Going into their match against the Columbus Crew, the Philadelphia Union and their supporters talked up tonight as perhaps the most important in club history. The first-place Crew came into Chester leading the Union by five points in the standings, with one match in hand. A Union victory would do two things: snap an eight-match winless streak in MLS play, and put the Union right back in the thick of the race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. As it turned out, Union manager Piotr Nowak managed to shift the focus of attention of fans, media and players alike with a mere seven letters: 'PFEFFER'.
In a highly unexpected move, Nowak put the 16 year-old's last name onto his side's starting roster card. There had been talk all year that Pfeffer would see time in MLS play at some point during the season, but to give him his first minutes in a starting role for the club's biggest tilt of the year thus far? No one -- including Pfeffer himself -- expected that. He, and his parents, had no idea about Nowak's decision until early this evening, and the team actually had to call his parents at their home in Dresher to tell them that they might want to make sure to arrive at PPL Park in time for kickoff.
In the minutes that Pfeffer has played for the Union in reserve matches and international friendlies, he's looked surprisingly comfortable and in-sync, and tonight was no different. He was aggressive, but stable in his 62 minutes of play in midfield tonight. He had an excellent chance setup by Sebastien Le Toux, and on several occasions surprised those in the standing-room only crowd and watching on TV with a great cut or an incredible turn. It's hard to argue that his debut appearance was anything but special.While the surprise of Pfeffer's debut may have temporarily overshadowed the implications that this match had in the standings, it's hard to overstate the importance of the Union finally getting back on track. And they took three points from Columbus while playing in a way that can only be described as their "April 2011" form. They were far from dominant from the opening kick, despite the Union having a full week in between matches and the Crew playing their third in eight nights. In fact, one could argue that the Crew seemed, for the most part, in control of the first thirty minutes or so of the match. The Union weren't generating much offensively, and the chances they created weren't being finished, while they were somewhat lucky not to be trailing. It's a nail biting, and not always effective, style of play that won them several matches earlier in the season, and got them three points again tonight.
In the 32nd minute, Roger Torres sent a perfect long ball towards Le Toux as he was charging down the middle of the pitch, splitting two Crew defenders. Le Toux caught up to the ball at the top of the 18-yard box and chipped it to the right of goalkeeper Will Hesmer, who had come out just shy of the penalty spot marker to cut down the angle, to give the Union the lead. It was their first lead in MLS play in over a month, and unlike that night against the Houston Dynamo, Philadelphia would not relinquish this one.
Strong performances from Brian Carroll, Carlos Valdes and Sheanon Williams, and another confidence-building ninety minutes for Zac MacMath kept the team above water, so to speak, as they attempted to find a second goal. In particular, Roger Torres had one of his better performances of the year. The flashes of brilliance Union fans have become so accustomed to seeing from Torres seem to be slowly but surely appearing more often, and truth be told, his play of late has been more deserving of Designated Player status than Freddy Adu's. But try as they might, the Union remained stuck on one goal.
The Union remain in third place in the Eastern Conference, but made up major ground, and still have a match in hand against both Columbus and Sporting Kansas City, who lost tonight at Real Salt Lake, and will host the Union this coming Friday.