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How Nashville SC made Walker Zimmerman a designated player: ‘He was our Tom Brady’

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Walker Zimmerman was at dinner with his wife, Sally, and a couple of friends at 5th & Taylor, a restaurant in the Germantown neighborhood of Nashville, on April 19 when he saw his phone light up next to him.

It was a text from his agent, Mike Gartlan.

“Donzo!” it read. “Congrats brother!”

Zimmerman stopped the conversation and hugged his wife, then raised his glass and toasted with his friends. A little over two years ago, Zimmerman had been blindsided by a trade that sent him from LAFC to Nashville.

Now, after winning back-to-back MLS defender of the year honors, the league had approved his new designated player contract paying him $10 million guaranteed over four years — among the richest contracts for a defender in MLS history.

It sets a new precedent for what a veteran MLS player can achieve in his domestic league.

“It’s an incredible feeling,” Zimmerman said in a phone interview on Wednesday, “because you feel like your hard work has paid off.”

Zimmerman’s toast was the culmination of a negotiation that started at the tail end of the 2021 season and picked up in earnest after a phone call between Gartlan, a partner at Prosport Management, and Nashville SC general manager Mike Jacobs on New Year’s Eve. It had a few twists and nervy moments, but after agreeing to terms last month, the deal finally got approved in early April and made Zimmerman just the fourth American defender ever to earn designated player status in MLS, after Omar Gonzalez, DaMarcus Beasley and Matt Besler.

The contract’s compensation is unprecedented in league history, not just for a defender, but for any American player who developed in MLS and didn’t leave to go to Europe in order to come back and get his payday. Gonzalez first opened that door with a DP deal with the LA Galaxy in 2013, but there has been little upward movement since that contract — which paid Gonzalez around $1.5 million annually.

Zimmerman joins FC Dallas’s Jesus Ferreira — who recently signed a deal that will pay him a little less than $2 million per year — Columbus’s Darlington Nagbe and Colorado’s Gyasi Zardes as one of only four USMNT-eligible designated players in MLS.

For Nashville’s top brass, the move was a no-brainer.

“One thing very early on, in getting to meet and then getting to work with (Nashville SC CEO) Ian Ayre that we were totally aligned on, was philosophically the idea of rewarding players for doing well on your team, independent of their contract terms,” Jacobs said. “I think Walker’s probably even more valuable to us than other teams in the league. Keeping Walker in Nashville, he has value to our club on the field, he has value to our club off the field. He was our Tom Brady.”

But finding a way to quantify that value wasn’t easy.


It is natural, at the end of a season, for players to survey the league and compare themselves to their peers. In MLS, the Players’ Association’s salary release adds another element; Teammates and foes can measure themselves up, contract vs. contract, against the players at their same position, or in their same locker room.

Often, that’s the basis on which players determine whether they want a new deal or not. At the end of the 2021 season, however, Zimmerman was having trouble finding comps for himself.

The Nashville defender was wrapping up a third consecutive season as an MLS Best XI selection. Only 14 players in the league, all-time, have earned Best XI nods in at least three consecutive years, and no defenders had done so since Jimmy Conrad from 2004-06. Zimmerman was also named MLS defender of the year for a second consecutive season. Only two other players had done so: Chad Marshall in 2008 and 2009 and Carlos Bocanegra in 2002 and 2003.

On a call with Gartlan, Zimmerman discussed his options. The 28-year-old Lawrenceville, Ga.-native had made just shy of $1 million in 2021. The belief was that his performances, paired with his emergence on the U.S. men’s national team World Cup qualifying team, dictated a new deal. But there was no easy way to figure out what he should be paid. There were eight defenders making more money than him in MLS in 2021, according to the MLSPA release, including Teenage Hadebe, whom the Houston Dynamo had only just signed as a DP and was making $1.125 million.

“I feel like I deserve to be on a DP deal,” Zimmerman told Gartlan on the call. “I think I’ve proven that. I think we need to make it happen.”

Gartlan agreed. On New Year’s Eve, after a few European clubs had reached out to express interest in taking Zimmerman on loan, he called Jacobs. The general manager was at his girlfriend’s house when he took the call.

Immediately, Jacobs made clear that a loan was a no-go. There was just no value in loaning out their most important player.

As for a trade: “There is no amount of allocation money you could get us that could replace Walker,” Jacobs recalled telling Gartlan.

And a transfer? Well, Jacobs quoted a price tag that was simply out of reach for any teams realistically interested in a 28-year-old American center back.

“We’re not actually looking to sell him,” Jacobs said.

Gartlan took it as good news.

“So, what are you going to pay him?” he asked.

The idea of comparisons, or lack thereof, once again came up. Gartlan, though, had a solution.

“I said, ‘Look, let’s stop comparing him to defenders and let’s compare him to the top 10 players in the league,’” Gartlan recalled. “It was the best way to go because that’s the truth. Walker is one of the five to 10 most influential players in the league.”

It was, at least, a starting point. But Nashville also knew it had leverage. Zimmerman had multiple years left on his deal, and he was at an age where his options abroad would be limited. Still, there was a real belief within the organization that locking Zimmerman up with a new deal was the right thing to do. The deal also had significant ownership support.

“It’s hard to build something that has continuity and stability over time if you’re not signing and keeping your better players,” Nashville owner John Ingram said in a phone interview on Thursday. “And my goal all along is to build something that was really good, but also something that was sustainable. … I think you take a lot more risk with other potential ways of trying to do that then rewarding your better players with longer-term contracts.”

The two sides started to trade numbers back and forth and neared a solution, but getting the deal done would be more complicated than just agreeing to terms.


(Photo: John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

It is fitting, in a way, that Zimmerman is the player getting this contract.

The Furman University product came into the league as a Generation Adidas player, and as such was considered a top prospect with potential. But Zimmerman has had to fight his way into the upper echelons of the league. After several seasons at FC Dallas, Zimmerman pushed for a move away. He was sent to expansion LAFC. There, he became a top starter and, with LAFC giving up the fewest goals in MLS and winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2019, won MLS Best XI honors.

Yet despite his success, Zimmerman was traded again. He remembered being on the phone with LAFC general manager John Thorrington two years ago when he was stunned by the news. He was waiting to hear where he was headed, and when Thorrington told him, Zimmerman turned to his wife and mouthed their new home: “Nashville.”

“We were both kind of like, ‘Oh, we like that. Great. Alright, Nashville. Sweet. We can totally get behind that, we can totally get on board and commit to being there,’” Zimmerman recalled.

Despite the suddenness of the move, Zimmerman found a way to grow into his new role as the leader and captain in Nashville. His strengths as a physical defender, with qualities in the air fit perfectly for a Nashville team that plays organized, more-defensive soccer. If those early LAFC teams were built around Carlos Vela, it felt like Nashville was built around Zimmerman. He won his first defender of the year award in 2020 as Nashville exceeded all expectations, making the playoffs and advancing to the conference semifinals.

Zimmerman continued that form in 2021, earning his second defensive player of the year award. Perhaps more impressively, however, he pushed himself into a key role with the U.S. men’s national team. Despite being the only field player called into qualifiers not to appear in the September window, Zimmerman arrived in camp as an injury replacement in October and made the most of his second chance. Over the next few months, Zimmerman played in 10 qualifiers, starting nine. By the end of the Octagonal, he wore the captain’s armband in Costa Rica on the night the U.S. qualified for Qatar.

Things have moved quickly over the last few years, but Zimmerman hasn’t really wanted to stop and reflect on what it means — though he’s tried to take a breath with this new deal.

“I’ve talked about that a lot with Sally and it’s so hard to actually take moments along this journey, especially the last couple of years, and appreciate and acknowledge what happened and what was accomplished,” Zimmerman said. “Because there’s always a next thing, you know? You win defender of the year. It’s like, ‘Oh, I gotta do it again.’ You qualify for the World Cup and then you’re like, ‘Yeah, but I gotta make the World Cup roster.’ … Whatever it is, there’s always something that’s next.”

In a league that has been somewhat reticent to reward domestically-developed players with its biggest contracts — the vast majority of DP contracts go to attack-minded players coming from abroad — Zimmerman’s resume had gotten to a point where it became harder to deny his value, both in the league and on the international stage. When 21 team executives were anonymously surveyed by The Athletic this offseason, Zimmerman not only was far-and-away the winner for most talented defender in the league — he pulled in 14 votes, while Atlanta’s Miles Robinson was the next closest at five — he was also the top selection for “MLS player you’d pick first if starting a team from scratch.”

But getting a deal done in MLS is not just about players and teams agreeing to terms. As a single entity, all players are under contract with the league, and thus the league has a say in approving a deal. When targeted allocation money was first introduced back in 2015, teams found it difficult to get deals approved for American players. The design of that money, they were told, was to bring new talent into the league. That obviously created some frustration in teams that wanted to be able to keep their best domestic players.

Historically, though, the biggest paydays in MLS for domestic players have come for established stars who succeeded abroad: Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones, among them. That has started to shift in recent years, with Nagbe, Zardes and, most recently, Ferreira signing DP deals. And, similarly, more domestic players have signed deals above the max salary budget in what would be considered “TAM” deals — 33 USMNT-eligible players made between $612,500 and $1.6125 million in 2021.

But Zimmerman’s deal had bigger implications if only because the number — $2.5 million in average annual value — would have put him in the top 20 of player salaries in MLS in 2021. Considering his career path, it could also reset the market for MLS-developed center backs. So even though Jacobs and Gartlan were able to find common ground, Zimmerman’s deal had implications at a league level that were going to factor into negotiations, especially with at least two more domestic center backs vying for World Cup rosters spots coming up on contract negotiations: New York Red Bulls’ Aaron Long and Atlanta United’s Robinson.

Zimmerman’s DP contract will inevitably impact those negotiations, and others down the road. It is not necessarily the ideal scenario for a single-entity league. For Ingram, however, rewarding Zimmerman with a contract he felt the center back deserved was crucial.

“I want the people that work in our organization to know that when I think they deserve something, I’m going to do everything I can to see that they get it,” he said.

The deal was also a reflection of an evolving league in which different teams are embracing, to the extent they can under MLS rules, different roster-building models.

At a time when some teams are spending tens of millions on transfer fees abroad, Nashville had proven success with a model that highly valued domestic players like Zimmerman, while also finding contributors abroad, like Hany Mukhtar, with whom they agreed a new contract extension in parallel to Zimmerman’s deal. Rewarding Zimmerman was a huge part of validating that model. Ingram also felt the deal could set an important standard for the league.

“Different teams will value different positions, play different styles, have different objectives for their clubs,” he said. “I certainly think, if (MLS is) going where we want to go, which is developing great players in our respective academies, shouldn’t we want young talented athletes to to be able to look and say, ‘You know what, I can do extraordinarily well financially in the sport of soccer in the United States.’ … If doing this deal with Walker advances that narrative, then I think we’ve done soccer a service.”

Zimmerman recalled several times when he thought the deal was going to implode. He remembered talking to Nashville assistant GM Ally Mackay in the training room after games, wondering if something might stop him just short of achieving the goal. Stressing over how close he was to reaching this point that once seemed far from reach.

In the end, Ingram’s support ensured the deal got over the finish line. And eventually, that news buzzed Zimmerman’s phone as he enjoyed his steak, potatoes and sausage cheddar biscuits at dinner with friends in Nashville.

“This really has been a crazy journey,” Zimmerman said. “It’s been so slow and so steady. Because a lot of times it can happen where you have one good season and, boom, there it is. This has been just such a slow and steady progression over really my entire MLS career and national team career, looking back, and it’s just been really cool that it’s happened that way and that we are where we are now.”

(Photo: Bill Barrett / ISI Photos / Getty Images)





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2022 MLS season: Fire standing behind struggling goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina

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Gabriel Slonina has made his decision. He’s going with the United States men’s national team.

Slonina, 18, announced Friday on social media he is committing to the US over Poland. A dual national, Slonina was recently named to Poland’s roster for its upcoming UEFA Nations League matches but has chosen to cast his lot with the United States program. Poland clearly wanted Slonina badly, as shown by coach Czesław Michniewicz traveling to Chicago to meet with him and present him a jersey.

Those overtures were rejected, and Slonina explained why. Though he discussed his pride in his heritage and what it means to be Polish, Slonina said “my heart is American.”

“This country has given me and my family all the opportunities I could ask for,” Slonina posted. “It’s pushed me and supported me through good and bad. I understand the privilege of wearing the badge, and the only time I’ll put my head down is to kiss it. America is home and that’s who I’m going to represent.”

Because of his age, FIFA rules allow Slonina to play in three matches for a national team before being bound to a country, so it’s possible he could change his mind in the future.

Slonina is part of a crowded US goalkeeping picture that includes Manchester City’s Zack Steffen, the Revolution’s Matt Turner (who will join English club Arsenal this summer) and former Fire standout Sean Johnson, currently the captain of reigning MLS Cup champion New York City FC. Poland is also strong in net, led by Wojciech Szczęsny, the starter for Italian powerhouse Juventus.

But just because Slonina, who’s represented the US at youth levels, has made this decsion doesn’t mean all his major choices are complete. Slonina’s been linked with major European clubs, and with their transfer windows opening soon, the young goalie might be forced to decide between famous teams in the near future.

Slonina’s recent play for the Fire has raised questions about whether those outside factors have taken a toll. Last Saturday, Slonina’s late giveaway led to the Fire’s 2-1 loss to FC Cincinnati. Then on Wednesday against the Red Bulls, Slonina whiffed on an easy save for New York’s second goal, overcommitted on their stoppage-time equalizer and could’ve easily given away a penalty after contacting an opposing attacker in the Fire box.

After the Red Bulls match, coach Ezra Hendrickson was asked whether the external noise was affecting Slonina’s concentration.

“Maybe outside of the game but in the game I don’t think he’s thinking about all that stuff. He just happened to make some mistakes,” Hendrickson said. “You know, we all make mistakes as soccer players and it just happened to be that in that position of his, your mistakes are more dangerous, are more costly than someone missing a goal or something like that. But he’ll get out of it and we’ll make sure that he stays positive and stays confident.”

Perhaps that will be easier for Slonina with one major decision out of the way.





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Monarchs Spotlight: Tyrone Mondi  rsl.com



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Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin on being first place in MLS – FOX Soccer

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Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin on being first place in MLS  FOX Soccer



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