Zach Pfeffer insists on being a normal 16-year-old.
He lives in Dresher, Pa., about 45 minutes from PPL Park. He recently got his driver’s license. He goes to Upper Dublin High School. He hangs out with his friends.
But he also plays professional soccer.
Pfeffer is a special talent, which is why the Philadelphia Union signed him as their first Homegrown Player at the age of 15.
Pfeffer became the first player to join the Union from the MLS Homegrown Player initiative, a program started in 2006 to incentivize clubs to develop local talent. Each MLS team may sign players from their respective youth development programs without subjecting them to the MLS SuperDraft.
Pfeffer was born on Jan. 6, 1995, making him the fourth-youngest player ever to sign an MLS contract, behind Freddy Adu, Fued Ibrahim, and New England Revolution Homegrown Player Diego Fagundez.
But the 5-foot-7, 140-pound midfielder doesn’t pay attention to his age. He knows he’s 16. In spite of the increased media scrutiny, his life hasn't changed as much as you might think.
“What’s interesting,” Pfeffer said after a recent Union training session, “is that I’ve lived this life for a while. I wasn’t sure I’d get signed. What I mean is that soccer has been such a big part of my life that I was used to a hectic schedule. It’s normal to me, I guess. It sounds crazy and all. My parents have made an incredible sacrifice for me and I think it’s awesome. I just go about my business every day like a normal kid.”
Normal? Well, not quite.
Pfeffer attends morning classes before heading to Union training sessions, when most students his age are mulling around their school cafeteria. Recently, it was a long trip to Florida and Greece with his Union teammates for extended preseason training. So Pfeffer packed up his schoolwork and took everything with him.
“We trained really hard and I learned so much in Florida and Greece,” Pfeffer said. “I had a good bit of down time. During that time, I did my work for school. I’m so used to it that it didn’t seem weird. I know, it’s kind of crazy because we were in Greece for a good bit. I got my work done just like I was home.”
On the field, Pfeffer’s teammates are very impressed with the teenager. He scored his first goal as a professional during preseason, a rocket from 35 yards out against UCF.
“He is very skilled with the ball,” said second-year forward Danny Mwanga. “He has all the tools to be successful. He works hard and listens to the staff. He’s a great teammate and we’re lucky to have him.”
“Since Zach began training with us, we could see right away his talent level,” added forward Sebastien Le Toux. “With his work ethic, his potential is so great. I’ll be looking forward to his progress this season.”
Before signing with the first team, Pfeffer was a member of the Union youth side that competed in the U-17 SUM Cup in Houston.
Pfeffer eventually became the first academy member to train with the Union and he even entered a friendly against Chivas Guadalajara as a substitute on September 1.
“I was so nervous before the [Chivas] match," Pfeffer recalled. "When I went in, it was kind of like a blur. I was so happy and excited at the same time. I had friends and family there all cheering for me. I talked to a lot of them after the match. It was a special day for me and always will be. I won’t ever forget it.”
Union fans are anticipating another milestone for the youngster: his first appearance in a league match. For his part, Pfeffer is just enjoying the ride.
“It’s been a dream scenario for me,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be a professional soccer player. Getting there is really cool.”
So, is it really normal?
“OK, maybe not the professional soccer part,” he said, laughing. “In every other way, I am a normal teenager.”