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