U.S. World Cup players find their footing in faith
Walker Zimmerman and Christian Pulisic are the team’s most prominent Christians
Walker Zimmerman is a pastor’s kid who once stopped a soccer practice to pray for his troubled coach.
Christian Pulisic grew closer to God as an American living abroad and dealing with the challenges of playing for various European soccer clubs.
Zimmerman and Pulisic are the most prominent Christian players on the U.S. men’s national team, which will open the World Cup tournament against Wales this Monday in Qatar. The pair will represent their country on their sport’s biggest stage in the first Muslim-majority country ever to host the World Cup—and do so amid controversy. U.S. Soccer announced earlier this week that it was changing the vertical red stripes on its USA shield logo to rainbow-colored stripes as a show of support for LGBTQ individuals. The law in Qatar reflects Islamic teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman, and homosexuality is illegal there.
According to London’s Daily Mail, the U.S. men’s national team “kits”—British soccer parlance for uniforms—will still bear the traditional red, white, and blue shield, not the rainbow-colored version. If that’s the case, Zimmerman and Pulisic won’t have to choose between the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play for their country and any religious convictions they hold concerning homosexuality, as Jaelene Daniels (formerly Hinkle) did after receiving a call-up to the U.S. women’s national team in 2017.
Even so, the U.S. team likely will display the rainbow logo at media events and team practices—which may arouse anger from the host nation and its citizens.
“If you want to express your views on the LGBT cause, do so in a society where it will be accepted,” said Abdullah Al Nassari, Qatar’s head of security for the World Cup. “Do not come and insult an entire society. We will not change the religion for 28 days.
“If a fan raises a rainbow flag in a stadium and it is taken away, it will not be because we want to offend him but to protect him. If we don’t, another spectator could attack him. If you buy a ticket, it is to attend a football match and not to demonstrate.”
The 16th-ranked United States faces Wales (No. 19) Monday in its first match in Qatar. Its remaining matches in group play include fifth-ranked England on Nov. 25 and Iran (No. 20) on Nov. 29.
As center back and forward, respectively, Zimmerman and Pulisic play very different roles for the United States—one’s focus is defense, the other’s offense. However, both excel at what they do and are leaders on the team.
Zimmerman is the rare elite American soccer player who spent his entire career in the United States. Top U.S. players typically make their way to Europe—often at a young age to train at top clubs’ academies, as Pulisic did. Zimmerman, however, has spent stints with three Major League Soccer clubs: Dallas FC, the Los Angeles Football Club, and his current team, Nashville SC.
The 29-year-old Georgia native received offers to play for European clubs while competing for Furman University in South Carolina, according to ESPN. But something, actually someone, far more important kept him from crossing the Atlantic—his wife, Sally, whom he’d met as a freshman. They still had to maintain a long-distance relationship for four years after Dallas FC drafted Zimmerman in 2013, but it worked out: They married in 2017 and now have a 1-year-old son, Tucker, who regularly accompanies his dad to national team practices.
On the field, Zimmerman’s value is plain: Not only was he MLS Defender of the Year with Nashville in both 2020 and 2021, but he has also received a “designated player” contract from the Music City–based club. In other words, he receives an eight-figure salary that doesn’t count against the team’s salary cap—something MLS allows to keep top American players from seeking bigger paydays in Europe.
“Walker takes a lot of pride in playing for his country, in his country, and being one of the top—if not the best—central defenders in MLS,” Nashville coach Gary Smith told ESPN.
The leader of the U.S. national team’s back row, Zimmerman, has a leadership philosophy centered on Biblical principles. “For me, caring means showing up for people and loving them like Jesus would,” he wrote on his personal website. “A team that genuinely cares about each other has team chemistry. It’s a formula for winning.”
Zimmerman displayed that sense of caring toward a soccer academy coach while he was a freshman in high school: One day, Zimmerman felt the coach, Nuno Piteira, was being unduly harsh with his players. Sensing that something was troubling Piteira, Zimmerman asked—in the middle of practice—if he could pray for him.
Piteira let him.
“After praying, he goes, ‘Coach, I think that sometimes the tougher the stuff we go through on a personal level, the closer we get to God,’” Piteira told the Nashville Tennessean. “‘I think that’s a good thing, Coach.’”
Pulisic can attest to that personally. The 24-year-old winger from Pennsylvania has experienced his share of tough times as a soccer player in Europe—first as a teenager with the academy for German club Borussia Dortmund, where he didn’t speak the language. As an adult, he plays for the English Premier League club Chelsea, where he was a rising star but has struggled to land goals or even playing time this season.
“I’ve had to continue to prove myself over and over again,” Pulisic told CBS in a 2021 interview. “But, as always, I reach out to God to give me strength. With that behind me, nothing can stop me, really.”
Pulisic proved himself in propelling the United States to a World Cup berth: In the final round of qualifying for the tournament earlier this year, Pulisic scored five goals in 10 matches—three of them on March 27 in the United States’ 5-1 triumph over Panama.
The three goals comprised Pulisic’s first hat trick on the international stage. The U.S. men will need more of that kind of production—and not just from Pulisic—if they hope to survive group play and reach the World Cup’s knockout stage.
Whether that happens or not, though, Pulisic can draw on his faith when times get tough.
“[With God] I feel like I always have someone who’s with me,” Pulisic told the magazine GQ in 2021. “I don’t know how I’d do any of this without feeling that He’s watching over me and there’s a reason why I’m here.”