Why Walker Zimmerman makes other players better

“Some players make others better, as well as being very, very good themselves. Others are just good players. Walker [Zimmerman] is the first.”

Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith was full of praise for his club captain after Zimmerman returned from injury at the end of a scoreless draw with New York Red Bulls on Sunday. Zimmerman spent most of preseason recovering from an Achilles procedure, hoping to finally get some relief from an issue that saw him play through significant pain for the last several months of the 2023 season.

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“This road to today has been a long month for Walker,” continued Smith. “He went for an awful lot of discomfort and pain last year. He was on strong medication to get himself through certain games. I think he paid the price for that in the offseason and it’s taken a bit longer than he would have liked, but I’m delighted to see him back out there again today.”

For Zimmerman, the extended period out of action was “a blessing and a curse”. Missing any action, even in preseason, it a tough pill to swallow for any athlete, let alone one as thoroughly competitive as Zimmerman. But it proved to be a blessing, allowing him to finally play without pain.

“I think that was the best part about it was just getting right thrown into the fire of a situation where I feel like I can thrive and really help the team,” he told reporters after the match. “… I feel really good physically now after the game. I’ll see how I’ll respond and get some more minutes as I keep building in here on Wednesday and moving forward.”

Nashville have been bolstered by strong showings from center backs Jack Maher and Lukas MacNaughton. The duo each started plenty of matches last season, and have proved to be high-quality starters for Nashville, even when Zimmerman isn’t on the field. But under tremendous pressure from New York, hanging onto a clean sheet, the match completely changed when Zimmerman stepped onto the field.

He was excellent, certainly. But the defenders around him took their game up a level. The impact was clear and stunning.

“I think we’ve challenged each other to do more of this year,” Zimmerman responded when asked about making players around him better. “How can you make the person next to you look like the best player on the field? Trying to do that each and every game is going to make us a better team. That’s what I try and do when I’m out there. Lead by, obviously, example, but also through experience and leadership and motivation. Give them positivity, give them feedback and try and really just keep everyone locked in for every play.”

Zimmerman has been a leader for Nashville since day one. But taking over the role of permanent captain from Dax McCarty last season put even more visibility on his leadership, giving fans and players alike a clear voice to look for on the pitch.

It’s not a role he takes likely. Zimmerman says the offseason was full of meetings with the team’s leadership council on how to improve and organize their leadership. Brad Stinson, Founder and CEO of The Collective Global, a Nashville-based organization that works to develop leaders and build connection, was brought in by the leadership council to organize things.

“What does it mean to be a Nashville SC player? We’ve dug deep. We’ve had a lot of meetings,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not easy work. It’s been pretty time consuming, but we’re working on creating principles and values that we can all stand on and that way at the end of the day we know these are our core values. This is who we are. If anyone ever comes to Nashville SC, this is what we expect of you.”

“Shout out to all the other guys who have been on those meetings with me,” Zimmerman added. “… I think it’s really important in the long run. A lot of work has gone on behind the scenes. I’ll say that. A lot of time spent on that aspect. Hopefully it’s something that we’ll see benefits from this season.”

For Gary Smith, some of those benefits were already on display.

“He strode out onto the field you know as we’ve seen him,” the coach smiled. “You know, the imperious individual that he is. He really propped up that back line like Hercules in the in the final 30 minutes.”


EDITOR’S NOTE: Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Author: Ben Wrightis the Director of Soccer Content and a Senior MLS Contributor for Broadway Sports covering Nashville SC and the US National Team. Previously Ben was the editor and a founder of Speedway Soccer, where he has covered Nashville SC and their time in USL before journeying to Major League Soccer since 2018. Raised in Louisville, KY Ben grew up playing before a knee injury ended his competitive career. When he is not talking soccer he is probably producing music, drinking coffee or hanging out with his wife and kids. Mastodon

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