Meet Preston Zimmerman.
Actually, let me set the stage first even though he’ll be doing most of the talking.
The interviews I love to do here at TSG typically have some of the following qualities: (1) it’s a player a little bit off the beaten path; (2) something about that player dictates that they will have a unique perspective on things; and, (3) the player is not really worried about how they are received and/or fashioning their answers for the reception, but they are self-aware and just “tell it like it is.”
That third one is the most important because, much like the enlightening Voltaire quote often invoked to defend the 1st amendment, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” I’m interested in really digging into what makes a player truly tick. And even if I may hate–nay, too strong–dislike where they are coming from or what they’re about, I certainly respect that they show who they really are.
Very rarely do you get an interview that combines all three attributes and where you resonate with the good of someone. I got one of those with Preston Zimmerman.
Now, Zimmerman may not be a household American soccer name to you because once he was old enough to apply for college, he was already on his way to Europe.
In fact, the Washington state native has been toiling overseas for nearly four years already.
And that may not seem like much until you consider that he’s only 21-years-old.
Zimmerman now mans a flank primarily for the reserve squad of FSV Mainz 05. At the time of writing this piece, the senior side was undefeated in the Bundesliga having recently cut down Champions League finalist Bayern Munich. (Update: Mainz recently suffered their first defeat of the campaign.)
While I could sit here and tell you about how Zimmerman is making progress, how he loves German beer and food and is good buddies with German resident Michael Bradley, that’s not the real story (and in fact only the “progress” part is in fact true).
No, the real story for Zimmerman is the tribulations that occurred off the pitch, and why now he is merely excited to be in, as he phrases it, “a state of calm” and focused completely on moving his European career forward.
So without further ado: Preston Zimmerman, who colors outside the lines–and thankfully so, we might add–in painting the story of how he’s finally now set up for success in Europe.
Read on, friends.
TSG: You’re at Mainz. Tell me how you arrived there.
Preston Zimmerman (Preston): First off, how I got there was through a friend of mine. It was difficult to get onto a team after the Austria situation. [This will be discussed in detail in a bit.]
They were interested in me when I was back at Hamburg. They had wanted me back then and heard I was stuck with my present situation, and they wanted to give me an opportunity to get back on my feet.
I’ve been here since January and I’m thankful for the chance.
TSG: And how’s it going?
Preston: I’m pleased with how things are going.
A lot of things have changed. First, I’m not really a striker anymore, I’m playing in the midfield and out wide.
But I think that it’s definitely serving the purpose for what I need it to be for me, and the club has supported me tremendously.
Tomorrow, the first team has a friendly against Duisburg and I’m on the roster.
TSG: First team, excellent!
Preston: It’s something that was a surprise and I just found out today. [PZ played about 35 mins.]
TSG: You joined there in January as a striker and you were out looking for a club. But it’s an amateur contract, explain what that means…
Preston: No, you know, I don’t understand why it [an amateur contract] is a big deal. It’s a second team contract, but I still train with the 1st team.
There’s still bonuses for the first team. There’s not much to “amateur” beyond the name.
TSG: And what are your aspirations come the end of the year?
Preston: You know, how do I put this…obviously the best thing for me is playing in a league like the Bundesliga. But, the next step would be for a move to a first league in a smaller country or to the second division here from a playing standpoint.
TSG: How easy is it to transfer?
Preston: My contract is to the end of the season. Obviously, it’s much more difficult to transfer if you’re a foreigner.
There’s more incentive to sign a German guy. Each German side needs twelve Germans on each roster and allows only five non-EU players. This is something I struggled with at Hamburg.
It was somewhat hopeless there and led to that ill-fated Austrian move.
It’s not the worst thing for me to go to a smaller country where the rules don’t hinder me as much, like Denmark or Sweden.
For example, if I go down to the third division in Germany, they only allow three non-Euro’s and they want at least four German U-23′s on the team.
It’s difficult to get those non-EU spots.
TSG: Educate the TSG audience on how it goes now with Mainz. Who has control of your movement? Do you? Is is strictly the club?
Preston: We had a meeting in January when I signed. I had a six-month contract until the summer.
Then we had the six month meeting to review my performance.
I came from a chaotic situation and I wanted some calmness in my life. They asked me to stay at that meeting and I wanted to stay through the end of the year.
I really wasn’t interested in going out and finding another place to play.
They asked me to stay, like I said, but they said if I find a situation where I can develop my game, they’ll never prohibit or block me from doing it.
They’ve been really, really good about that.
TSG: That’s an anomaly thought, right? Most clubs don’t take that pro-player approach unless you’re a star?
Preston: No, I agree. Mainz still makes their money and do what they have to do, but they’re not going to stand in a guy’s way if he wishes to go somewhere else. And that’s been great.
TSG: Okay, let’s backtrack a little. You’re a product of the U.S. Soccer U-17 Residency Program. Talk about what it’s like looking back. (Editor’s Note: Article at time of publishing read “IMG Academy,” Preston was part of the U-17 Residency Program)
Preston: Oh man, it was the best time of my life without a doubt and it will probably always be the best time in my life.
I can’t tell you one negative thing about the whole experience. It was absolutely amazing and everything I wished for when I planned to go.
I still look back and it makes me happy.
Sometimes, I wish I could go back though it’s not for me anymore. I wish I cherished it more when I was there.
I had so much fun there and the guys there were and are my best friends, my family.
And then you play every single day.
It was just a two-year span of worry-free, being happy all the time.
TSG: And you were in residency with guys like Mike Bradley, Jozy, Eric Lichaj.
Was there anyone there that was head-and-shoulders above the rest? Was there anyone that you looked and said, “This guy, he’s definitely going to make it”?
Preston: We all had respect for one another.
And first, Lichaj was my roommate. He’s still one of my really good friends.
He’s had some bad luck with injuries that I think probably caused him to miss out on prep for the World Cup. He’s a player I certainly have a lot of respect for.
As far as when Bradley was there–I came in when Freddy Adu left so I came in at an off time in the Spring–I wasn’t there as long when Bradley was there.
I was with the ’88 guys and there is a little bit of a rivalry–a fun hostility–between the ’88s and ’87s.
TSG: So you identify more with your class.
Preston: Yeah the ’88s are my boys.
TSG: Who were the guys in your class that I’m going to see in a top European League?
Preston: Definitley Lichaj. David Arvizu, he was my strike partner. He really stood out against Italy at the World Cup too. I remember after the U-17 World Cup and our game against Italy something came out with Arvizu as one of the top five players in the world to watch.
Ofori Sarkodie was good on defense as was Neven [Subotic].
And the goalie, Bryant Rueckner, he was real good. But as I said, things happen.
As far as with Jozy…we all knew that Jozy was really talented. The best body to have if you were going to be a target striker when he came in as an ’89.
He’s gotten gradually better and better and better.
TSG: Talking about Peru [The US U-20 tourney], that’s where you got recognized. You were on fire in and through that tournament–also played up top with a certain striker named Omar Gonzalez. Anyway, Preston, a top club found you and you were off to the Bundesliga. Did IMG prepare you for what you were going to encounter?
Preston: Well, I always wanted to go to Europe. I’m fascinated with the cultures, languages, everything.
IMG was a huge help, even going to Germany. There was the language barrier still, but IMG couldn’t have helped me. But the academy certainly prepared me to live on my own.
As far as the football, I was as prepared as I could be, but there are more factors.
You get out of your comfort zone as an outsider over here. You need about six months to even get your footing.
TSG: Was it a harder time on the pitch or off the pitch?
Preston: Well, first, I only went out when I had to.
I’d go to the store. They’d say something to me about a receipt or a bag or something and I’d mumble back or just nod my head.
And everyone is looking at you like you’re an idiot.
Then, I would come to training and nobody spoke English.
I had to be there a half-hour before practice and I was like, “Aw man, I wish I could just show up five minutes before and put my stuff on.”
Because you get there and then you’re just sitting there staring at everybody and not saying anything. And it makes you feel so stupid.
Then I go on the field, guys are trying to explain stuff to me, but they can’t speak English and they’re trying to use hand signals and hand directions to communicate with you.
And the only guy that looks like an idiot the whole time in practice is me.
We do a drill and I’m the only guy running the wrong way. We got to do the drill again.
It was ridiculous at the beginning. It was like, “Aw man, what did I get myself into?”
But then once I got used to the situation and others got used to my situation, I felt a little better.
It was a real struggle the first six months.
But Hamburg had a plan for me…they got me German classes to go to and they tried to help.
TSG: I’m cracking up over here.
Preston: Well, I’d also try and say things in German and then I’d go home afterward and learn what I said was all wrong and I’d curse myself and yell, “Why did I say that?!”
TSG: I’m dying…
Preston: Well maybe your readers will realize how both pitiful and ridiculous my situation was.
I’d go to lunch or dinner with the guys for two hours and I’d just be sitting there and they would all be talking and I would just stare or nod my head.
I’d pick up things on the table and they’d tell me the name of it and I’d repeat it and that’s what we did.
But I also started thinking that at least these guys are accepting me despite the language so maybe they’re true friends. So that was good.
TSG: Wait, didn’t you have Benny Feilhaber there at Hamburg with you for a period?
Preston: Yeah, he was there too.
He had his own thing going on though. He had his routine or whatever. We didn’t really connect as much as we should have.
I thought he might reach out more, sure, but he was also older than me.
You also you don’t want to be identified and grouped as “the Americans.” It’s better for folks to say “this is Benny” and “this is Preston” and you kind of want to develop yourself personally and be known personally.
TSG: So at Hamburg you weren’t playing much and you went on trail at Brugge. Is that right?
Preston: We had a meeting at Hamburg and I said I’ve been here for a while and I wasn’t getting any chances with the first team.
I saw Germans getting ahead of me. I’d go score and someone else would get called up to the 1st team.
I said–I told them–I want to get a chance to play and establish myself. I still had a year on my deal though.
They gave my agent the freedom to try and place me somewhere else. It wasn’t certain whether they would let me go on a free or not.
TSG: So let me ask a question here. Are you at the mercy of your agent’s connections when you go to Europe, or what is it?
Preston: 100% you’re at the mercy of your agent. Basically you talk to guys and their agents too and they’d have connections at clubs and that’s how it happens.
When you go to reserve games here it’s not like there are 100 guys there watching you, ready to sign you.
I first had an American agent and, being from America, he didn’t have the connections over here.
A lot of it is done on favors here.
An agent will say, “Hey, I’ve done something for this player for you, and if you take him I’ll get this guy for you.” Things like that.
Everyone looks for connections to get somewhere and obviously certain clubs like working with certain agents.
TSG: Okay, so then did Hamburg sell you to what I’ll call your “nightmare club” in Austria? Spill it on Austria.