Football and college football analyst
DOHA, Qatar – One game, Walker Zimmerman takes responsibility for a tied penalty; in another, his instincts save the day.
There was one moment during the extremely stressful nine minutes of stoppage time in the United States’ 1-0 win over Iran on Tuesday that some people might try to forget amid the victory celebrations.
With about a minute left in overtime, an Iran header bounced behind American goalkeeper Matt Turner and appeared to have headed over the goal line.
Enter Zimmerman, an 82nd-minute substitute, who zoomed behind Turner and cleared the ball, protecting the U.S. men’s national team’s narrow lead. Had the ball gone in and the game ended in a draw, the Americans would have been eliminated from the World Cup and Iran would have advanced.
“I was in a good place ready to wipe it out,” Zimmerman said afterward. “It was a face and [I’m] happy to contribute.”
Zimmerman started as a central defender against Wales and England, playing more than 90 minutes in each match. But against Iran, US coach Gregg Berhalter’s game plan did not include Zimmerman in the starting lineup. Instead, Cameron Carter-Vickers, who did not appear in any World Cup qualifying matches for the USMNT, got the nod. It was Carter-Vickers’ 12th USMNT game and first appearance off the bench this tournament.
Zimmerman and fellow center back Tim Ream have developed chemistry playing alongside each other. So much so, in fact, that they are now nicknamed the “bun brothers” as they both wear their long blonde hair in man buns.
But Berhalter had a method to decide.
“It’s tough,” Berhalter told reporters after the game. “After getting a clean sheet against England, to bring Walker off, it was a difficult conversation with Walker. The reason was we expected Iran to be in a low block and Cam does that every week with Celtic and we thought it was a very logical decision.
“He’s used to defending the space behind him and he’s used to building up against a compact defense. So for me it was a good fit and he played really well.”
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Carter-Vickers, who learned he would start on Monday, was composed on the ball, played physical and broke down Iranian players. Berhalter called his performance “rock solid”. The 24-year-old defender said he wasn’t nervous before the game, but he was full of adrenaline. And while he hasn’t played alongside Ream before, Carter-Vickers said the key to playing with a new teammate in this type of setting is communication.
“Talk as much as you can throughout the game and get used to each other’s movements,” Carter-Vickers said.
With about 12 minutes remaining and the U.S. holding a 1-0 lead, Berhalter switched to a 5-4-1 lineup to preserve the victory. Zimmerman came in and played a huge role in a back line that was already performing at a high level. If there was a ball in the air near him, Zimmerman won it, which is exactly what Berhalter envisioned for his defender on this particular play. He brought a new influx of energy and made critical plays during a particularly dreadful final nine minutes.
“We talked to him beforehand about the plan to go in as a back five and we said it would be very important for him to win the aerial duels and he did,” Berhalter said. “Everybody was playing their part.”
While Zimmerman would have preferred to keep his starting spot and play the entire game, he maturely accepted Berhalter’s decision and took one for the team.
“You’re always disappointed when you’re not on the field,” Zimmerman said. “At the same time, as soon as that decision was made, it’s wrapping your mind around what is your role for this game and what does that entail? I slept well and woke up to do my job. [which was] to enter and watch the match.
“That’s what I’m going to do today. I’m going to be the best teammate I can be on the bench, I’m going to help as much as I can, encouraging others. When it’s time, I’m going to make sure I’m doing my job.
“I think that’s the mentality of all the guys who have been on the bench and haven’t played or the ones who have stepped up and given our group a boost right now.”
North American sides Sergiño Dest and Jedi Robinson were strong, aggressive and an important part of the team’s offense. Dest made the run at the right time and had the assistance of Christian Pulisic’s goal in the 38th minute and Robinson had many crosses in the area, but no one could get one part of the body to the other extreme to finish. Both stretched Iran’s midfield, opened up the game and supported Iran’s wings.
“Advocating is a collective entity,” Berhalter said. “It takes 11 players and what I see from the group is the 11 players committed to the defense and that helps the backline. When I look specifically at the backline and how they’ve performed, it’s been outstanding.”
Iran vs USA Recap: How far can the USMNT go?
The United States face the Netherlands, ranked No. 8 in the world, in the Round of 16 on Saturday (10 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app). It will be a special match for Dest, who was born in the Netherlands, and a great test for the USMNT defense, which has yet to concede a goal in the course of this World Cup. They will face 23-year-old winger Cody Gakpo, who is 6-foot-4 and has three goals in three games in this tournament. He currently plays for PSV in the Eredivisie, but there are reports that Manchester United are interested in him.
As the United States prepares for its next challenge, they don’t see it as an extra game. At the moment, they are here to continue extending their stay in Qatar.
“The talk in the locker room is, hey, we’re excited to win, but we have a lot more out of this group, a lot more expectations out of this team,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve said from the beginning that we’ve unpacked.
“We’re here until December 19 in our heads.”
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Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in the spring of 2022 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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