103016_isi_zimmermanwalker_usocdb091316351 David Bernal/isiphotos.com
MLS Playoffs

Hedges and Zimmerman Give FC Dallas Steady Core

The central defenders have formed a rock-solid partnership in 2016, giving a shorthanded FC Dallas squad confidence that it can push forward and compete for the MLS championship.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
October 30, 2016
6:25 AM

FC DALLAS has had a lot of success this year but it has been anything but a smooth ride as injuries and player departures have plagued the squad. But a big reason why the club has succeeded in 2016 and still remains confident in its pursuit of MLS Cup is its all-American central defense tandem of Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman.

At the start of the 2016 season many expected FC Dallas to be among the best teams in the league but midway through the year, Best XI winger Fabian Castillo packed up and left for Turkey. Then, in the second-to-last game of the regular season, the club lost MVP candidate Mauro Diaz for eight months to a torn Achilles tendon. That did not stop Oscar Pareja’s team from winning the U.S. Open Cup, the Supporters’ Shield, and securing a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League.

As the top overall seed, FC Dallas will open its MLS Cup playoffs on Sunday night (9:30pm ET, Fox Sports 1) against the surging Seattle Sounders. The loss of Diaz is a huge factor and offense will be tougher to come by. As Dallas aims to become the first team in league history to win “the Treble,” MLS Cup will now be the toughest leg.

“There is definitely going to be more pressure without those guys,” the 26-year-old Hedges told American Soccer Now. “Mauro created a ton of chances and we probably won’t get as many opportunities because of that. On the backline, we’re definitely going to have to step up and keep more shutouts and give up less goals. Especially in the playoffs, that is how it is anyway. It’s a little more defensive and there is a lot more on the line each game.”

The Hedges/Zimmerman pairing has been immense for Dallas and is perhaps the best in MLS. Hedges, the team’s captain since 2014, is a strong contender to be named 2016 MLS Defender of the Year while Zimmerman has been one of the league’s breakout players this year. Due in large part to their partnership, FC Dallas remains optimistic despite the loss of key players.

The statistics are eye opening. Hedges and Zimmerman have each dealt with injuries but managed to start 23 MLS games together. In those games, the team has earned 11 clean sheets and seven times they conceded just one goal. FC Dallas has outscored its opponents 34-20 (which includes an inexplicable 5-0 early season loss to last place Houston—a true outlier).

Zimmerman, 23, amassed 2,700 minutes this season (more than double his 2015 total) and become one of the best aerial threats in MLS both defensively and offensively—where he notched four goals and was particularly adept at clearances.

The Georgia native cites the chemistry he has with Hedges as a key factor in his development.

“We've definitely grown a lot over the course of this year in what is our first year full-time starting together,” Zimmerman said. “To get a consistent run of games has built up a big chemistry. For example, in the games we will be really focusing in on our communication. Even when nothing is happening, we are staying tuned in and talking about certain plays while we are on the field—not waiting until after the game. We are always sorting things out. We're starting to build more chemistry off the field as well and spending more time together - and making that an intentional part of our schedule.

“The level of trust we have with one another allows you to play on your best level. Having him trust me and me trusting him, we want to take of each other on the field—like covering and communicating. That's the biggest thing, just building that level of trust and communication.”

Goalkeeper Chris Seitz has had a front row seat as Hedges and Zimmerman cemented their partnership this season. Against Seattle and in the playoffs in general, he believes that the pair will give FC Dallas a huge advantage. 

“They have a good ebb and flow,” Seitz said. “Matt is a bit more aggressive stepping into the midfield and checking back. Walker is obviously a bit of an animal in the air. They both have good speed and they know each other’s tendencies really well. Listen, they’ve been a huge part of our success this year.

"It’s a cliché, but defense wins championships. We’re going to have to get clean sheets on the road. You have to look at the amount of shots we’ve given up this year, which is few. And it starts with those two guys.”

FC Dallas is a close-knit team, with many of the core players having been together for years. Many players have been developed internally through its academy which has been among the league’s best. Several other players like Hedges and Zimmerman were draft picks. Hedges was taken with the 11th overall pick of the 2012 draft and Zimmerman was claimed the following year with the seventh pick of the first round.

Dallas is the youngest team in the league and Pareja has molded it into a successful team that has been gradually improving in recent years. Now the 2016 MLS Coach of the Year candidate acknowledges the difficulties the team faces without Diaz and Castillo but also maintains the confidence that the rest of the team shares.

But as the pressure is turned up, he believes that Hedges and Zimmerman will help the team find ways to win, both offensively and defensively.

“I think Walker this year has done an incredible job staying in the field and Matt has been very solid too,” Pareja said. “It’s obvious from the absence of players that have been with us the whole year, it presents a different type of game for us. It’s time to adjust. For sure the pressure is going to come on the centerbacks. For Walker and Matt, they understand they are the key players—not just for central defense but also in the attacking phase. They have done a remarkable job to keep us in the game when set pieces come up. If we’re going to have some difficulties trying to score after the absence of Mauro, Walker and Matt can help us there too. We just have to find different ways.”

Talking to people around the organization, Hedges and Zimmerman are united in their pursuit of completing the Treble and cementing the team’s status by having the best season any American soccer team has ever had.

“It's extremely important to our club and it is something we talked about the whole year: trophies,” Zimmerman said. “It's what we want and it's what professional sports are all about. We have two but we know we are capable of even more.”

Hedges agrees. 

“We’re extremely confident,” he said. “We know that the guys we have that will come in are totally capable of doing the job. Especially in the backline where we’ve been playing our best soccer over the past few weeks.”   

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