At home in Hamburg

September 18, 2006
CanalesBy Andrea Canales
(Archive)

Not all U.S. players left Hamburg after the World Cup. The city that served as the base for the men's national team during the tournament is also home for two young Americans who play locally for Bundesliga outfit Hamburg SV, Benny Feilhaber and Preston Zimmerman.

Zimmerman is the team's most recent acquisition, having caught the eye of the club with his performance in Peru at recent the Under-17 World Cup.

Zimmerman
Other / Joel Auerbach/US PresswirePreston Zimmerman (left) in action for the U.S. youth national team.

"I was first contacted right after the U-17 World Cup in September," Zimmerman explained. "We came over to negotiate in November."

Though Zimmerman only scored once in the international youth tournament, his persistent attacks and ability to hold the ball against the defense created space for teammates. While not the fastest forward, he would continually provoke defenders into mistakes by contesting nearly every pass and clearance.

Some might have hesitated at moving so far from home before even reaching official adulthood, but for Zimmerman, the offer was a dream come true.

"My goal all along, ever since I was a little kid, was to play professionally in Europe," he said.

His former U-17 coach, John Hackworth could testify to that.

"Preston had it in his mind that this was a goal of his. It didn't matter that there were going to be some hardships along the way, trying to move halfway around the world, and play at the level that he's trying to play at. That was the goal that he set for himself. He's a very determined young man."

Signing with a German club created something of an ancestral homecoming for the young forward.

"I'm one generation off," Zimmerman explained of his ties to the country. "Everyone before is from Germany."

Perhaps that helps explain Zimmerman's aggressive, physical play up top. Those traits in his game were part of Hamburg's interest.

"I work, and I'll put my body anywhere to get goals," the forward said. "That's what you need to do in Germany and I think that's what caught their eye.

"It's all about winning the physical battles and fighting hard. I think the guy who will come out on top and be successful in Germany is the one who has the most fight."

It was that fight that Hackworth first noticed when he scouted Zimmerman for the national residency program.

"I saw was a fierce competitor who absolutely wanted to win and make an impact. He wasn't the prettiest player, the fastest, the biggest. He just would, by sheer will, put himself in the position that he was going to be able to execute. That competitive mentality and his ability to put the ball in the back of the net distinguished him from a lot of other individuals that were at the same level."

Though FIFA officially does not allow players under 18 to transfer to clubs outside of their home country (one factor in Freddy Adu signing with MLS) Zimmerman's handlers found a way around the restriction.

"I signed a professional contract in January, but the transfer doesn't become official," Zimmerman explained. "I just signed really early."

While vague about the exact details of the transaction, the moment represented a personal goal achieved for the striker.

"When I signed my contract in the stadium, everyone was there," he recalled. "The president of HSV, the head sporting director and the head scouting guy, my parents, my agent, and it was a really cool time for me. Everyone was smiling and I was signing the papers. It's the kind of thing you dream about, signing a contract for a big club like that."

Another thing Zimmerman hoped for was to make a good initial impression at his new club. He received an opportunity almost immediately after arrival.

"I had a game with the second team," he said. "The coach told me, with the little English that he knew, 'I don't care what you do, just score.' So I went out and I scored in the first 10 minutes and we won 3-0. The coach was really happy and that was great -- to score in my first game."

The image has stuck.

"They tell me I'm the goal-getter," Zimmerman said.

Other factors contributed to his new teammates' acceptance.

"They also see me as kind of a German Jew, because of my name," Zimmerman explained. "People will joke, 'Why do you play for America? Look at your last name, you're not American.' "

Coming from the U.S. youth national team was not going to give the striker credibility, because the country's soccer is still not well-regarded abroad.

"At the beginning, there was a little bit of hostility," Zimmerman admitted.

He stuck to a simple coping plan from the start.

"Every single day, when I go to training, I just keep my mouth shut and I work my hardest. I know now that they all totally respect me. They don't make those comments any more, or if they do, it's just joking."

Zimmerman's adaptable nature is crucial to his success, Hackworth noted.

"Instead of focusing on the hardships, he's focusing on the positives. He's got a really healthy attitude about where he's at and what he's trying to accomplish."

It helped Zimmerman to not be the only one in the situation. Feilhaber, a U-20 standout who signed with HSV before Zimmerman, helped ease the transition.

"It's cool, because if I ever have a problem, or I need help getting somewhere, Benny's always there to help," Zimmerman said. "At the beginning, it wasn't so totally foreign because Benny was there every day."

Feilhaber also became an inspiration for his teammate when Bruce Arena unexpectedly offered a national team invite for a game against Scotland last December.

"I see him every single day and then he gets called up to the national team," Zimmerman marveled. "Benny was telling me how awesome it was."

Zimmerman was hopeful that his progress might lead to his own senior national team opportunity.

"Even though it may not be at all, it seems like it's close. Because if Benny's in the same place, maybe I have a chance."

With a generation of players, such as Brian McBride, retired from international competition, Zimmerman could be part of the new generation of options.

Hackworth was pleased at the progress his former residency charge had made, adding him to other success stories of the program.

"We're talking alumni like DaMarcus Beasley or Landon Donovan. From the past two world championship teams, you see a number of players having a great impact. Jonathan Spector at West Ham, Michael Bradley at Hereenveen. But you've also got to give them time to mature, because in general, we're talking about a lot of young soccer players at the beginning of their professional careers."

Though he had fervently hoped for better during the U.S. team's World Cup group play, Zimmerman was stoic about the outcome.

"Sometimes things don't work out," he stated. "People need to know that you don't win every single game no matter how good you are."

As a player in a foreign land, Zimmerman is personally invested in the perception of U.S. soccer.

"I always hope the U.S. will do really well, so that we get respect everywhere."

He realized that it wasn't an easy objective.

"It's just hard to win people over, because we're America. I kind of expect people not to believe in U.S. soccer, but we have people from the national team that are in Europe and they're doing well."

Zimmerman was convinced that those pioneers had helped make his own career possible.

"Those guys on the U.S. team are like my heroes, my idols. I look up to them so much," he declared. "[They] are part of the reason that I have been able to come over here and get a contract. Ten years ago, I'd have had no chance of ever making it."

At this point, Zimmerman himself may be a role model to other young American players. In the wake of the World Cup results, Arena and others have declared that getting young talent abroad for quality development is crucial. The fact is that the programs abroad have the experience and resources to push players to be their best.

"In Europe, the alternate path that Preston has chosen, there's built-in steps for a player to go from a youth level, to a reserve level, to the first team," said Hackworth.

The race to take on the torch of U.S. progress has begun. In Hamburg, Zimmerman is already ahead of the game.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com