As much as 2010 has been a whirlwind year for soccer in Philadelphia, it’s been just as dizzying for 15-year-old academy member Zach Pfeffer.
The teenage phenom -- who has played in both the U-14 and U-15 national team pools -- started training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FLA as part of U.S. Soccer’s residency program for six months starting in January. He began training with the Union academy in May before joining Philadelphia’s U-17 squad in July for the U-17 SUM Cup in Houston, Texas. Becoming the first-ever academy member to train with the first team in August, Pfeffer then had a rare and thrilling opportunity to see action in an international friendly against storied Mexican side Chivas de Guadalajara, coming on as a substitute in the 82nd minute on September 1.
Fortuntely for Pfeffer and the Union, the youngster’s maturity is far more advanced than his age. Perhaps that’s why the technical staff felt comfortable sending him overseas to continue his training with 1899 Hoffenheim of the German Bundesliga.
“The objective of sending him over was to expose him to some different environments that at the moment he is not exposed to,” Union Coach/Youth Development Coordinator John Hackworth told philadelphiaunion.com on Thursday. “Hoffenheim has one of the best youth academies and we have a good relationship with their coach and the director over there. They were nice enough when we inquired to say that they would love to have him over and train for a couple weeks.
“It is a great experience for him, especially when the first team is not training and Zach otherwise would have a little bit of a down time. It’s important that we keep trying to push him and this will probably push him, open his eyes to the German player development model, and hopefully that will result in him pushing himself going forward.”
[inline_node:288097]Pfeffer left for Germany last Friday and will return the Sunday after Thanksgiving. What level of competition Pfeffer ultimately encounters in his time with Hoffenheim remains to be seen.
“It depends; it depends on how well he does there,” Hackworth continued. “He will definitely train with the academy, but he can prove himself through his training. When you talk about a youth program that is based on ability and not age, and you have a kid like Zach Pfeffer who goes into Hoffenhein, say they start him off training with the U-18 academy but he is clearly heads and tails above the level of play on the field. Then, right away the next day they will bump him up to the U-19’s or to the reserves, or they might put him with the first team.
“There is this progression and this tiered system - if they are exceeding expectations they get moved up, and if they aren’t meeting expectations they either get moved down or they don’t last. That is something that we will have built into our academy program based on the way that we set it up and that is what Zach is in right now. He has got to compete every day at Hoffenheim to try and get moved up, while at the same time making sure he is getting as much as he can out of the experience.”
Pfeffer’s experience with Hoffenheim will serve as ammunition on his mission to sign with the Union and walk out on the field at PPL Park for a league match. Early indications are encouraging, according to Hackworth, which is saying an awful lot for someone who still takes classes at Upper Dublin High School in the morning before being driven to training by his mother.
“With a lot of young players it is just opening their eyes to the level. For Zach, certainly everything that we do with the first team he hasn’t been a part of before. A lot of it is like being a little kid in a candy shop. There is a lot of stuff to look at and there is so much to soak in and that is what it was initially about.
“But he got settled in, he got to know the guys, he got to know the coaches and what their expectations are and we treated him like we treat any of our first team players. When he is out there he is expected to train hard, try and improve daily because he is capable of playing at that level and he didn’t let the level down. That’s a testament to him and his ability, but at the same time he has a lot of areas that he has to improve if he really wants to blossom and excel at this level.”
A little German seasoning in the offseason can’t hurt.