Walker Zimmerman wants young U.S. Olympic squad to learn from Copa América failure

NEW YORK — Walker Zimmerman was not called on to represent the senior U.S. men’s national team at Copa América, but he paid close attention and watched as the squad underperformed and failed to emerge from its group.

Now, as he prepares to captain a young American side at this summer’s Paris Olympics, he wants to use the senior team’s early Copa exit as a learning tool.

“Obviously, it’s disappointing,” Zimmerman told reporters on Monday during a joint-U.S. men’s and women’s Olympics team press conference. “I know it’s not the result that they wanted. It’s not what we expect of our team and I know it wasn’t an easy exit from that tournament. Obviously, we’re still rooting for those guys every single game that they play.

“And I think looking at this tournament [the Olympics], it’s a great example of how one moment can kind of change your entire outlook on this. So that’s going to be the learning experience for us — looking at, unfortunately, what happened to the senior team in that moment and make sure that doesn’t apply to us.”

Zimmerman was referring to the red card issued to Tim Weah in the opening minutes of the USMNT’s second match against Panama. The Americans — who were expected to not only get out of a seemingly easier group, but also make a deeper run in the tournament — were stunned in a 2-1 loss after being forced to play the majority of the match with 10 men. 

That moment altered the trajectory of the tournament and put the team in a virtual must-win position entering its final group stage match against Uruguay, who instead eliminated the U.S. with a 1-0 defeat. Uruguay will face Colombia in a semifinal showdown on July 10 in Charlotte.

Zimmerman, who started three of four matches for the U.S. at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar alongside several members of the ill-fated Copa América squad, has never been to an Olympics. In fact, the U.S. has not qualified for the Games in men’s soccer since 2008. 

While Zimmerman always dreamed of going, this didn’t even reach his radar until last December when USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter reached out to discuss what the next year would look like and asked if going to Paris was something he’d be interested in. At the time, Zimmerman was rehabbing his way back from an Achilles injury and preparing to play the next MLS season for Nashville SC. His goal was to be healthy enough to make the Copa América roster. 

“And I was like, yeah, of course,” Zimmerman said. “[I’m] striving to be a part of the first team and represent the U.S. at Copa, but at the same time, I would also love to have the opportunity to be at the Olympics if that’s something [Berhalter] and [U.S. men’s Olympics coach Marko Mitrovic] thought would be best.”

Then Zimmerman injured his knee playing against Inter Miami on March 7 – while still recovering from that Achilles – complicating his timetable to compete for a Copa spot.

“That put me in a really difficult spot to even be fit and ready for Copa,” Zimmerman said. “And so it kind of made it a little bit less stressful to just focus on that rehab and make sure I’m getting back to full fitness and now kind of getting back into run of form of getting consecutive games in the legs and be prepared for what’s gonna be a lot of games in a short amount of time.

Is the USMNT back to square one after rock bottom Copa América group-stage exit?

Is the USMNT back to square one after rock bottom Copa América group-stage exit?

“So it really worked out great for me to have that time physically to heal and get back to fitness.”

The Olympic men’s soccer tournament is different from the women’s tournament in that it is restricted to players under the age of 23, except for three overage players. Zimmerman, 31, headlines that trio for the U.S., which also includes 27-year-old center back Miles Robinson — who was part of the Copa América roster but did not play a minute — and 25-year-old midfielder Djordje Mihailovic.

A true veteran, Zimmerman, who has 42 caps with the senior team, feels uniquely prepared to lead this squad. Many of the players that Mitrovic called up have never played in a tournament of this scale in their careers. Four other players – Robinson, Mihailovic, Gianluca Busio and Gaga Slonina – have represented the USMNT at major international tournaments, but Zimmerman is the only one who has played in a World Cup. He’s already taken charge of organizing team bonding activities like escape rooms and golf tournaments during the team’s pre-Olympic training camp in June. 

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“I feel like I’m pretty young at heart,” Zimmerman said. “I mean, just trying to immerse myself in the team. Get to know guys, make them feel comfortable. I don’t want them looking at me like, ‘Oh, he’s an overage player.’ I want them looking at me like I’m their teammate. I’m there for them, I’m gonna work for them on and off the field. 

“So that was the goal of mine was to just relate to them, get to know them and immerse myself in all the inside jokes, all the friendships, all the circles and just drift and understand who everyone is.”

Hovering over everything on the men’s side, however, is the question surrounding Berhalter’s future with the USMNT. After the Americans failed to advance to the knockout round of Copa América last week, U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker issued a statement saying that the organization would conduct “a comprehensive review of our performance in Copa America and how best to improve the team and result as we look towards the 2026 World Cup.”

“Our tournament performance fell short of our expectations,” the statement read. “We must do better.”

FOX Sports exclusive USMNT update: A decision on the future of manager Gregg Berhalter is expected around the middle of next week

FOX Sports exclusive USMNT update: A decision on the future of manager Gregg Berhalter is expected around the middle of next week

Sources told FOX Sports that U.S. Soccer is expected to make a decision on Berhalter’s status this week. As of Monday afternoon, there was no update to that timeline.  

Should the USMNT choose to go in another direction and replace Berhalter ahead of the 2026 World Cup on home soil, will players feel the need to prove themselves all over again?

“Not really,” Zimmerman said. “With the national team, you’re always trying out. It’s every single camp, every single training, you have to go in and try and prove why you should be there, why you should be on the field, why you should be involved in camp. And so you’re never really secure. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m on the national team for 2024.’ No, this is one camp at a time and that leads to high competition and the pressure you have to learn in practice and play well.”

Regardless of what happens, Zimmerman is solely focused on his assignment this summer. 

“It really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Zimmerman said. “It really is living out your dreams. It’s special. It’s special for me, my family, my community, for Nashville. Everyone who has kind of been part of my soccer journey is celebrating this moment. That’s really, really cool, and I hope to honor them with winning a medal.”

The U.S. was drawn into Group A and will play its first Olympics match against host nation France at 3 p.m. ET on July 24 at Stade de Marseille before facing New Zealand and Guinea. 

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

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Walker Zimmerman

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