CHESTER, Pa. — For Peter Nowak, it didn’t matter that the Philadelphia Union were sliding down the standings, were desperately seeking their first win in two months and were playing the top team in the Eastern Conference.
Against the Columbus Crew on Saturday, the Union manager was going give some of his youngest players the chance to show their stuff.
The gamble paid off in a big way as the Union earned a crucial 1-0 victory that snapped their frustrating eight-game winless skid and put them within striking distance of first place in the Eastern Conference.
“Some day you have to start this way,” Nowak said. “We’ve told every guy they deserve the opportunity. … I think you can see in practice these guys have been working very hard to deserve the shot.”
With seven players 23 or under, the average age of Philly’s starting 11 Saturday was 23.55. But perhaps the most surprising inclusion in the lineup was 16-year-old midfielder Zach Pfeffer, who made his MLS debut, playing 62 strong minutes.
Recently signed 22-year old Morgan Langley also made his league debut, coming in as a second-half substitute along with 20-year-olds Amobi Okugo and Danny Mwanga.
“Even though it was a big game, they didn’t play nervous or afraid,” said 31-year-old Danny Califf, who brought the average age up and admitted to feeling pretty old out on the field. “I think that also has to do with Peter’s mentality, putting those guys in, giving them a vote of confidence and saying, ‘Look, I believe in you. I think you guys have it in you and I want to give you a chance to show yourselves on a big stage.’
In the end, it was Sebastien Le Toux — who, at only 27, was one of the oldest players on the field for Philly — who scored the only goal to propel the club to three points.
But Sheanon Williams (21), Gabriel and Michael Farfan (23) and goalie Zac MacMath (20) were all instrumental in keeping the Crew off the board, while Freddy Adu (22), Roger Torres (20) and Pfeffer (16) were part of a cohesive attack.
“We’ve fielded a young team before, even if it was in a friendly vs. Everton,” Williams said. “We have a lot of young guys and a lot of young guys who are ready to go. Zach [Pfeffer] has a really good practice this week and got rewarded with a start. And Morgan [Langley] came on, I’m sure with a little bit of nerves, but helped us produce the shutout, along with the rest of the guys.”
Nowak’s decision to feature such a young lineup was, to be sure, aided by the injuries to veterans Justin Mapp (quad strain), Veljko Paunović (calf strain) and goalie Faryd Mondragón (broken finger). And while all three of those players will be instrumental in Philly’s playoff push, it was still nice to know, at least for one game, that the kids can step up when called upon.
“It just shows you, man, you don’t always have to go with veterans to win games,” said Adu, who is of course famous for making his MLS debut at 14. “Soccer is a young man’s game. We’ve got kids who can express themselves, can run around all day and have no fear. That’s what it’s all about.
“I’ve always been a big, big believer in young kids getting chances, especially since I started so young. Today I really liked our lineup and we delivered.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com.