SC, Walker Zimmerman was in preseason with LAFC, preparing to build upon the groundwork laid by the club’s second season in MLS – in which the Supporter’s Shield-winning regular season fizzled in the playoffs.
As a crucial piece of that 2019 LAFC team, Zimmerman was blindsided by a trade to Nashville SC shortly before the season got under way. Fortunately, the Georgia native quickly settled in as a citizen of Music City. His role with NSC was perhaps even more important than the contributions he’d made the previous season with LAFC, and he fit in perfectly.
“2020 from an individual standpoint was just emotional for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “Very excited to have a really successful year being a part of Nashville. Obviously the trade kind of shook me. I think looking back, it’s insane how well everything really worked out in 2020 going from sadness and heartbreak of leaving a team you felt close with, to then embracing a new challenge, a new team, a new city, and really feeling like that is home. That’s what’s been really special about Nashville for me and my family: it feels like home. I felt very comfortable from day one and I think just the belief of the staff, the front office, and my teammates was a big factor in having success. You have people that believe in you, and brought you there for a reason. So I think more than any other year I felt the responsibility of being one of the main guys to get the job done. If they put that belief in me and responsibility on my shoulders, I wanted to make sure that I delivered as best as I could. Obviously really happy with how that year turned out.”
Thanks in large part to Zimmerman’s award-winning performance at the back, Nashville surprised many during the course of its expansion season. A seventh-place finish in the Eastern Conference (a surprise itself after NSC began the year in the West) is not exactly the pinnacle of soccer in this country – but nor was it the expectation for a debutant built without heavy investment in foreign stars.
Dominating No. 10 Miami and then outlasting No. 2 Toronto FC in the playoffs showed that the ceiling may be even higher. With an extra-time loss to Columbus Crew in the conference semifinal round, Nashville’s season will go down as a success. For Zimmerman, though, that just raises the bar for the sophomore campaign.
“I think the first and clear thing is never being complacent and thinking just because you accomplished this or that, that your work is done,” he said. “I think it’s just the beginning. We’re pleased with, in my opinion, getting some playoff experience and some playoff wins under our belt, but I think moving forward that we need to have higher goals. Year one, winning two playoff games, putting yourself in a spot to host a conference championship, we came close but fell short.
“I think moving forward, it’s about trophies – it’s always about winning trophies – and that’s certainly going to be our goal for us as a club: can we bring one or more home next year.”
With the coronavirus pandemic still ongoing, but expected to have less of an on-field impact, at least, than it did last year, Nashville can quickly tap into some of that upside.
“It was a really strange year last year, a lot of individual work that went on,” Zimmerman said. “Hopefully this year we get a little more time to work as a collective and kind of refine and strengthen our identity as a team and get some more training as a group under our belt. Because a lot of it was individual training, small group training and then a lot of games. You weren’t allowed a lot of time on the training ground to work as a group. I think we’ll see a little bit more of that this year, which should help our team.”
Of course, there’s also a labor dispute to resolve. MLS and its Players Association are at the negotiating table in attempts to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement in time to begin the season on April 3 as-scheduled. With Zimmerman occupied in January training camp with the US Men’s National Team, he’s playing a secondary role with MLSPA, but hopeful that the season can go on uninterrupted, with an equitable deal in place.
“It’s obviously an intense time for all of us – players and the league,” he said. “It hasn’t taken up too much time; I would say there have obviously been a couple of calls – some that I’m able to be on and some that I’m not due to training or responsibilities here – but it’s a well-connected network of players, we have some great reps from each team. Our E-board has been phenomena, in terms of keeping everyone up to date. Wel l do big player calls, well do small group calls… but it’s been an interesting time for both the league and the PA, and we’ll see how things shake out here in the next couple days.”
Zimmerman is hoping to be in the starting lineup when the United States wraps its camp with a Sunday friendly against Trinidad and Tobago. After that, it’s – hopefully – right on to preparations for year two in Nashville.