Walker Zimmerman goes from LAFC to Nashville to U.S. men’s team
For most of us, 2020 was a year punctuated by unwelcome surprises. It was no different for national team defender Walker Zimmerman. And for him that started early, with LAFC trading him to an expansion team in Nashville shortly before February’s MLS season opener.
“The trade was certainly unexpected,” Zimmerman said. “I did pretty much the only thing that I knew to do, which was put my head down, continue to work, concentrate on things I can control.”
At first, that was very little: Nashville lost its first two games, was forced to withdraw from July’s MLS Is Back tournament when nine teammates tested positive for COVID-19 and didn’t get its first win until Aug. 12.
But then things took a turn. Nashville lost just three of its final 17 regular-season games, won its wild-card playoff match and advanced to the conference semifinals, becoming the first expansion team to get that far in more than two decades.
Zimmerman was a big reason why, anchoring a defense that gave up less than a goal a game, the best mark by a first-year team in MLS history. It was the finest of his eight MLS seasons, one that earned him the league’s defender of the year award and a recall to the national team, which will play El Salvador on Wednesday in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in its final game of the year.
Gustav Svensson scored off a corner kick in the final moments of second-half stoppage time, and the Seattle Sounders beat Minnesota United 3-2 to advance to the MLS Cup final.
And none of it would have happened without the trade.
“I don’t feel like I’ve found some revolution in my game and raised it to some kind of different level,” he said. “Being on certain teams brings out different attributes that you have.”
So does being with certain teammates and Zimmerman benefitted greatly from playing beside Dave Romney, who was often unappreciated during his five seasons with the Galaxy but became a vital contributor in his first season in Nashville, where he was the only man to play every minute in 2020.
“Walker has been a great center back partner,” said Romney, an Irvine native and distant relative of Utah senator Mitt Romney. “We’re both good on the ball, we’re constantly communicating and defensively our strengths complement each other well.”
How the 27-year-old defenders went from bitter El Tráfico rivals on iconic teams in Southern California to best-bud teammates with an upstart franchise in Tennessee is part serendipity and part the design of Nashville general manager Mike Jacobs and coach Gary Smith, who set out to build their team around defense.
Zimmerman was the final piece of that puzzle, coming over in mid-February to play behind holding midfielder Anibal Godoy, acquired from San Jose, and former Houston goalkeeper Joe Willis.
The trade came 13 months after LAFC signed Zimmerman to a four-year contract extension that had more than doubled his salary to a reported $600,000. And he rewarded the team in a 2019 season that saw LAFC concede a league-low 37 goals while posting the best regular-season record in MLS history.
But the team was strapped for cash this winter so when Nashville offered an international roster spot and $1.25 million in allocation money for Zimmerman, a record amount for a defender, the deal was too good to refuse.
It was one LAFC would come to regret during a season in which it allowed more goals — 1.77 a game — than all but two other playoff teams. In Nashville, however, it proved greater than the sum of its parts.
“Walker’s a great teammate, that’s first and foremost,” said national team coach Gregg Berhalter, who has called Zimmerman up twice this season. “[He] really brings the best out of his teammates. That’s a really important quality.”
He’s also a very physical player who is good in duals, can win the ball back in tight spots and is exceptional in the air, with his three goals trailing only two other MLS defenders this season. With the national team, Zimmerman is in a tight battle for the right center-back role next to Wolfburg’s John Brooks, who appears to have won the left-side spot but was not called in for the El Salvador game.
“The center back spot is pretty open,” Berhalter said. “We have two very experienced guys in Walker and Aaron [Long]. For us, it’s really looking to see who’s going to take advantage of this opportunity.”
If Berhalter wants players who take advantage of opportunities, he would do well to consider Romney, once a scratch golfer who briefly considered changing sports before being called up for the U23 national team in 2015, the same year he signed with the Galaxy.
LAFC picked up the contract option on forward Carlos Vela but declined options on five others, including comeback player of the year Bradley Wright-Phillips.
He made just one appearance for the U23s and didn’t fare much better with his club. With the Galaxy going through five coaches in as many seasons, Romney never really found a home, shuffling through all four positions on the back line. And when his playing time dropped dramatically under Guillermo Barros Schelotto in 2019, several MLS teams asked general manager Dennis te Kloese what he wanted in exchange for Romney.
The answer, apparently, was $275,000 in general allocation money because that’s what Te Kloese accepted, completing the trade with Nashville less than two weeks after the Galaxy’s season ended. In Tennessee, Romney was given a starting spot and a stable position, left center back, for the first time in his career and he responded with a breakout season.
“I knew I could do this if given the chance,” said Romney, who last week signed a contract extension that will keep he and Zimmerman in the middle of Nashville’s back line through at least 2023. “I was given the vote of confidence by Nashville’s front office and coaching staff and I’m sure they’re happy as well.”
The extension and the security that comes with it allowed Romney to begin closing on a new house in Nashville, a place he’s happy to call home. What he’d really like, though, is to parlay this year’s success into a chance to play next to Zimmerman with the national team.
Berhalter will be calling another group into camp next month and Romney has his fingers crossed.
“The national team is 100% a goal of mine,” he said. “If it isn’t, I don’t what you’re doing playing pro soccer.”