HARRISON, N.J. – Last month, in one of the biggest games of the Philadelphia Union season, manager Peter Nowak rolled the dice and gave 16-year-old midfielder Zach Pfeffer the first start of his career. Philly went on to beat Columbus and snap an eight-game winless streak that day.
On Thursday, in another critical game, Pfeffer received the second start of his career, playing the first half in Philly’s regular-season finale, a disappointing 1-0 loss to the Red Bulls.
Why does Nowak seem to wait until the biggest moments of the season to throw one of the league’s youngest players into the fire?
“I think playing Zach is good stuff for the future,” the Union manager explained. “We know we are going to be in this situation in the future and he needs these games to get the feel for it. He was very good for a couple of days going into this game.”
While keeping an eye on the future, Nowak also believed Pfeffer could help in the present. The manager pointed out that the teenager is not too much younger than 20-year-olds Roger Torres and Danny Mwanga and some of the club’s other young regulars, and he hoped Pfeffer’s inclusion in the lineup Thursday would give Philly more of a presence in the midfield.
Instead, the Union fell behind by a goal early in the game and, despite putting in offensive subs Freddy Adu, Mwanga and Torres in the second half, they couldn’t find the equalizer. The Union, who clinched a playoff berth last weekend, now must hope for help to avoid falling from the top of the Eastern Conference into a wild card slot.
“I think they were strong in the back tonight,” Pfeffer said. “They played a physical game. They made it tough for us to break them down.”
The Red Bulls, who needed a win or a draw to secure a playoff berth of their own, certainly made things difficult for the Union. In fact Philly’s only shot on target came from Pfeffer, who was pleased to see his name in the starting lineup.
“I was very excited obviously,” the 16-year-old said. “Every time I get experience playing games, it’s going to help me a lot as I move forward in my career. It gives me more confidence to know the coaches trust to put me out there in games of this importance.”
Of course, Pfeffer knows he still has a lot of work to do to take the next step in his MLS career. There were times on Thursday when he was pushed off the ball in what turned out to be a physical, chippy game at Red Bull Arena.
But he’ll have more chances to grow in seasons to come – and, perhaps, even in the club’s upcoming playoff games.
“These are the experiences that I have to try to keep learning from and keep building on,” Pfeffer said. “As I continue to progress, I want to be a bigger and better player in this league, so every opportunity is going to help me.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .