Player Spotlight

Walker Zimmerman feels like "a kid at heart” embracing the overage Olympic role

Veteran central defender Walker Zimmerman is set to join the U.S. Olympic team as one of the three overage players on the U-23 team. ASN's Brian Sciaretta spoke to the Lawrenceville, GA native about fulfilling his dream of being an Olympian and being a leader on the young American team.

BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
June 27, 2024
10:50 AM

THIS SUMMER will mark the first time the United States has participated in the men’s Olympic tournament in 16 years. For most of the players on the team, it will be an opportunity to build a case to push into the full national team in the two years leading up to the World Cup. For Walker Zimmerman, the opportunity is different. The U.S. national team veteran is there to provide leadership, guidance, and a dependable presence in the backline. 

The current Olympic team, as expected with youth teams, is up and down. Many of the team’s players come from the COVID generation that has not played much together as the global pandemic canceled their key youth tournaments such as the 2021 U-20 World Cup and various other youth teams for extended periods. The U.S. team was also late to begin preparations for the Olympics, as the first camp in October 2023 left head coach with Marko Mitrovic with just four camps together before the team assembles in Paris.

The results have been mixed. The first camp saw the team defeat Mexico and Japan while the second camp saw a more-experimental roster draw Iraq and lose to Morocco. Then in March, the team easily defeated Guinea and draw France 2-2 in France. But in the most recent camp, the team had poor performance in a 2-0 loss to Japan in Kansas City.

Zimmerman, 31, has long been rumored to be an overage candidate for the team for four reasons. First, he brings leadership having played in a World Cup and having captained the U.S. team in World Cup qualifiers. Second, he plays central defense and the U-23 player pool is very thin at that position. Third, obtaining a release from Nashville SC was always likely.

The final reason is that Zimmerman was always enthusiastic about the idea of taking on the job as an overage player and leading the team in Paris. Zimmerman first began discussing the idea of being an overage player with Gregg Berhalter in December. When the full national team coach called to see if he was interested, the answer was quick.

“Maybe a year or two years ago I'd heard about the pool and that they might have a need for center backs,” Zimmerman said. “I was kind of following along. And then ultimately, I think the first real conversation was with Gregg in December. He asked me if I was interested and I was like, absolutely.”

Mitrovic has been clear that central defense has been identified as a position of need for the Olympic team as there have only been a few players emerging at first team levels. Zimmerman checked a lot of boxes to be added to this team, but after discussing the matter with him, Zimmerman’s enthusiasm only bolstered his case.

“We identified that it would be a position of need for us and we would like to bring an overage defender and we didn't want to bring any overage player until he was in strong consideration to go to the Olympics,” Mitrovic explained. “I met with Walker, and we were very, very impressed with his level of commitment to go to the Olympics. I used to work with Walker, and I am very aware of all the qualities he brings to the table as a player on and off the field. His commitment to play for the United States at the Olympics is incredible and we're very happy have Walker with us.”

From a national team perspective, the Olympic team is very young and the opportunity to send a veteran leader to that team was almost a no-brainer.

“Walker is someone who was with us at the World Cup and someone we think very highly of,” said U.S. national team assistant coach B.J. Callaghan. “He's also a player who has a ton of leadership qualities. He is a leader and captain-type player. When he goes down with the Olympic group, we expect nothing less. When he does down there, he can transcend our identity into that group and also be a leadership-type guy who has World Cup experience to lend to that younger group.”

Like many Americans, Zimmerman watched the Olympics growing up and enjoyed following all the sports and the public enthusiasm of the tournament. In 2016 he was on the roster for the U.S. U-23 team when it lost to Colombia in a playoff to go to the Olympics and figured his Olympic dream was over at that time.

“The Olympics is something that I grew up watching as a kid,” Zimmerman said “I always dreamed of playing in the Olympics. When I was in that locker room after we lost in Dallas to Colombia, I thought my Olympic dreams were over. To kind of have the last six months to a year with the prospect of this being ahead of me, I was very excited. Obviously, I always want to be a part of the first team, but having talks with Gregg and Marko and just where I was coming back from an injury, this seems to be like a very good fit. It would be amazing to be an Olympian.”

“I thought my Olympic dream was over,” he added. “With it reignited, I think I can bring a lot of perspective to the guys of just don't take this for granted. But also, from the experience of the World Cup or other big international tournaments, just bringing that experience to this group of being in a major worldwide competition... I think there's some lessons that can be learned.”

After discussions with Berhalter and Mitrovic, it was just about Zimmerman getting healthy after a minor knee procedure in March kept him out of international duty during that window. He finally returned to the field and this cleared his way to join the Olympic team’s camp in June where he began work with Mitrovic.

Despite the result against Japan, Zimmerman is confident about the team’s ability to compete in France where they are drawn into a group with France, Guinea, and New Zealand. He felt that camp went well and the first thing he tried to bring to the group was more vocal communication among the players while on the field.

“I think it is a fairly quiet team on the field,” Zimmerman said. “I think I noticed that in the scrimmage. There is a need for a certain level of discipline and intensity, but with communication. Oftentimes, when you're working out or running really hard, you might not be communicating or talking to your teammates as much as you should. I like to think that I'm bringing a level of communication that was needed. And they've been very receptive to that. I don't think it's changing the way I play, but I think that the way that I normally play is a big help to the team in terms of that organization, effort, and focus.”

As for the age difference with him and his new teammates, he says it hasn’t been awkward – as if he were reenrolling back to college.

“If you didn't even bring up that I am an overage player, I'd feel like I've just been welcomed as a part of the team since day one,” Zimmerman said. “I've been accepted in the group very quickly. I don't even think about it as an age thing. It's just these are my peers and I play with younger guys all the time… The other part is just like the intensity, the game plan is very attack minded. It's very fearless. I think a lot of the players have adopted that mentality of - we're going to be aggressive. We're going to try and bring the game to you with our effort, with our energy, with runs in behind. It's encouraging to see just that level of fearlessness.”

An in just a little more than a month, that fearlessness of the U.S. team will be tested with the world watching as they take on France in Marseille as the first event of the Paris Olympics. For Zimmerman, he has played in big games before but this will be special.

“That's a game is going to be a once in a lifetime type of game,” Zimmerman said. “You have World Cup games where you play at the highest level. But this is going to be up there playing a host country, and the Olympics fans are going to be crazy. Marseilles is such a soccer city. They're going to be very passionate supporting France. It's going to be a great environment for us to challenge ourselves and get a good result.”

“It's such an honor to be considered as an overage player,” he added. “But ultimately, I feel like I'm a kid at heart.”

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