Walker Zimmerman getting a needed fresh start with U.S. team and LAFC
CARSON, Calif. -- There are moments when change isn't just good. Sometimes it's an imperative.
That was the situation Walker Zimmerman was facing after a difficult 2017. The year started out well enough. He was called into a U.S. national team camp for the first time, and made his first international appearance in a 1-0 victory over Jamaica. That looked like the ideal platform to shine for FC Dallas, whom he helped lead to a Supporters' Shield/U.S. Open Cup double the previous season.
In the end, it didn't turn out that way. An MCL strain in midseason sidelined Zimmerman for the better part of five weeks. He never looked the same after his return, and as the team's playoff hopes imploded, he was benched in favor of journeyman Atiba Harris. It was a move that practically screamed that Dallas manager Oscar Pareja had lost faith in him. While Zimmerman's comments about Pareja and his time in Dallas were universally positive, it's clear that on a certain level, the decision rankled.
"As a competitor, you always want to be on the field," he said prior to Friday's training session with the U.S. national team. "That was my mentality, so it was frustrating to not be able to compete and help us get to the playoffs at that point. But you can only control what you can control."
Now Zimmerman, 24, is getting a fresh start on two counts, one for club and the other for country. In December, he was traded to expansion side LAFC in exchange for $500,000 in allocation money and the top spot in the allocation order. LAFC and manager Bob Bradley are certainly hoping that Zimmerman will continue the trajectory he was on before getting injured, and weren't daunted by Zimmerman's difficult finish to the season.
"Sometimes things go off track," Bradley said by telephone. "Injuries can always be a factor, but unless you're there to see what goes on day in and day out it's hard to fully assess. But over the years I've seen players that for whatever reason at a particular club, just need a change."
Zimmerman is of the same thinking.
"It is refreshing for sure," Zimmerman said of the move. "Dallas was great. I have no complaints about Dallas. Then again, after five years, it was time. I'm ready for a new step, a new challenge. I think I can take all the things I think I learned from Pareja and his staff, and apply them to the concepts [Bradley] will introduce and just continue to develop as a player."
There are some things of course that Bradley hopes Zimmerman won't change. There's his comfort on the ball, his imposing presence at both ends of the field, as well as his self-belief.
Growing up, that confidence is something that Zimmerman has always projected, regardless of the sport he was playing. That hasn't ebbed as a professional, as witnessed by his epic performance against the Seattle Sounders in the 2015 MLS Cup playoffs, one that saw him score a stoppage time equalizer and then the series-winning penalty in the shootout that followed.
"I love the fact that he's got real personality," Bradley said about Zimmerman. "He wants to get better. He's not a defender who is so worried about mistakes that he never makes the right pass or never steps up.
"I've said many times that sometimes you have young defenders and they'd rather hit a long diagonal ball because if it doesn't work there's no danger. I see defenders that in certain moments that when they have a chance to step up in a way and put pressure so your team can win the ball back quickly, I see defenders that are a little bit unsure and back up and then your team gets stretched all over the field.
"So that idea that you have a willingness and a confidence to make plays, to make the right pass, for me that's a really important feature in young players and especially in young defenders."
Zimmerman is by no means the only impressive piece Bradley has brought on board, from former MLS defender of the year Laurent Ciman to midfielder Benny Feilhaber to Mexico international forward Carlos Vela.
"Every piece we added, I was like, 'Yes! We got him? You're kidding me,'" Zimmerman said.
But before Zimmerman can begin his stint with LAFC, there's the significant matter of the U.S. team's friendly this Sunday against Bosnia and Herzegovina. With the World Cup qualifying failure still fresh, these are unsettled times for a U.S. men's squad that is firmly in transition mode. Just over half of the 29-man roster is composed of uncapped players. Youth has its advantages, however, and Zimmerman is among those ready to lead a young squad that is energetic and eager to prove itself.
"The chemistry has been great," he said. "Everyone has been getting along on the field, off the field. Our van rides are hilarious. Everyone is singing 'The Greatest Showman' soundtrack all the time. Now it's a little bit different. We're finally starting to tune in to this game Sunday."
Caretaker manager Dave Sarachan acknowledged that the vast majority of players are still showing some rust after an MLS offseason that in some cases lasted two months. Zimmerman is among those Sarachan put in that category. The key of course is that there has been improvement over the course of the camp. The U.S. manager put Zimmerman in that group as well.
"[Zimmerman] has shown me what I kind of expected in terms of very good in the air, communicating and working with the guy alongside him, solid defensively, his distribution is improving," Sarachan said. "As the weeks have gone on and the days have gone on, all of that has [improved]."
Zimmerman's expectation is that he'll get playing time Sunday. If he does, it will be his first indication that his career is changing for the better.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.