Zach Pfeffer thought he earned it. He had already had two substitute appearances in the first two games of the season, so when head coach Jim Curtin named him to the starting XI for the FC Dallas game, he was ready.
And then it happened.
While attempting to chase down a ball to regain possession, Pfeffer collided with FC Dallas midfielder Mauro Diaz, sending him spinning to the ground. The referee immediately marched over to Pfeffer and showed him a straight red card.
“I was going so fast, I don’t even think there was enough time to slow down and I slipped a little bit and he tried to cut it back so he turned into my arm which was extended more with absolutely no intent,” said Pfeffer after the game. “I was expecting to go shoulder to shoulder with him and bump him off the ball but that is not what happened. They thought I raised my elbow and did it intentionally so [a red card] was the decision.”
He would be suspended for the next two games against the Chicago but ended up being called up to the U-23 U.S. Men’s National Team for their friendly against Denmark on March 31. While the U-23 team lost, Pfeffer got some valuable playing time after being subbed on in the 59th minute.
Pfeffer returned from international duty, intent on proving his quality to his coaches. He did just that by scoring his first goal of the year in his first game back, a tap in from just in front of the net against New York City FC, in a game that the Union would go on to win 2-1.
After the NYCFC game at home, Pfeffer was subbed on in the return fixture on April 16, helping his team to a 1-1 draw. The following day, Pfeffer was called up to the U-20 USMNT squad for the final camp before the U-20 World Cup in late May.
He started and played against the New England Revolution, and then after the game flew over to Austria where the camp was being held.
“It was my first camp with the U-20’s in a while and I’m really good friend with all the guys on the team so it was cool to be back playing with them,” Pfeffer said at the time.
Making the most of his chance, Pfeffer started the friendly against Croatia, notching the game-winning assist as the U-20s prevailed 1-0. After the camp, Pfeffer had some discussions with the coaches and felt confident that he was going to be on the final roster when head coach Tab Ramos made his decision.
When the initial roster was released on May 8, Pfeffer was not included due to the addition of Gedion Zelalem, a dual-national whose status as a U.S. player was being decided by FIFA. At the time, Zelalem had not been cleared by FIFA and if that remained the case on May 15, when the final roster was due, Pfeffer would be included in the team as a substitution for Zelalem.
“I was disappointed not being on the roster regardless of what happened with Gedion,” Pfeffer said. “I felt that I had played well enough and that there was a good chance that I could go.”
With his shot at a World Cup up in the air, Pfeffer buried his head and focused on preparing for the D.C. United, a game he was planning on playing in regardless of his international duties. Unfortunately for Pfeffer, Zelalem was cleared to play on May 13, leaving him just short of making the roster.
Flash forward to Sunday’s game against D.C. United, where Pfeffer came on as a substitute in the 71st minute. Pfeffer played well when given the chance, holding the ball in possession, sending searching balls into the box and winning free kicks.
As the clock ran down, five minutes of extra time were added, and Pfeffer and the Union took full advantage.
After a spell of possession, Fabinho found himself with the ball on the left-hand wing. He crossed it in to Sebastian Le Toux, who faked as if he was going to touch the ball but instead let it run through to the middle of the box.
And, of course, who was waiting in the box? Zach Pfeffer.
“I kind of anticipated [the fake], which is good," Pfeffer said. "I thought I got myself in a good spot, and was hoping he would let it go, which he did, so it was good recognition from Seba. I took a touch and put it away.”
The goal ended up being the deciding force in the game, which ended the Union’s skid of five straight games without a win.
“Zach is a great, young player,” Curtin said. “People still forget that he’s 20 years old. He brings it every day in training now. I believe that if you work hard good things will happen and Zach’s been a real bright spot for us, and not just because he scored tonight, but because there’s more to his development and his growth than the score sheet.”
Despite his snub from the U-20 team, Pfeffer looks to build on this experience, both from club and for country, working on his game until U.S. Soccer comes calling again.
“I have to use moments like that as momentum and I did that tonight and I just want to keep moving forward,” said Pfeffer. “It’s a bump in the road, but I believe I’m in a pretty good spot here, with the team here. I’m happy, I’m happy to be here.”