Wealth of young players lead charge for Union vs. Everton

Hernandez, McLaughlin debut, take down EPL visitors

CHESTER, Pa. — Amobi Okugo looked around and got a weird feeling late in the Philadelphia Union’s international exhibition against Everton FC at PPL Park on Wednesday.

“I felt a little old,” the 20-year-old said with a smile. “It was crazy.”

It’s not very often that Okugo plays with younger players, but with little at stake other than pride, the Union inserted academy players Christian Hernandez and Jimmy McLaughlin into the friendly, as well as 16-year-old rookie Zach Pfeffer.

Then a funny thing happened — the kids led the Union to an impressive 1-0 victory over the English Premier League side.

“I wish I had this opportunity when I was 16 [or] 17,” Okugo said. “They did a great job coming in, [and] our level actually increased. I’m happy for those guys and hopefully they’ll use it as motivation to keep playing well.”

The night was especially magical for Hernandez, a 17-year-old rising senior at St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey and the US Soccer U-17/18 Development Academy Player of the year.

In the waning minutes, Hernandez jumped on a loose ball in the box and blasted home the game’s only goal. In his emotional celebration afterwards, he was on the verge of tears.

“Oh man,” the 17-year-old said, searching for words. “It was shocking coming in and getting that chance, and putting it in was an amazing feeling. To be honest, it felt like a dream. When I was running, it felt like I was floating.”

McLaughlin, a recent graduate of nearby Great Valley High School who will play for Colgate University in the fall, was impressive as well, showcasing terrific speed on the ball in the middle of the field.

And then there was Pfeffer, who at 16 is the youngest of the three, but the only one who’s an official member of the club. Having also gotten playing time during an international friendly last year (before he was signed), Pfeffer could relate to what the two academy players were feeling when they made their unofficial Union debuts.

“It was nervewracking at first when I came on and played against Chivas de Guadalajara last year, and that was the same situation they were in today,” Pfeffer said. “You’ve just got to relax and do what you’ve got to do. Just go in and enjoy it.”

Pfeffer did that last year and ended up being signed as the club’s first Home Grown player this past offseason. Both McLaughlin and Hernandez showed Wednesday that either one of them could be next.

“Us being younger players, we want to prove ourselves and show everyone we belong here,” Pfeffer said. “I think we did that.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.