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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Union's Pfeffer stars with goal, assist for U-20s

While the American soccer world ponders the fate of Team USA as it embarks on the next World Cup cycle, a member of the Philadelphia Union took one of the first concrete steps toward U.S. Soccer’s march into the future.

Zach Pfeffer scored a goal and added an assist in a tidy, productive 28 minutes as a substitute, leading the U-20s to a 2-1 win over Chile Monday night in the NTC Invitational in Carson, Calif. (Writeups by Top Drawer, Yanks Abroad and SoccerAmerica.)

The four-team tournament this week isn’t exactly the headliner for the program this summer, but it’s a good chance for Pfeffer to get some matches and prove his worth outside of the club setting.

The Union forward and Dresher native set up the first goal just three minutes after entering (video above) by delivering an inch-perfect free kick to the head of fellow sub Andrija Novakovich, who plays for Reading in England.

In the 73rd minute, Pfeffer provided the winner by turning in a pass from Paul Arriola, sealing a win for the U.S. in the first game of three.

“I always tell the guys that if you get the opportunity to play two minutes or five or 90, you have to try to make an impact,” U.S. U-20 coach Tab Ramos said in a video by U.S. Soccer. “And I think those guys did a good job. They took advantage of their opportunities and lifted the team to a win. I’m very happy for them, and happy for the team.”

“Anytime you come off the bench, especially when you’re representing your country, you just want to come in and make as big of an impact as possible,” Pfeffer said. “In the game, we were down 1-0 against Chile, about 25-30 minutes left, and I just had to come on and help the team in the best way possible and try to make a difference.”

The NTC Invitational holds implications in both the micro and macro sense. For Pfeffer, his performance is one that his club manager certainly noticed.

“He was very good,” Jim Curtin said Tuesday. “The Chilean teams are always very, very strong at the young ages. They have very technical players. The game set up nicely for Zach. He’s a guy I’ve had since he was 16 years old, so we know what kind of quality he has.”

Pfeffer, the Union’s first ever Homegrown Player signee in 2010 and the fourth-youngest player to sign an MLS contract, has played in four games (one start) this season for a grand total of 81 minutes. That’s an improvement over the lone appearance he received over the previous two seasons after three in 2011.

Curtin made clear why Pfeffer’s playing time is low: The 19-year-old is a talented, technical player, but consistency is an issue. That’s a conversation player and coach have had, and they are in accord as to what must improve. But when you consider the player that Curtin likens Pfeffer to, it’s apparent that he’s held in high regard.

Zach Pfeffer, here training with the Union during preseason,
had a goal and an assist with the United States U-20 team Monday.
(Times Herald/GENE WALSH)
“I see a kid like Diego Fagundez, and I see Zach in the same light as him. They’re similar players,” Curtin said, referencing the New England Revolution forward who is a month younger than Pfeffer, signed a Homegrown contract a month earlier and has made 74 MLS appearances, scoring 21 goals and 13 assists. (Fagundez, who was born in Uruguay and has appeared for their U-20 team, is open to playing for the U.S. once his citizenship becomes finalized in a couple of years.)

“Has Diego gotten more of a chance and gotten thrown out there? Absolutely. Zach is a guy, he even says, ‘yeah I agree. That’s the type of player I should be. I should be scoring goals in MLS from that wide spot and being dangerous.’”

Tournaments like the NTC Invitational are important in the long view of the U.S.’s competitive future ($). The youth ranks have fallen on hard times of late, with the U-20 team bowing out of the 2013 World Cup in the group stage after failing to qualify for the 2011 tournament with a team featuring the Union’s Zac MacMath and Amobi Okugo. (The U-17 team also failed to qualify for the 2013 World Cup.)

In dissecting Germany’s World Cup triumph Sunday, we see the effect of youth development in stocking the ludicrous stables of talent accrued by the Germans, a process aided by U.S. and former Germany coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s focus on youth teams and player development. He’ll be the architect of all levels of U.S. Soccer for the next four years, a chance to put his fingerprints on the American establishment.

With qualification for the 2015 World Cup in New Zealand looming in January via the CONCACAF U-20 Championship, Pfeffer figures to play a key role. Before the addition of San Jose’s Tommy Thompson Tuesday, a veteran of one MLS minute, Pfeffer was the lone member of the 20-man roster with MLS experience. Pfeffer may not be the foremost candidate as a young dark horse to figure into the national team’s march toward Russia in four years (though he’s getting some hype), but he's managed to be a fixture at various levels through the years and could very easily end up taking the next step.

Plus, he’s catching the eye of his current boss, even from afar.

“People forget how young he is,” Curtin said. “The fact that he’s still with the U20 national team makes me smile, because it feels like he’s been on the Union for 10 years. Great performance last night, and I’m proud of him.”

Pfeffer will be in action again Wednesday when the U.S. takes on Bermuda at 4 p.m., then Friday night against Australia at 7. Both games are slated to be live streamed on

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