Offseason Issues / Opinion

Offseason Issues: Homegrown players

Photo: Earl Gardner

Whenever I’m on the KYW Philly Soccer Show with Eli and Greg, our discussion always seems to involve Philadelphia Union’s homegrown players.

Will Zach Pfeffer, Jimmy McLaughlin, and Cristhian Hernandez ever see legitimate first team minutes?

At the conclusion of the 2014 season, the Union now have three homegrown players who have been in the system for 9 years combined and played just 272 total minutes. They’ve watched Peter Nowak, Diego Gutierrez, John Hackworth, and Rob Vartughian leave the club. All three have been shuttled back and forth on loan deals, working with a variety of coaches in a variety of settings.

The “home grown” label seems more symbolic than anything. These are supposed to be the local kids, the kids from our market, the kids that come through the youth ranks and realize their dream of playing for the first team. Developing local talent and seeing that talent through is the hallmark of European club soccer, and it’s the strategy that Germany took all the way to this summer’s World Cup win.

That’s why “home grown” talent is always going to be more important than young players who are added to the roster through the draft or by other mechanisms.

Picture yourself as a parent, and you’ve got a skilled son who is being recruited for the Union academy. You see 21-year-old Brian Brown on the field. You see 22-year-old Leo Fernandes on the field. You see Zac MacMath starting as a teenager. What then goes through your head when you see local kids stuck in the pipeline?

If these homegrown players aren’t ready, then they aren’t ready. Maybe they aren’t even good enough, and maybe Peter Nowak and John Hackworth missed the mark when they identified this talent. They certainly wouldn’t be the first HGPs to not pan out. But when you’re going on two, three, and four years in the system, it’s an issue that fans will start to wonder about.

Zach Pfeffer

Date of Birth: January 6, 1995 (age 19)
Signed: December 22, 2010
Career minutes played: 228
Position: central midfield

I reported on Twitter that the Union are interested in keeping Pfeffer around. I’ve been told that Zach’s original deal was a four year contract with a fifth year option. Instead of exercising that option, sources tell me that the club wants to sign him to a new one-year deal with a second option year.

We’ll see what happens there. I’m not sure which way Zach is leaning.

He played in five games this season, but four of those appearances came in garbage time when the game was already out of reach.

Photo by Earl Gardner

Photo: Earl Gardner

In Zach’s lone start, Hackworth tried him at left forward in a 4-3-3 against Vancouver. It didn’t work and Pfeffer was subbed at the half. He doesn’t appear to have the skill set to play those wide positions, and you wouldn’t bench Andrew Wenger or Sebastien Le Toux just to get Pfeffer into the starting 11.

The problem for Zach is that he’s behind Cristian Maidana on the depth chart. Zach plays in central midfield, and he’s not a holder, so that means you’re playing him at the No. 10 or No. 8 where Maidana and Vincent Nogueira currently operate. You aren’t going to drop those guys for Pfeffer, but what you can certainly do is move on from the aging Fred and put Zach on the central midfield depth chart along with Pedro Ribeiro.

Pfeffer has been here for four years and played just 228 senior team minutes. He spent the entirety of 2013 on loan with Hoffenheim and has regularly been called up for international duty with the US U-20 MNT.

You look at some of the other guys who signed HGP deals in 2010, and you see the disparity between their progress and Zach’s. Victor Ulloa and Moises Hernandez started for FC Dallas in the playoffs. Ethan White, who signed his deal with D.C., found himself a starter in Philly. Diego Fagundez is a bright young talent, and Doneil Henry, Juan Agudelo, and Andy Najar have already moved on to Europe.

It’s true that Zach’s story is different. He was signed at age 15 and he’s still technically a teenager. But when you’ve got a guy in your system for that long, and he hasn’t seen legitimate minutes yet, you have to wonder, “If not now, when?” That’s sort of the overarching theme with all three HGPs.

Jimmy McLaughlin

Date of Birth: June 30, 1993 (age 21)
Signed: December 12, 2011
Career minutes played: 18
Position: winger, fullback depth

Jimmy bagged six goals and three assists in a good season with Harrisburg. He got a cameo in the final Union home game of the season and came in as an 89th minute sub.

Photo by Earl Gardner

Photo: Earl Gardner

McLaughlin also spent the entirety of 2013, and most of 2012, on loan with the City Islanders.

Head coach Bill Becher plays McLaughlin on the wing in Harrisburg, and the shape is similar to the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid that was used by Hackworth and Curtin this season. McLaughlin also played some right fullback in 2012, mostly during reserve league games.

McLaughlin provides depth at a spot where Philly doesn’t have much depth, and I could definitely see him coming off the bench for Le Toux or Wenger this season. There’s some upside there, and another loan to Harrisburg won’t do much. You start to see diminishing returns when you send these guys out to the same club, year after year after year.

He needs to come in, have a strong January camp, and fight for a spot in the first team. If that doesn’t work out, he should get loaned out somewhere other than Harrisburg.

Cristhian Hernandez

Date of Birth: October 30, 1993 (age 21)
Signed: March 5, 2012
Career minutes played: 26
Position: winger, fullback depth

Photo by Earl Gardner

Photo: Earl Gardner

I’m not sure what Cristhian’s future is with the team.

He hasn’t played as many minutes as McLaughlin in Harrisburg, and his progress doesn’t seem to mirror that of the other two homegrown players. Other Union loanees, like Pedro Ribeiro and Richie Marquez, also played a bigger role with the team.

Cristhian was used in a bit of a different role with the Islanders, sometimes playing at in the No. 10 spot and sometimes at the No. 6 spot. He’s also played some fullback in Union reserve games, and he’s seen some action in different areas of the field.

Unlike McLaughlin and Pfeffer, Hernandez has ties to other clubs. He was born in Mexico and spent some time in the LA Galaxy youth setup before coming to the east coast. If it doesn’t work out here, he can take his career in a number of directions.


  1. old soccer coach says:

    Hernandez had at least two injuries at Harrisburg. He is not blessed with great speed. When he was on the field he took the free kicks that were offensive. Pfeffer’s start matched him against Nigel Reo-Coker who is a physical moose. Pffeffer will never be a physical moose, but he is the equivalent of a freshman in college now rising to a sophomore. He has time still. Jimmy is right footed, but has a better left than the other starting Harrisburg outside mid, so he played left mostly. He can still improve his strength to avoid getting knocked off the ball, but was effective at the USL PRO level. Hernandez is the greatest doubt for me, Pfeffer needs more time to get stronger. McGlaughlin may be ready to come in on the bench. He may have the skills to take outside defenders one v one, emphasize may because he has not proven it at the MLS level.

  2. Hanging around YSC for my kids’ training or my own games, I can say I definitely have the same questions about what’s going on. From a very superficial view, it looks like there are a good handful of young guys that are really impressive in the training. Their size, strength and skill seem to be at least even, if not above, Jimmy and Christian’s level. I’d love to see some more Home Grown signings in the next 2-3 years, otherwise, we really need to be asking questions about what’s going on in the academy system.

  3. The Realist Brian says:

    Good write up. When the team talks about the Academy as the future, then it should be held accountable to how it develops it’s young players, especially the Home Grown players. When you look at the development at LA or Dallas, they have developed their young players and put them in positions to challenge them. They have grown. Dallas also has jettisoned some of their HG that have stalled and didn’t turn out. And that is a good thing. The Union have tracked more closely to the Red Bulls, who signed players like Kassel and Sacir Hot, and did nothing to develop them, and waived them. If I have a kid coming through the system, I would be extremely leery of this attitude, and maybe that is where Mulensteen can help bridge the gap that was apparent with Hackworth and Curtain (at least Nowak got these kids into games by the way).
    I have also read SI’s take on Fulhamerica, and the most interesting reads came from Emo Hyndeman about how Academy kids treat it as their job, and the intensity level is amazing. He commented on 15 year olds crying because they had been cut (Marco Rues was also cut when he was younger by Dortmund by the way…) and this type of drive to succeed needs to be rewarded so our local talent stays here. Maybe that is why Christian Pulisic and Danny Barbir left to continue their development in Europe. Perhaps they didn’t see the development at the Union academy as where it is needed. (Those would be some good follow up interviews, Kevin.) My point is that the Union needs to get these young players PLAYING so that they are GROWING. Riding the pine or playing against USL talent isn’t doing it for them. The game is slower at that level and we need them to become players accustomed to speed of MLS. Plus if they could consistently learn from Vincent and Chaco in practice, I would rather have that then learning from Yann Ekra and Collin Zizzi (no offense to them, but they aren’t going to be MLS players).

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