CHESTER, Pa. — One name stood out when the Union released their starting XI for a pivotal Eastern Conference clash against the first-place Columbus Crew on Saturday: 16-year-old Zach Pfeffer.
Pfeffer had previously seen time in friendlies and the MLS Reserve League, but never had he seen the field in regular season play. That all changed when an overflow crowd of 18,906 witnessed Pfeffer put in 61 minutes of solid work as Philadelphia snapped an eight-match winless drought, edging Columbus 1-0.
For Pfeffer, the first and currently only Home Grown Player in Union history, it was a night to remember.
“I was a little nervous and excited at the same time," Pfeffer said after the match. "It was cool to be in the starting lineup. It’s something I’ve always dreamed of since I was really young. Once I got a few minutes under me, I felt better and a little more relaxed.”
In a game many were labeling the most important in franchise history, manager Peter Nowak showed a great deal of faith in the youngest player on his roster.
"I think he was nervous as soon as he saw his name on the board," said Nowak. "He sensed he might start a game. During practice he was very good. He was playing with the first team. I think everyone welcomed him in very well and the 60 minutes he played was good stuff.
"I think he is a confident guy with experience already being abroad [training with Hoffenheim] and training with us and knowing the culture and knowing what the team needs. Big step for him but he fully deserved the step."
Pfeffer nearly turned an unforgettable night into a dream debut when he took a cross from Sebastien Le Toux, turned and fired on target in the 42nd minute, but Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer was in position to make the save.
“That would have been incredible," said Pfeffer. "Hopefully, I’ll have more chances [in future matches].”
The missed opportunity did nothing to spoil the Dresher, Pa. native's surprise debut.
“I’ve worked hard every day," said Pfeffer. "It felt great to be rewarded with a start. I can’t say I was expecting it, but I sure was happy about it. To be playing in an MLS stadium so close to my home — it’s really an incredible situation for me.”
Whether Pfeffer becomes an instrumental part of Philadelphia's lineup rotation down the stretch remains to be seen. What is clear is that the fourth-youngest player ever to sign an MLS contract has earned the trust of the technical staff, no small accomplishment for a mid-teenager.
“I don’t know what the future looks like," Pfeffer said. "I will continue to come in every day like I have been and keep working just as hard — that won’t change. I treat every practice the same way and give it my best.”
Pfeffer was quick to point out the support his teammates have provided since he signed a pro contract as a 15-year-old on December 22. That support continued on Saturday when Pfeffer needed it most.
"I think its great for him being 16 and starting his first game with us," said Le Toux, whose seventh goal of the season stood as the game-winner. "I just told him to stay confident and that once you find the rythym of the game you will see what you have to do. I also told him not to put any added pressure on himself. I just told him to have fun and enjoy the game."
Judging by the mile-wide smile on his face after the game, it's safe to say Pfeffer enjoyed every minute of his time in the spotlight.
"I’ve been putting in a lot of work and doing well in training over the last couple of weeks, which I think definitely shows that hard work pays off," said Pfeffer. "I’m just thankful the coaches had the trust to put me out there and start me this game."