Walker Zimmerman

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Big in Texas: Stellar back Hedges continues to fly under radar

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A half-decade into his tenure with FC Dallas, Matt Hedges is nearing the title of Honorary Texan.

“Yeah, I’ve got the hat, I’ve got the boots, I love it here.,” Hedges told ProSoccerTalk, breaking into a laugh while adding, “I’ve got the guns, all that kind of stuff. I consider myself a Texan now. I just need the pickup truck then I’ll be all set.”

Whether a North Texas dealership sees this as a chance to make Hedges full-on Texan or not, the towering 26-year-old back from Indiana has already added something shiny to FCD headquarters this week when he and the Toros claimed the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title.

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It took 164 games in an FC Dallas uniform for Hedges to claim his first bit of silverware, a wait beaten in length by the club’s 19 years since earning it as the Dallas Burn in 1997.

So it’s a bit fitting that their 6-foot-4 center back’s diving header of a Mauro Diaz cross gave FCD a lead it would not relinquish on Wednesday in Frisco as the Toros claimed their second USOC title.

“Seeing us win a trophy, and knowing we went through a whole tournament without losing, how we did it with coming back, overtime games, or winning late, knowing no matter the circumstances, that we can get it done, I can’t feel any better,” Hedges said.

FC Dallas celebrates its 4-2 win over the New England Revolution in the U.S. Open Cup soccer final, Tuesday Sept. 13, 2016, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
FC Dallas celebrates its 4-2 win over the New England Revolution in the U.S. Open Cup soccer final, Tuesday Sept. 13, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Hedges may be the most undercover flat-out star in MLS, and this season has been no different for the big man. He’s been in Texas since being chosen with the 11th overall pick in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, but he’s rarely seen a season like this one: FCD is in the driver’s seat for the Supporters’ Shield with five regular season matches left on the docket.

That’s in no small part thanks to the captain and his center back mate Walker Zimmerman, who has come into his own. Another first rounder from the SuperDraft (No. 7 in 2013), the 23-year-old Zimmerman may put a pair of FCD backs on the Defender of the Year ballot.

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Before going any further, credit to the FCD technical department for making those picks. Some clubs haven’t utilized the SuperDraft well twice in the last decade; FCD found big, strong, starting quality center backs in consecutive years.

According to advanced statistics site Squawka, here’s how the pair ranks amongst peers this year.

Ranks amongst MLS defenders, 2016 season
Defensive performance score:  Zimmerman 1st, Hedges 3rd
Interceptions per game: Hedges 3rd, Zimmerman 5th
Pass accuracy: Hedges 6th, Zimmerman 12th
Aerial duels per game: Zimmerman 2nd, Hedges 17th

FRISCO, TX - MARCH 06: Walker Zimmerman #25 of FC Dallas dribbles the ball against C.J. Sapong #17 of Philadelphia Union in the second half at Toyota Stadium on March 6, 2016 in Frisco, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Zimmerman (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

“We’ve definitely developed a good partnership this season,” said the 6-foot-3 Zimmerman, who added that he entered this year with more determination than any other season.

“This is our fourth year together and our first one starting together. Our chemistry has definitely translated onto the field.”

Hedges has been a top-end MLS defender in essentially every season he’s started for the club, and he credits the partnership for raising his profile this year.

“(Zimmerman’s) evolution has made my job a lot easier,” Hedges said. “He wins a ton of balls. It makes me not have to do as much, basically. The best part of the partnership is making each other’s job easier, if that makes sense.”

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Their manager’s willingness to play youngsters helps, too. Oscar Pareja has championed the Academy set-up, and hasn’t shied away on the topic of playing the best Americans as soon as they are ready to roll.

“(Pareja) showing that respect and playing Americans gives them a lot of confidence,” Hedges said. “The Academy guys know if they work hard, they’ll get a shot. So in training games, they’re going hard and trying to get better because they know if they impress, they’ll get a shot on the field. I think that’s a huge thing. That’s why we’re doing so well because those young guys have that confidence.”

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 08: Luis Pereira #4 of Panama vies for position to the ball against Matt Hedges #3 of the USA in the second half of their international men's friendly match at StubHub Center on February 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. The play resulted in a goal by Dempsey. The USA defeated Panama 2-0. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
In his only cap to date, Hedges vies with Panama’s Luis Pereira on Feb. 8, 2015 (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

Come January, we’d love to see both Hedges and Zimmerman together in USMNT camp. After all, pairing an international duo who play together for club is certainly ideal, Hedges has a cap under his belt, and Zimmerman has donned the red, white, and blue at the U-18, U-20, and U-23 level.

The USMNT’s center back corps is a bit deeper than usual with John Brooks and Geoff Cameron thriving, the MLS duo of Matt Besler and Steve Birnbaum, and prospects Cameron Carter-Vickers and Matt Miazga playing overseas.

[ MORE: Pochettino says Carter-Vickers deserves to start ]

Hedges admits he thinks about Cap No. 2 sometimes, while Zimmerman has the idea in his mind a bit more often.

“Always,” Zimmerman said. “You’re always thinking about it when you’re at this level. The next step is striving to play for the full national team.”

But there’s a treble (or triple) to sort out first. Dallas has a tough run-in, with the Galaxy home and away, trips to Real Salt Lake and NYCFC, and a visit from Seattle. But FCD has a four-point lead on LA, and a five-point lead on Colorado (The Rapids have played two fewer games.

“We want to win every trophy,” Hedges said. “The Cup and Supporters Shield are right there. We’ve put ourselves in a great spot. We try not to think about it, and our mantra is one day at a time. If we could win two more trophies, I don’t know if I could be happier.”

With club season open, PST assesses the Top 15 USMNT prospects under 23

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Friday brings us the beginning of the Bundesliga season, meaning every major league will have started its season.

There are American players throughout Europe worth watching, many of them well-established with their clubs. We know plenty of Danny Williams at Reading, of Fabian Johnson at Borussia Monchengladbach, and Geoff Cameron at Stoke City.

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But what about the young crowd, the ones we know a bit less about? Let’s call the group Americans under the age of 23, with 10 caps or less. We quizzed our ProSoccerTalk staff, weighted the rankings according to power, and wound up with 15 names from MLS to the PL.

Players were given one point for each mention, and a corresponding value to whether they were ranked first (10 points) or tenth (1 point) by a given writer.

PST’s Top 15 USMNT prospects

15. Joe Gyau, Borussia Dortmund (1)

The 23-year-old was about as exciting a prospect as any when he tore his meniscus against Ecuador. Now, he’s just getting back on the pitch and a loan may be on the cards.

14. Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew (3)

Of players aged 23 or younger, only one has had a better overall season than Trapp. The 23-year-old just fits on our list, and needs to find another level, but he’s going to be solid at worst.

13. Walker Zimmerman, FC Dallas (4)

The seventh-overall pick in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, the big Georgian has been outstanding this season.

12. Erik Palmer-Brown, Sporting KC/Porto B (5)

It’s easy to forget about EPB, the 6-foot-1 center back who left SKC on loan in February, but he’s gone 90 minutes in every match since making his Porto B debut in March. Juventus bid $1 million for Palmer-Brown when he was still 16, and they know a thing or two about scouting kids.

11. Rubio Rubin, FC Utrecht (6)

The 20-year-old started Utrecht’s first two matches of the season as a center forward after foot surgery cost him much of 2015-16. No one should ignore his 3 goal, 6 assist season the previous season.

10. Keegan Rosenberry, Philadelphia Union (9)

The very likely MLS Rookie of the Year has been a dynamite part of Philadelphia’s resurgent season.

Emerson Hyndman, afcb.co.uk
Emerson Hyndman, afcb.co.uk

9. Emerson Hyndman, AFC Bournemouth (12)

The 20-year-old just moved to the Premier League, and has yet to debut after playing out his contract with Fulham in hopes of greener pastures.

8. Matt Miazga, Chelsea (20)

One decent match followed by a bad half; That’s all we’ve seen from Miazga since leaving the New York Red Bulls for Chelsea last January. A loan seems likely.

7. Ethan Horvath, Molde (22)

The 20-year-old is a full-time ‘keeper with Europa League experience. He should get his chance to impress at the USMNT level, sooner rather than later.

6. Gedion Zelalem, Arsenal (27)

Still hoping for an Arsenal breakthrough, the 19-year-old made 28 appearances on loan for Rangers last season.

5. Lynden Gooch, Sunderland (33)

Gooch drew raves for his work with the Black Cats U-21 team, and has earned playing time under new manager David Moyes. One to watch, and contracted at the Stadium of Light through 2018-19.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 13: Lynden Gooch of Sunderland challenges David Silva of Manchester City during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Sunderland at Etihad Stadium on August 13, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – AUGUST 13: Lynden Gooch of Sunderland challenges David Silva. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

4. Julian Green, Bayern Munich (37)

With a new lease on life under Carlo Ancelotti, could be set for a breakthrough season.

3. Jordan Morris, Seattle Sounders (41)

There’s a lot of hope for the striker, who is getting the professional refinement he needs at the MLS level. If he sorts out his left foot, he could be a lethal piece of the USMNT future.

2. Cameron Carter-Vickers, Tottenham Hotspur (44)

A year ago, he told Joe Prince-Wright that he had added confidence from captaining Spurs’ U-21 side. He’s staying with Mauricio Pochettino‘s First Team this season, and spent the first two matches as an unused sub.

1. Christian Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund (55)

We don’t have to really say anything, do we? The 17-year-old Pennsylvania kid has made an impact at one of the biggest clubs in the world, and could be set for a loan now that BVB has added Mario Gotze, Andre Schurrle, and Ousmane Dembele.