The Philadelphia Union created a huge splash this week when they made 15-year-old Zach Pfeffer the fourth-youngest signee in MLS history.
And now that Pfeffer has blazed a trail to PPL Park, the Union hope many other youngsters can follow in his footsteps.
“It’s a stairway,” Union assistant John Hackworth said. “And if you’re good enough, you’ll gradually go one from step to the next.”
Pfeffer’s signing is the first giant step to success for the Union’s youth program, which was officially unveiled in late November. The ambitious program works with the region’s elite young soccer players beginning at 8 years old, and the Union believe it’s the key to progressing from a fledgling expansion squad in 2010 to a league power sometime in the near future.
While honing homegrown talent is not unique in itself, starting at such a young age while working together with the local soccer community – rather than alienating it – is what Hackworth says sets the Union’s program apart from others.
The Union’s official youth development partner, YSC Sports, boasts a state-of-the-art training facility in Wayne, Pa. and provides free training and competition opportunities for elite players in a “club-neutral” format – meaning those players can remain registered with their club teams while receiving supplemental training from the Union.
In April, Step I, the YSC Union Juniors program, was launched for kids ages 8-12 and was an overwhelming success, with over 550 of the area’s top players receiving training at YSC. In November, the Union and YSC simultaneously launched Steps II and III of the program – the Union Juniors Academy (ages 13-14) and the Union Youth Academy (ages 15-18).
The fourth and final step of the program is a spot on the Union’s senior team, reserve team and/or one of their professional affiliates, the Harrisburg City Islanders or Reading United. And then, for the very few talented youngsters like Pfeffer, there’s the shot to sign an MLS contract under the league’s Home Grown initiative.
“This is really something different than what other MLS teams do,” Hackworth said. “They just have the individual academy. We still have that. … But if you want to develop long-term, you have to start with the youngest. You have to create the best environments and make sure you have the greatest influence on their fundamentals as a player.”
Perhaps there’s no one better to oversee such a long-term project than Hackworth, who spent six years running the prestigious U.S. U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla. When he joined the Union coaching staff last year, team manager Peter Nowak and CEO Nick Sakiewicz asked him if he wanted to start a similar academy in Philadelphia.
Hackworth, however, had grander plans.
“I basically said, ‘Look, I was in charge of doing that for the whole country. Now that I’m in one city, let’s see if we can really improve the player environment for everybody,’” Hackworth said. “That was the basis for that idea.”
The program, of course, is not for everyone. Most 8-year-olds who start training at YSC will not hear their names blasted over the PPL Park loudspeaker one day. But Hackworth says having this model in place is good for the development of players at all skill levels.
“While our end goal is for a kid to play in PPL Park and represent the Philadelphia Union first team one day, we completely understand that’s only for the very few and far between,” Hackworth said. “For the majority of kids, this is truly a program that can help them reach their full potential and hopefully give them a long-lasting love for the game, no matter what they do.”
Hackworth noted the team also has to be careful with what players they choose to sign to Home Grown deals because they have to sacrifice a lot, including the opportunity to play college soccer.
Pfeffer was the perfect choice not only because of the talent he displayed on the U-17 level, but also because of his commitment to the sport and the team. Pfeffer, a sophomore at Upper Dublin High School in Fort Washington, Pa., began training with the Union first team last spring while taking most of his classes online.
In a conference call after he was signed Wednesday, Pfeffer said that he definitely doesn’t have a “normal 15-year-old teen life,” but that his daily routine isn’t even that overwhelming for him.
And his mother, Margie, admitted that for a kid who always picked up a ball rather than a toy while growing up, this was “an absolute dream come true.”
The question now, though, is how many more Zach Pfeffers are streaming through the Union pipeline?
“I think there are quite a few kids in the U-17 program that are of a similar mindset and have similar potential,” Hackworth said. “But it’s a big decision for an individual and a family. You have to give up a lot along the way and we want to be very careful about these opportunities.
“It has to be the right individual in the right situation,” Hackworth added. “If we sign a Home Grown player, he not only has to have the talent and potential to one day be a really good pro but he has the commitment and the mindset to do it.”