Nashville SC

2020 report card: Walker Zimmerman

Walker Zimmerman GIF by Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

When you trade for a Best-XI player, you expect big things. Walker Zimmerman delivered for Nashville SC.

Other editions: No minutes and goneNo minutes and backJimmy MedrandaBrayan BeckelesHandwalla Bwana • Jack MaherDavid AccamAlan WinnMatt LaGrassaEric MillerDerrick JonesJhonder CádizTaylor WashingtonAbu DanladiJalil AnibabaDominique BadjiDaniel RíosTah Brian AnungaAlex MuylHany MukhtarAníbal GodoyAlistair JohnstonRandall LealDax McCartyDan LovitzWalker ZimmermanDave RomneyJoe Willis

The expectations

Zimmerman was Nashville’s preseason blockbuster trade. A Best-XI selection in 2019 for Los Angeles FC (as the team achieved record-setting points totals in the regular season), that’s… a nice piece to add. It also means that the expectations are that he’ll repeat the feat at his new club, if not accomplish even more on an individual basis. Uh, spoilers.

Zimmerman is a Georgia native who played his college ball in South Carolina. Bringing him back to the Southeast was a positive for him and his family, and he even mentioned buying a house within the first couple days of setting foot in Music City. Setting up for the long haul is obviously not the most-relevant piece of projecting his season, but it does indicate a level of comfort (and that his career should keep him in Nashville as long as possible).

Being the anchor of Nashville’s defense as the team was decent but perhaps not among the best in the league was a fair expectation.

The Statistical

25 appearances • 2453 minutes

3 goals, 24 shots (2.62 xG), 12 on-target
0 assists, 9 key passes (1.29 xA)
922/1124 passing (82.0% • 81.0% expected)
9.2% of touches on-field

+0.15 Goals added per 96 minutes versus replacement centerback

Walker Zimmerman 2020
Dribbling G+Fouling G+Interrupting G+Passing G+Receiving G+Shooting G+
+0.23+0.11+0.51-0.16+0.71+0.26
All data per American Soccer Analysis.

The grade

A.

Dude was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Hard to accomplish much more than that. Of course, some of that was a combination of a few factors: his reputation and price coming in, the success of Nashville’s defense above expectations, and the lack of a ton of national eyeballs watching NSC games to know how it happened (I could argue – spoiler again! – that Dave Romney was the more-important piece of the backline) and where to give credit. He had an outstanding year. There’s a bit more to squeeze out of the potential. We’re talkin’ taking it from a 99 to 100, though.

Zimmerman’s interrupting is naturally going to be the defensive aspect that stands out. He’s a highly-mobile centerback and very willing to get up or across the field to break up plays (and get involved in the offense, about which more in a moment). He’s also a fairly clean defender – the necessary fouls are there, but he’s not sloppy when he marauds around the field.

A big part of his national profile comes from what he provides offensively. He gets forward in the run of play, allowing NSC to flood more bodies into dangerous areas for his distribution (though it’s worth noting that distribution is the one aspect he is below the average MLS player). More importantly, he’s absolutely lethal on set pieces. Nashville’s first goal of the season – and thus, of the MLS era – came from a set piece where he didn’t simply head home, but controlled after an initial blocked shot and was calm in poking it past Brad Guzan.

So, the downsides. Zimmerman’s highly-mobile, risk-taking style obviously provides plenty of good things for Nashville, both offensively and defensively. The nature of taking risks, though, is that sometimes you get burned (and even recently, he’s been very open that he was personally responsible for some opposing goals). His ball-watching was perhaps the biggest factor in the lone goal scored by Portland Timbers – though the fans laid it a little unfairly on Eric Miller. In the grand scheme, these are minor issues, and the benefits you get from some of that risk-taking make the downsides worth it.

The future

So, with the final paragraph of the above in-mind… could Zimmerman improve on an MLS Defensive Player of the Year performance this season? There were enough easy-fix, worst-outcome events that happened last year that it’s not only possible, but likely. He may not get the same type of accolades for his performance, but from a Nashville perspective, the expectation can be that he is even better than he was a year ago.

A more-established Nashville team may very well have a better defense overall, even if Zimmerman were to make the same number of critical mistakes (which again, I don’t expect) as he did last year. Keep in mind that in Nashville’s first two games – long before the systems were established, before Alistair Johnston emerged as the top right back, etc. – the team gave up three goals on just 0.62 xG. That’s some bad luck, and some “this team isn’t established yet, bad luck is going to be maximally punished at times” type of stuff.

Getting a little more payoff offensively could happen, too. He was unlucky that his nine key passes resulted in no assists, and a more-potent Nashville offense probably earns more corner kicks and other attacking-area set pieces (though the flipside of that coin: a more-potent Nashville offense will probably have less reliance on set pieces to score its goals). Blow up the volume to a normal season length, and another goal plus a couple assists could be possible.

Assuming a bit better health (which isn’t saying much: he missed all of 125 minutes the entire season), so his absences are by the team’s choice, not due to his knocks, and you’re in better position to keep him healthy and performing at a high level, as well. He played through some more nagging stuff than the average player did, until it finally knocked him out for a game and a half late in the regular season.

So with all that in mind… could he angle for a Europe move by season’s end? Even mid-season, if the other CBs on Nashville’s roster develop at the right rate? It certainly seems possible, without a ton more he needs to prove in MLS (and while “more to prove in MLS” is not necessarily the only thing keeping guys in the league, he’s a guy who’s mentioned that he’s interested in testing himself at a higher level, and he’s right in the CB sweet spot, age-wise). It’ll be his decision – rather than a lack of European interest – with hopefully the chance at an MLS title being the factor that he has to weigh.

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