A View from Afar

Is it time to reevaluate Zach Pfeffer?

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Is it time to get off the “Zach Pfeffer Potential” train?

The kid is no longer a kid at age 20. And whatever we may see in flashes, we don’t see it over an extended period, do we?

Saturday’s flying forearm against Dallas cut short what had till then been a fairly solid performance from Pfeffer, but one way or another, it demonstrates a trend.

Pfeffer has started four matches in his MLS career. He has stayed on the field past halftime in just one of them, his first.

Granted, he had no business being on that field back in 2011, when he was a mere 15-year-old fledgling prematurely thrown into the mix in an important late season road game against the Red Bulls by mad scientist Peter Nowak. But he most certainly earned each of those last two starts, and he left each match all too early, again because he earned it.

(Let’s not waste time debating whether he earned his ejection. Whether he meant to hit Mauro Diaz or not, whether or not he slipped, anyone who watched the replay can agree that a red card is justified.)

For Union fans, Pfeffer has been a symbol of promise from the moment they first heard of him. Put aside the substance of his actual ability and talent, whatever level they may be in reality. It has been the promise that tantalizes. The local kid who will some day make good. Everyone wants him to succeed. And he has shown so many signs at the youth levels that he can.

But he hasn’t yet at the first team level.

Will he ever? Did people get on the Pfeffer hype train simply because they wanted him to succeed? Is there enough substance there?

These are fair questions to ask.

So how do we answer them?

With patience.

Yes, still patience.

Not just because it’s Pfeffer. Not just because you want him to succeed.

Rather, because at age 20, he is still young and very early in the standard development arc of American players.

Pfeffer’s mistake of judgment was a one-off. His solid play up to that point was not.

Sure, age 20 is not considered as young in European soccer. By then, a player has been in a full-time academy for probably six years.

Not so in the United States. The standard development arc of American players has them peaking around 28 or 29, whereas in Europe, players often begin their downward tilt earlier than that.

Further, Pfeffer has shown well at youth levels to maintain the attention. Is that enough by itself? No.

But he has shown some flashes of being an effective player in MLS as well. He had a good training camp, and he has been fairly good in limited time this season, aside from doing his best UFC imitation against Diaz. He had one very good chance early in the game, and his runs into the box may not have drawn actual passes but showed a dynamic generally lacking from the Union’s other midfielders.

Pfeffer has blown a very good opportunity for playing time with his mistake. In all likelihood, he would have gotten two to four starts, and he would have earned them. Now, he’ll watch.

When will his next chance come? No idea. It probably depends on Cristian Maidana’s health.

Pfeffer looks to have the ability and drive to succeed in MLS.

He better not blow his next chance. You only get so many in this game.


  1. The kid made a mistake kids make. So he’ll get other shots.
    And if it doesn’t work out after seeing that flying elbow he delivered he has a future as a pro wrestler.

  2. He needed to stay on the field this weekend. A really really costly and stupid error by him. Man in futbol as in life as in all sports when opportunity meets preparation you best be prepared to shine. Here’s hoping he gets the opportunity again but who knows. ‘Jackass,’ as my aunt always said.

  3. He made a mistake and now he will pay for it. He played great for 40 minutes. The ability has always been there, but physically he needed to catch up. He is definitely ready. I just hope he doesn’t get shunted out to the wing. Needs to be in the center of the pitch. I’m still dreaming of all the triangles and beautiful passing we would enjoy if he actually formed a midfield trio with Nogueira and Maidana. #NotInMLS #KeepDreaming

  4. Exactly. We wait. Corben Bone was a studs up guy. Pfeffer had one, egregious foul in about three games worth of first team minutes. At that rate, he’s doing terrible (but better than Corben Cleat to the Bone, but he can learn and it could have been an anomaly.
    One worrying thing was Pfeffer’s talk. Either he was out of control or he was lashing out, both are his fault. His language doesn’t really acknowledge that. There is a ceiling for a player who can’t acknowledge responsibility.

    • Atomic Spartan says:

      Probably low on the list of the many things this team needs is media counseling for its players. Mbolhi’s comment after gifting that goal last year was enough to make your blood boil. Pfeffer’s reaction was purely immature. Kids make excuses, men own their mistakes.
      Still, like I said, low on the list. Depth, FO judgement and coaching proficiency are far more pressing problems.

  5. I think our hand is forced a bit. We need players like Zach to succeed, or we’ll never climb above a mid-table, borderline playoff team. If we don’t have a good hit rate on players coming up through the youth pipeline, it seems like the plan breaks down. It doesn’t seem like we’re willing to invest too much in rounding out a MLS ready bench, evidenced by the Norwegian Cruz adventure. Given his track record at the youth level and the promised he showed in preseason, Zach has to be given some real run time and consideration this year.

  6. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Curtin told the boys to get physical with Diaz and get a body on him before the game started. Most players know how to go about doing this, but for a young inexperienced guy, maybe he didn’t know quite how to control it.

    • I think this is right.

    • funny when I was growing up…….you just put one….or two feet into a tackle late, studs up….right through the guy in the first ten minutes of the match to send a signal.

      • old soccer coach says:

        Not these days. And the quality of the referees in MLS when compared with those on either side of the river for high schools is also a factor, as poor as the PRO guys sometimes are.

      • I know OSC, your right…..one foot, your in the book…both, your gone…….but I think you get my point. Zach looked like he was auditioning for Green St. Hooligans 3 with that challenge….

      • Wait, there was a GSH 2?!

      • yeah dude, they are all in jail for the fight at the end of part 1. All the firms have representation in jail…..and the Millwall boys are top dogs. They play in the jail league and it gets interesting…..not nearly as good as 1…but very entertaining!

    • Great point.

  7. instant gratification is abundant in Soccer….said no one ever!

  8. First, part of me feels bad for Zach in the fact that he was fast tracked into this when he was 15 years old. Part of it PR by the Union to make good on their promise to bring young, local talent into the club and part of it maybe naivety on Zach’s part, but you can hardly blame him. I saw him and Darius Madison play a match years ago when they were both frosh in high school. Even then, those two were the best two players on the pitch……they carried themselves different then the rest, they had a gear that no one else had, and they made everyone better around them….the real tell. I can’t help but ask myself: ” what happened to the starry eyed kid with the pedigree to go places?”. Part of me thinks he should have gone to college for a year or two…part of me thinks he should have stayed in Germany if they offered him a contract. Regardless, the question that keeps popping up in my head is why do so many promising teenagers flame out of the game like this……..its something that needs to be addressed. As the article addressed, US players tend to hit their stride a little later than footballers abroad….why? Our players that reach that peak at 28 are not your kids raised in pros or academies. Look at how Clint Demsey raised through the ranks……..first club, than college, than pros. this is usually the track our best have taken. The inception of the DA will change this……but 5 years in and we aren’t really seeing any results yet. IT seems the only thing you see is young talent….getting wasted. Zach is a good, young, technical footballer………..his game my not suit what the Union are trying to do under the current regime. But I don’t think the Union have helped Zach in his development one bit…….actually, it may have had an adverse effect.

    • Could be. Good thinking. I also wonder the extent IMG helps some of the best players- where kids eat sleep and breath the game.
      I’m not so sure kids in the Academy are eating, sleeping and breathing the game.
      I watch the boys at YSC and have said before, they trundle in, they warm up, they practice for 90 minutes, they shower, they roll.
      More often than not we beat them there and leave after they leave.
      Not sure if this has any part in it, and I am uncertain IMG’s real worth, but it seems some of the better players have matriculated through there.

      • IMG has two set ups….one is for the national team camps. IMG also has their own U-14,16, and 18 in the DA, in the southern division. They are decent and send kids to college and a few overseas. But its super expensive…like their baseball, tennis, and golf academies. Your not getting the kid from the street at IMG……your getting the kid who’s parents have some serious stamp!

      • Understood. You are right about the money aspect. Didn’t think of that.

      • the residency closed shop in Bradenton when the academy got rolling. I have had a few players spend a semester at Residency(Bradenton)…….they didn’t think it was anything special……and they also said it wasn’t the best 40 players in the country either…….

      • You know, I’ve seen plenty of Academy matches…but I’ve only seen Continental train. Its interesting that you say that the Union academy’s training doesn’t seem that special……I didn’t think so with Continental either. The only thing I would say is that the players go about their training much differently than your average club player do….much more professional…students of the game.

      • old soccer coach says:

        For what its worth a very good friend of mine, who was for some years an assistant with FC Delco’s u-16s, every time first observation when I manage to get him to get to a Union game with me is the consistency of the techniques in the warm-up. He calls it their professionalism.

      • Yes, they go about their technical repetitions very student like….professional.

    • Great points.

  9. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    Simple answer. Union fans allowed themselved to get hyped up, because quite frankly, alot of them drink the kool aid because they are just happy to finally have proffesional soccer in this town after a few decade absence. Noone know antything about this kid because he had NEVER gotten games. You can’t develop if you can’t play. He should have been in Harrisburg this whole time. But don’t get me started on their youth setup….. another money making scheme. Even if we sign more homegrowns, where are they going to play?

    • Dan, I wouldn’t say that….a lot of local people were watching Pfeffer way before then Union came into the picture……….local footy rats knew he had talent way before he was on TV. Everything else your pretty spot on about……..

    • Thats also been my point this whole time……if your going to be the club that plays the youngins……..then play the youngins…let them develop…then sell them for profit….winning some hardware along the way! Doesn’t really seem that complicated…..

      • They run the club as if they are Real Madrid or Chelsea but only have a can of Folger’s Coffee quarters to pay for the players.
        I agree.
        I can tolerate mediocrity and a steady stream of talented youth piping through- even if that means we scratch our heads over why they never stay.

  10. OneManWolfpack says:

    Why is it time to reevaluate… because he elbowed a guy and got a red card? I think that is very premature. Give the kid a chance. Has he lit the world on fire, no. But I would say he looked decent for 40 minutes and after the suspension, assuming Maidana isn’t healthy, should go right back in the middle of field. He’s 20.

    • fredricschwartz says:

      He was given a chance and he blew it. For himself and the club. I blame him for the loss against Dallas. Now, since our depth chart is looking weak, this could mean another loss or tie against the Fire. Some mistakes have grave repercussions and in this case it was very costly for his team and career. People don’t always have unlimited chances to prove themselves, fair or not. This was a big strike against him.

    • +1. This piece of Dan’s is a whole lotta hand-wringing for one mistake. I would make no substantial judgments about Pfeffer yet other than that he probably deserves some more chances to see what he can bring.

      • I think the incident speaks much about his decision making. Something that goes beyond what a coach can fix.
        I wasn’t there (thank God for the rescheduled game as it turns out) but I watched the replay of the play. He meant to do exactly what he did, and maybe meant to do more. He is lucky he only got two games.
        apologize all you want, but neither his age nor his inexperience justify elbowing someone in the temple.

  11. I usually enjoy Dan’s articles, but did this article need to be written? How many games has he played? He never played in college and was a reserve in the German second division. And breathe.

    • Thanks for the compliment, and totally fair question to ask. (I won’t pretend it’s one of my best columns either. It’s a rush job, unfortunately.)

      Did it need to be written? No.

      But is it fair to ask the question?

      Well, I think some people were asking the question, whether quietly to themselves or out loud. That’s why I wrote it.

      In the end, my conclusion to the question posed in the headline is, “Be patient, he has talent, but he has to make good on the opportunities he gets,” which is probably what most right-minded people were thinking anyway and what you are saying. Maybe that makes the column unnecessary, but I always try to drive conversation with some (hopefully!) interesting and thought-provoking content.

    • the existential necessity of any particular sports blog post (and by implication, any single comment therein) is – perhaps – beyond the purview of this discussion. “you mean, our whole solar system could be like one tiny atom in the fingernail of some other giant being …” reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUOGxePBs50

  12. Hezekiah Ezekial Petershwim says:

    With how injury prone Chaco is, he’ll get more chances.

  13. old soccer coach says:

    I am intrigued by a comment earlier up the page suggesting that the Onion are making money off the academy and school at YSC. How? Do they charge tuition? Are they even accredited as a school, let alone a degree granting institution? Is or are there sources of information out there? I am piqued into curiosity.

    • The Academy, i.e. the high school is about 20K a year. My kid pays $180 for a 7 week session of PDP at YSC which I imagine goes to Mr. Graham and the building. To my understanding, I believe, the club is not a free academy i.e. the U18 U16 U14 Union Academy is pay to belong. I have heard conflicting reports and thought I had it on good authority that it is a pay to belong- would love for someone to finally be able to answer that question.
      The Futures and Juniors are indeed a free call up.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        I would think there are fees, but is it to be believed that is all profit? If they are making money I can’t imagine it’s much at all. To be fair I have no facts to support, it’s just my opinion.

      • I’m pretty sure the Union’s academy is free of charge…it wasn’t at its inception….but I’m pretty sure the residency is free, now. One of the few in the country that is……that is why all the accolades. I personally know of two or three ballers there who pay nothing. All academies should be free…..let the clubs charge all they want…….they are becoming obsolete anyway……

  14. Was this actually a question? He’s 20 and made a dumb mistake, after playing well for the time he was on the field. Chill.

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