When United States U-20 Men's National Team Coach Tab Ramos announced his roster for June's U-20 World Cup, Zach Pfeffer was not on it. Ramos left a spot open for dual-national midfielder Gedion Zelalem, who was trying to attain United States eligibility at the time. If FIFA had not cleared Zelalem to play for the U.S., Pfeffer would have traveled to New Zealand in his stead.
On Sunday night, the 20-year-old from Dresher, Pennsylvania, put the rejection behind him when he slotted home a goal that gave the Union their first win in more than a month.
In second half stoppage time, Fabinho, who entered the game when Ray Gaddis went down injured, sent in an enticing cross from the left wing. Sebastien Le Toux dummied the ball to an unmarked Pfeffer, who took a touch before rifling a shot past Hamid. Overjoyed, he ran aimlessly before his teammates tackled him. Elation emanated from both the field and the stands.
Pfeffer is looking forward to more moments like that, even if they won't come on the international stage.
"I'm definitely disappointed not to have made the final roster, but that's gonna happen in this profession. There's gonna be ups and there's gonna be downs, and I have to use moments like that as momentum," Pfeffer said. "I believe I'm in a pretty good spot with the team here. I'm happy to be here, and at the end of the day your first priority is your club team."
The goal was a deserved reward for a Union team that outworked and outclassed a league-leading D.C. United squad. Only one goal separated the two sides, but the margin could have been much larger were it not for the heroics of Bill Hamid.
In the 45th minute, Brian Carroll flicked on a Sheanon Williams' long throw. The ball found Conor Casey, who was all alone on the top of the six-yard box. The lumbering forward redirected the cross toward goal, but Hamid was there to push it away. The chance was Casey's night in microcosm.
With Fernando Aristeguieta on international duty and CJ Sapong still in treatment after his DUI arrest, the 33-year-old forward was called on to make his first start of the season. He went the full 90 minutes for the first time since last July, as injuries prevented Jim Curtin from subbing him off.
"Before the game, I looked around and said, 'I need 90 minutes from all of you.' Then I looked at Conor and said, 'I need 60,'" Curtin quipped.
Casey turned in an admirable performance, holding up the ball well and finding his teammates. While he did well in the build up, Casey had a rough day in front of the net. Only two of his four shots were on target, and neither of them found the net. Additionally, Casey had a goal called back in the 17th minute, as he was judged to have brought the ball down with his hand. Though he failed to score, Curtin was proud of the striker's play.
"He gave me everything he had," Curtin said. "For him to go 90 minutes and win head balls and give us life, it's incredible."
Despite the win, the highlight of the night may have been the clean sheet, the Union's first since the season opener. In his finest performance of 2015, Maurice Edu racked up 21 recoveries, the most a non-goalkeeper has recorded in a single game this season. After the game, Edu was quick to credit his teammates' play.
"I thought we defended well, not just the back line and not just Brian [Sylvestre]," Edu said. "Brian Carroll, Vincent, the guys on the wings, as a group, we were really strong defensively."
Edu and his teammates didn't even allow a shot on goal, stomping on every chance before it could develop. United's closest chance came in the 50th minute, when rookie Miguel Aguilar shook a few Union defenders before striking the ball towards the far post. Luckily for the Union, the ball hit the post and bounced clear. Perhaps on any other night for this Union team, that ball somehow finds its way into the net. Tonight, it did not.
After Sunday night's long-awaited win and the encouraging performance to go with it, Jim Curtin remained unsatisfied.
"I never feel relief. I'm happy when we win, that's the way I am. But I don't dwell on it too long," Curtin said. "We won a soccer game at home. That's what you're supposed to do."