In the moments after Nashville's 3-0 win over Inter Miami on Friday night, it was important for the team to acknowledge its historical significance. It had been over 22 years since an expansion team won a Major League Soccer playoff game, and although the play-in win came as part of an expanded field in a coronavirus-hit season, it moved up as the number 7 Seed was a significant achievement.
"The boys were excited and happy and excited," said center-back Walker Zimmerman. "But in the midst of it all, it has already moved on. The standard shouldn't be, 'Let's get overly excited to win this game.' We have higher goals and dreams."
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These higher ambitions are not unfounded. During the regular season, Nashville was one of the best defensive teams in the league. It finished third on the fewest allowed goals (22 in 24 games), scored the most goals against (9), set a record for the lowest allowed goals per game for a club in its first year (0.96) and on Wednesday Zimmerman was named the MLS Defender of the Year.
The defensive success was the result of a long plan and gives Nashville cause for optimism ahead of Tuesday's Eastern Conference playoff game against runners-up Toronto FC in East Hartford, Connecticut (9:00 p.m. ET, ESPN 2).
More than a year before Nashville SC's debut season in MLS began, General Manager Mike Jacobs set out to build a roster. He gathered head coach Gary Smith, assistant GM Ally Mackay and chief scout Chance Myers and asked them to develop a Best XI from the league.
"If you can have who you want, who would you choose?" Said Jacobs.
The group assembled their squads independently and then gathered again to put their selections on a board that everyone could see. It has already been decided that Nashville wanted to prioritize its team's spine, particularly in the center-back. As they looked at each other's selections and saw Zimmerman in every single squad, it turned out to be an important moment in the club's history.
"We agreed that not only is he the best center-back in the MLS, but someone we believe would be an ideal match for what we're looking for on our team," said Jacobs. "From that point on, how can we acquire it?"
LAFC didn't want to give up Zimmerman – especially after allowing the lowest number of goals in MLS in their 2019 record run for Supporters' Shield – but in February, just two weeks before the season started, Jacobs finally made an offer that LAFC General Manager John Thorrington couldn't refuse.
Shortly after Thorrington brought the news to Zimmerman, the young defense attorney phoned his new GM.
"I was trying to make sure I was sensitive to the fact that Walker was being traded and I really wanted to make it clear to him that he knew how much we value him," said Jacobs. "I actually made sure he knew how much we'd traded for him and that he was the most expensive transfer (for a defender) in league history."
The deal included $ 950,000 in general allocation funds over two seasons and a 2020 international roster slot with $ 300,000 in additional GAM triggered by available performance metrics that exceeded Minnesota in 2019 for the acquisition of Ike Opara from Sporting Kansas City had given up.
Walker Zimmerman was the backbone of Nashville SC's expansion into the MLS playoffs. AP Photo / Orlin Wagner
"Obviously my head was just spinning," Zimmerman said. "It was 10 minutes after I found out I was being traded and it felt very similar to the way LAFC spoke to me when they were acting for me. They said very similar things about building a team around you, the attributes they hold in you as a player as a person. "
After Zimmerman was drafted from Furman in the first round of the 2013 Super Draft by FC Dallas, he became one of the best defenders in the MLS, helping Dallas win the Supporters' Shield and the 2016 US Open Cup. He earned his first international with the U.S. senior team in 2017 and was second-placed League Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 when LAFC set the MLS record in one season.
With a few exceptions, the MLS expansion teams had a tough time even in the playoffs – Nashville is one of seven teams to ever have – and Nashville's deal with the Zimmerman acquisition didn't take a long settling-in period. It traded on a Monday, arrived in Nashville on a Wednesday, and was under contract on a house through Saturday. A contract extension came later.
"It's pretty obvious that we built our team from behind and laid a really solid foundation," said captain Dax McCarty. "After we made the deal for Walker, it went up one more level than what we already had.
"He won Defender of the Year for a reason and it wasn't just he who scored goals. He's not just him as he helps backline the backshalling."
"It's the intangibles that he brings with him. That's the way he is in the locker room. He's a student of the game. He's a leader. He's a guy who never wants to lose."
"Even in training, it's all a competition with him and I think that kind of attitude is contagious across the team."
Just two weeks after taking over Zimmerman, Nashville launched its first MLS campaign in front of a noisy crowd of 59,059 people at Nissan Stadium. The new MLS boys fell 2-1 to Atlanta United, but Zimmerman equalized in the 28th minute. The team only played one league game, a 1-0 loss to Portland, before the season ended due to the coronavirus pandemic. When the league restarted with the MLS is Back tournament in Florida, Nashville had to pull back due to several positive cases in their ranks.
Nashville finally returned to action five months later. David Accam scored Nashville's first MLS win in the 86th minute, a 1-0 win over Dallas. That clean sheet set the tone for the kind of team Nashville would play the rest of the way: organized, stingy, and difficult to play.
The team benefited from the continuity in the background throughout the season. Zimmerman, his center-back Dave Romney, who the team had taken over from LA Galaxy, left-back Daniel Lovitz, a pickup from Montreal, and former Houston goalkeeper Joe Willis all played over 1,800 minutes in the regular season.
Zimmerman said the structure of the team reminded him of his time in Dallas.
"A bit more defensive in a 4-2-3-1 (formation)," said Zimmerman. "We won't normally have a majority of the ball even though it's not that crooked. We're not a team that will move you with the ball and dictate the game that way. I'd say we'd like to single out." To squeeze moments, to win higher in the field and create opportunities there and obviously benefit from set pieces. "
For Zimmerman, it's a formula that will get the most out of his game and he hopes his performance will lead to another acceptance into the national team. The 27-year-old played seven of 18 games for the United States in 2019. However, with a full calendar for 2021 that includes both World Cup qualifiers and the CONCACAF Nations League, he should be given more chances.
"The next year is huge. It's a huge year for us," said Zimmerman. "It's going to be the biggest year for me with the national team. Of course, it's very important that I say goodbye (I'll miss the 2018 World Cup) in order to qualify. We have so many new people in the pool and it's a really exciting group To be part of.
"My goal as an individual is to be part of the qualification process and help this country qualify for the World Cup. This is what you dream of growing up as a kid and now that it is approaching it is everyone's focus strengthened. "
Having Zimmerman representing both the club and the country is something that Jacobs said he expects to see dividends when it comes to recruiting players in the future, especially local players.
"They say to themselves," I would love to play with him. "But it's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy," Jacobs said. "Instead of giving a recruiting spot or a gimmick, it becomes very real and real. Great players want to play with other players."
The same goes for victory. When Nashville comes through Toronto and reaches the Eastern Conference semifinals, the club's status as one of the top first-year clubs in league history will be further cemented.