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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Friday, January 15, 2016

Pondering the legacy of Zach Pfeffer

The Union bid farewell to Homegrown player Zach Pfeffer
after five seasons Friday in a deal with Colorado. (Times File)
An era ended Friday for the Philadelphia Union.

It wasn’t directly related to coaches or management or anything like that.

What ended Friday was the age of affixing outsized significance to the on-field actions of Zach Pfeffer on his narrow shoulders.

A bunch of other switches flipped with the trade of the 21-year-old midfielder to Colorado as the player to be named in the deal that landed the Union the No. 2 pick in Thursday’s SuperDraft and defender Joshua Yaro.

Pfeffer’s departure marks a clear end of what we can call the Nowak/Hackworth era of Homegrown signings, Pfeffer joining fellow honorees Jimmy McLaughlin and Cristhian Hernandez in the hallowed ranks of former Union members in a campaign that has been an unabashed failure. Pfeffer’s trade kicks out the crutch that often buckled under the weight of the Nick Sakiewicz regime that trumpeted commitment to Homegrown players out of one side of its mouth and whose only recourse was to point to Pfeffer in a desperate act of HG tokenism. (“See, we’re committed to Homegrowns. Look how Zach Pfeffer almost played last week.”)

Pfeffer’s departure epitomized the way in which his Union stint was always cast. The fact that the trade news was first broadcast to season-ticket holders – not to the media, as another player’s routine swap to greener pastures would – indicates Pfeffer’s unofficial role as player-ambassador. The facts of Pfeffer’s Union career – 30 games, 14 starts, three goals, one assists – require research to pin down. The concrete designations about Pfeffer’s origins as a pro, that he signed in 2010 while still 15 days short of his 16th birthday, that he’s the fourth-youngest signee in MLS history and the first of what was then promised to be many Homegrown Union talents, are rote memory at this point, often background relied on to fill the dearth of actual stats accumulated on the pitch. The fact that I feel compelled to write about the legacy of a kid who could only start legally drinking two weeks ago is in itself indicative of the demagoguery that Pfeffer has been subjected to with his hometown club.

Yet even on his departure, Pfeffer remained pure class for the organization that gave him his start:

Pfeffer’s development has been stop-start, hardly making him unique among teens in pro soccer. He waited three-plus seasons to get meaningful opportunities with the Union. The USL relationship with Harrisburg City thoroughly failed Pfeffer, affording a paltry 341 minutes over the last two seasons combined. (Compare that to Richie Marquez’s 2,520 in 2014.) He’s done all this while the Union had never quite settled on a position for him, playing him as a No. 8 (not defensive enough), a No. 10 (not creative enough) and as a winger (not a good enough crosser, maybe?).

And he’s around the same age as most of Thursday’s draftees, making you wonder just how much the Union paid for the No. 2 pick (plus allocation money) in search of an immediate impact while shipping a player tabbed to make an impact out of town. The irony that the Union’s only Homegrown success became compensation to rectify yet another Homegrown failure (the club’s inability to secure Keegan Rosenberry via the mechanism and forcing him into the crapshoot of a draft) is palpably so Union.

Some of the blame surely falls on Pfeffer. Expectations last season were that he would get in the starting lineup and grab hold of the chance, though that never happened. He seems to have stumbled at that next step, going from a member of the 18 to an unquestioned member of the starting XI, though hardly in a way that banished any hope of him contributing in 2016.

All that is to say that for the first time in his career, Pfeffer has the chance at a clean slate. The Rapids won’t hold him up as the shiny paragon of a clearly inadequate homegrown system. They won’t repeatedly traipse him before the media and the fan community as proof of the functionality of an edifice clearly bereft of it, as a superficial commitment to a team that reflects Philadelphia. (It must be said that at a young age, Pfeffer has engaged the Union community warmly and with maturity beyond his years, including an event hours before he was sent west.)

Colorado may not be the perfect fit for Pfeffer, and he wouldn’t be the first promising young talent to flounder in the thin atmosphere and thinner tactical ideology of Denver. But for the first time, Pfeffer won’t be playing in the shadow of an organization’s half-hearted dogma.

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