BRIAN SCIARETTA - Thursday, June 27, 2013
It has been a rocky year for Walker Zimmerman who has had to battle through injuries and is only now finally showing why he is considered one of the most highly touted rookies in MLS.
In 2012, Zimmerman was one of the best central defenders in NCAA at Furman University despite only being a sophomore. He was firmly entrenched with the US U-20 team and was projected as a potential top pick in the 2013 MLS Superdraft if he decided to leave college early.
At the end of the college season, however, Zimmerman suffered an injury that was both painful and frustrating. Originally thought to be a minor injury, Zimmerman struggled to heal and later it was diagnosed as hip and pelvic inflammation.
The road to return to the soccer field was very difficult. Zimmerman ended up leaving Furman in December after signing a Generation Adidas contract from MLS but the injuries lingered. He missed a U-20 camp in December as well as the MLS draft combine.
He was drafted lower than expected by FC Dallas with the 7th overall pick. Initially, Zimmerman thought he would be back for preseason but timetable for his return to the field kept getting pushed back further and further.
By the time he was able to return to training in April, he missed his entire first professional preseason with FC Dallas and watch on television as the US U-20 qualified for the World Cup without him. Shortly after he began playing for Dallas, he suffered a hamstring strain which set him back another week.
"It's been a long process obviously," Zimmerman said. "I was out from the end of the college season through April and it was long. It was frustrating because I never got clear timelines when I'd be able to play. We just kept pushing deadlines further back. Finally I just started feeling better. When I made my debut in May, it was just great to be back playing soccer again. It had been long time. Now that I've been training and play for a solid two months, I'm starting to get back on the right track."
Zimmerman acknowledges that his injury likely resulted in him getting drafted lower than usual with the 7th pick but he is adamant that going to Dallas has been a "blessing in disguise" since the club was patient during his recovery.
For many MLS analysts, it was a puzzling selection for Dallas who had two highly rated central defenders in Matt Hedges and George John. It was a legitimate question how Zimmerman would earn the minutes behind two of the better defenders in the league.
"When I was drafted, I just wanted to compete and earn minutes because I thought I'd be back by preseason," Zimmerman said. "Then as my timetable for return got pushed into the season, I just wanted to get healthy. I think the coaching staff evaluates players every week at practice. It's been great for them to be patient with my injury and give me time to heal. Then also gave me a chance so quickly after I've got back.
Matt and George have both kind of mentored me and helped me a long. They're great guys. There is definitely some competition and that is good for all of us."
FC Dallas has indeed showed a lot of faith in Zimmerman getting him back onto the field quickly after his return. There have indeed being growing pains for the rookie most evident in Wednesday night's 3-2 loss to Portland in the US Open Cup where he made a mistake that resulted in Portland's final goal.
In his last MLS game on Saturday, Zimmerman was the hero when he came on at the half with FC Dallas trailing Kansas City 2-0. He ended up scoring the equalizing goal in stoppage time to earn a draw.
"It was awesome," Zimmerman said of his goal. "It was a great ball in. I just saw the ball and wanted to attack it. It was special. My parents were in the stands and that is the first time they got to see me play with an FC Dallas uniform. It just capped off a great night."
As he continues his return with FC Dallas, Zimmerman has been one of the most talked about young players in MLS over the past few weeks after US U-20 head coach Tab Ramos elected not to name Zimmerman to the World Cup team.
Ramos was asked about the decision repeatedly in sessions with the media and even more as the US U20 team struggled in central defense at the Toulon tournament heading into the World Cup. In the end, Zimmerman believes that it was the injury and the subsequent hamstring setback that cost him a spot and he respected the decision.
He admits that the decision is obviously disappointing but he strongly supported the team that Ramos took to Turkey before it was eliminated by Ghana in group play.
"When you look back at last year, I felt really good about where I was with the U20s," Zimmerman said. "Those guys are like family and I have some really great friend who [went] to Turkey. It's very unfortunate timing with everything. Right before the Toulon Tournament is when I started to get healthy but then I had the hamstring strain. In the end of the day it's their decision. It was a little disappointing to me not selected but the injuries held me back. It's tough when your childhood dream is to play in a World Cup. Playing with those guys for so long, I wanted to be with them and fight with them."
Furman's head coach Doug Allison is very confident that Zimmerman has a bright international future ahead for the United States. At Furman, Allison has coached former US internationals Clint Dempsey and Ricardo Clark. He also has coached current MLS player Shea Silinas along with former MLS and US youth international Jonny Leathers.
Allison is adamant that Zimmerman will be another one of his former players to play for the United States national team.
"I'll tell you now, Walker Zimmerman is one day going to play center back for the full US national team," Allison said. "I have no question in my mind. He can be that good. He's that good of a player and that good of a person. We hated to lose him as a sophomore but this guy is a total package. I've followed him since he was 15. He's going to be that good. He felt awful because his goal was to be at the World Cup with the U20s. He likes nothing more than to represent his national team. He's got so much pride."
Zimmerman also stresses that he has not hard feelings to Ramos for his decision and the two had an honest discussion on the issue. While getting healthy, Zimmerman wanted another chance but understood the reasons for the team keeping with its current players as the World Cup was fast approaching.
Instead, Zimmerman is focused on this year and continuing to get used to the professional game. His next dream on the international stage is the 2016 Olympics in Brazil and he would enjoy working with Ramos again should he be the head coach of that team.
"We talked close to the end of April right when I was starting to get healthy and fit again," Zimmerman said. "He already submitted the roster for Toulon. It was a conversation where he said ‘where going to stick with the guys who got us here in qualifying. But we won't hesitate to call you in of there are any injuries.' It was a little disappointing because I wanted another look but I completely respect Tab as a coach and his decision."
Zimmerman and Dallas return to action on Saturday when they visit Philadelphia.