The U.S. World Cup Team’s Defense Is Southern Strong

Walker Zimmerman and Shaq Moore hold the line at the planet’s biggest sporting event

photo: Courtesy of Nashville SC

Moore and Zimmerman together on the practice field in Nashville.

The fan costumed as Elvis in the stands at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, isn’t the South’s only connection to the 2022 FIFA World Cup. When Team USA went up a goal in the win-or-go-home match against Iran this past Tuesday, even rabid supporters may not have been aware that the defensive duo sent in to protect the lead, Walker Zimmerman and Shaq Moore, both come from the ranks of Nashville SC, which brought Major League Soccer to the Music City three years ago.

“They are arguably the best players in their positions in Major League Soccer,” says Nashville SC general manager Mike Jacobs. “At that very critical moment for America at the World Cup, the national team coach leaned on our guys.”

The pair’s Southern roots reach even deeper than their day job. Zimmerman, whose Thor-like physique makes him an especially imposing center back, was born in Lawrenceville, Georgia. The youngest of three sports-obsessed brothers, he played soccer at Furman University in South Carolina before being drafted by the MLS’s FC Dallas in 2013. He was traded to Los Angeles FC in 2017, the same year he earned a spot on the U.S. national team. In 2020, he moved to the new Nashville SC expansion franchise, where he scored the team’s first-ever goal. His importance is underscored by the fact that he was named MLS defender of the year for 2020 and 2021 and has signed a contract extension through 2025.

“Walker is the prototype of a center back, winning balls in the air with his head and on the field with tackles,” Jacobs says. (Game highlights often capture Zimmerman soaring through a crowd to head the ball with astounding force.) “He’s competitive and combative—what you look for in a leader.”

photo: Icon Sportswire
Zimmerman in action against Wales on November 21.

Fellow back Shaq Moore was raised just fifty miles to the west in Powder Springs, Georgia. Considering that his father and uncle both played for the Trinidad and Tobago national soccer team, it’s little surprise Moore was an early soccer standout, and he honed his skills at IMG Academy, a sports-intensive prep school in Bradenton, Florida. He began his pro career playing for clubs in Spain for several seasons before seizing the opportunity to sign with Nashville SC last summer. While playing abroad, Moore was recruited to the U.S. national team in 2018, and he turned heads in 2020 by scoring just twenty seconds into a match against Canada—the all-time fastest goal for the national team. On November 9, 2022, he was added to the final roster for the World Cup.

photo: Hasan Bratic/Associated Press
Moore carries the ball in the November 25 match vs. England.

“In the modern game, even defenders are involved in the attack, and Shaq is probably the most feared player in the league in that regard. He can defend and attack, and he endures a lot of physical abuse and still can’t be stopped,” Jacobs says. “When he went into a World Cup game for the first time in Qatar, I was filled with pride to see him have one of his dreams come true.”

Does playing together in Nashville benefit Moore and Zimmerman on the world stage? Jacobs thinks so. “The cohesion these guys have is evident,” he says. Jacobs is eagerly awaiting Team USA’s next match this Saturday against powerhouse Netherlands, and eventually welcoming his stars back home. “Very few players ever get to represent their country in the World Cup, so it’s special for us, and also for young kids in Nashville who can watch players they know from right here,” he says. 

Even when Zimmerman or Moore aren’t on the field, World Cup viewers can look for these other USA players with Southern connections:

• Kellyn Acosta (born in Plano, Texas; currently plays for Los Angeles FC)

• Jesus Ferreira (born in Colombia; currently plays for FC Dallas)

• Sean Johnson (born in Lilburn, Georgia; currently plays for New York City FC)

• Weston McKennie (born in Little Elm, Texas; currently plays for Juventus FC in Italy)

• DeAndre Yedlin (born in Seattle; currently plays for Inter Miami CF)