Philadelphia Union midfielder Zach Pfeffer pushing for starting spot after "something clicked" in preseason

CHESTER, Pa. – Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin started to call Zach Pfeffer a kid before stopping himself short.

One of the youngest players to ever sign an MLS contract, Pfeffer is growing up right before Curtin’s eyes. And now, in his fifth season as a professional, the 20-year-old midfielder is finally poised to become a regular in the Union’s rotation.

“I shouldn’t call him a kid anymore,” Curtin said. “He’s a young man I’ve been with since he was a kid. I’ve coached him in the U-18s. Working his way up, I’ve seen a lot of his growth and development. And, for me, this preseason, something clicked with him.”

Before the season began, Curtin told MLSsoccer.com that Pfeffer was challenging playmaker Cristian Maidana for the starting spot in the attacking midfield. And although he didn’t start in Philadelphia's season-opening draw with the Colorado Rapids – neither did Maidana as Curtin went with a two-striker look – Pfeffer did come on for the final five minutes.

While that may not seem like much, for a player that’s only made nine total appearances in three MLS seasons – he spent the entire 2013 MLS campaign training with Hoffenheim in Germany – it was certainly a big deal.

“I was very excited, and I think it’s definitely a very big step forward for me,” Pfeffer said. “In past seasons, I haven’t really got on the field until halfway through the season or so. This is definitely a confidence booster for me. I’m just coming in every day and working hard and trying to build on the strong preseason I had. Hopefully I’ll continue to stay in the mix and get a lot of games.”

Despite only playing limited minutes, Pfeffer had a decent scoring chance, trying to curl a shot into the top right corner of the net. Curtin said he’s seen him make that same shot “literally a thousand times in my life,” but this time the head coach noticed that the ball “checked up on him a little bit.”

Pfeffer was equally confident in his ability to make that shot, and was naturally upset that he couldn’t provide his team with the game-winner in their season opener.

“That’s one of my biggest strengths – that inside-of-the-foot curl back post,” he said. “So I’m disappointed Saturday not to at least get it on frame. That happens though. I think eight out of 10, nine out of 10 times, I’ll put it in the back of the net.”

It seems relatively certain Pfeffer will get more chances to score this season. After opening his MLS account in the final game of the 2014 season, the 20-year-old kept the momentum going and, according to Curtin, has become a more well-rounded player than the teenager he once was.

“He’s always had the ability on the offensive side of the ball,” the Union head coach said. “He’s special in that regard. He can score a goal, he’s got that fast twitch, he’s got a quick first step – things you can’t really teach as a coach and you either have or you don’t. And he has those traits.

“What he’s now bought into is the defensive side of the ball – covering ground, breaking up plays, doing that dirty running that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet. His mentality has been excellent.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.