As if the Philadelphia Union’s 1-0 win over Chivas Guadalajara Wednesday wasn’t an interesting enough storyline, the MLS expansion club made a substitution in the 82nd minute that got the attention of all fans in attendance and soccer enthusiasts nationwide. Out went Michael Orozco Fiscal, and on came 15-year-old Zach Pfeffer. The FC Delco product was getting the opportunity of a lifetime against one of the most storied soccer clubs in the world.
Pfeffer is a member of the Union’s burgeoning youth academy and has been training with the first team for several weeks. Discovered by Coach/Youth Development Coordinator John Hackworth, who oversees Philadelphia’s player development, Pfeffer has impressed at every level and parlayed his dynamic skills into a position few U.S. youth internationals have been in before.
“Before I got here, when I was the Technical Director of the U.S. Development Academy, our scouting network had identified him,” Hackworth explained to philadelphiaunion.com on Thursday. “He had come out and played in the U-14 National Team pool, then he played in the U-15's. Since I oversaw all of those programs, that’s the first time I was in contact with him. He was one of the best U-15's in the country.
“He later got called into residency last January. So he’s been in residency for one semester. He trained full-time with us (the Union academy) in May, June and July prior to the [U-17] SUM Cup, so we had a chance to evaluate him. After the SUM cup, we came to [Manager] Peter [Nowak] and recommended him.”
Pfeffer is the first-of-a-kind for Philadelphia, but according to Hackworth and CEO & Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz he won’t be the last.
“We always wanted to give some training opportunities with the first team to some of those guys (academy players), and he was the best candidate to do that,” said Hackworth. “He’s in our youth academy, he currently trains with our first team, and because last night was an international friendly, we decided to give him the opportunity. He earned it, and he did very well in his minutes.”
“This is what great soccer clubs do,” added Sakiewicz, who has a proven track record of signing rising young talents such as Tim Howard, Clint Mathis, Steve Ralston and Eddie Gaven. “This is standard operating procedure for clubs around the world. Zach is a budding young player who performed very well for the U-17's in Houston and he’s the first (academy) player to come on trial with the first team.
“This is part of the Union’s deep commitment to youth development, our academy system and our club partners in the region. We’re going to continue to produce more Zach Pfeffers down the line. He’s on trial right now. Who knows? He’s 15 years old and hopefully one of many academy players who will be on trial with the first team.”
It’s not every day a mid-teenager earns playing time with a professional side’s first team, even in a friendly, but Pfeffer has done just that. At 5-7, 130 pounds, the Dresher, Pa. native is gifted enough to overcome the size and strength limitations that have far more to do with the fact that he was born on January 6, 1995 than anything else.
“He’s very good technically,” Hackworth continued, clearly excited about Philadelphia’s prized prospect. “His pure ability to control the ball, for a 15 year old, is pretty phenomenal. He sees the game very well, so tactically he’s very strong - much more mature than his young 15 years. At the same time, his agility and movement are very good. He has a quick couple of steps. You saw it last night - he wasn’t afraid to attack.”
And attack is what he’ll do. It's what he's already done so effectively in the youth ranks to get to this point in his career at such a young age.
“He’s an attacking midfielder, is what I’d call his natural position,” said Hackworth. “I personally hate comparisons, but a guy on our team who he already looks like and it’s easy to see is [Roger] Torres. Zach’s a righty, Roger is a lefty. There’s only three-and-a-half years between them right now, so it's not like Torres is an old man.”
Compared to Pfeffer, however, the second youngest roster in MLS looks utterly ancient. Only a 15-year-old could make fellow teenagers Jack McInerney (18), Torres (19), Danny Mwanga (19) and Amobi Okugo (19) seem old. While MLS records don’t include friendlies, the youngest player to ever suit up in a league or playoff game is Freddy Adu (14 years, 306 days -- 04/03/2004, DC vs SJ).
[inline_node:286976]So what was Pfeffer’s moment of glory like against Guadalajara?
“Well, before I got to the stadium, that’s when I was a little more nervous,” the youngster told philadelphiaunion.com. “But after I got here I settled in a little bit, warmed up, and that’s when the nerves went away. And to play against a team like Chivas, it’s a great moment. You won’t get to do that too often, and it’s a good learning experience.”
How about the exact seconds when Pfeffer came on for Orozco Fiscal?
“I was really excited,” he said. “I was happy. All my friends and family were behind the bench cheering me on. It was a great moment. I’ll never forget it.”
Nor will the extensive group of friends and family that accompanied Pfeffer, who has a twin brother Jared.
“My parents, grandparents, cousins, and a lot of kids from my school, teachers from my school, some past coaches,” Pfeffer said when asked who witnessed his memorable moment. “They all came into the area where we walked back in the tunnel, so I got to see them afterwards, got to sign some autographs.”
Signing autographs only halfway between ages 10 and 20 would get to the head of most, but that’s where the maturity Hackworth alludes to comes in. It’s the same maturity that is absolutely necessary for someone in Pfeffer’s shoes. After all, the kid goes up against players more than twice his age, and in some cases nearly twice his size, on a daily basis in training.
“It’s given me a lot confidence,” he said about his experience training with the first team. “I’ve learned so much. Some of the guys just pull me over and give me tips here and there, and I’m adjusting pretty well. It’s obviously a whole other level. The pace is a lot quicker. Whenever you play with professionals at this level it improves your game.”
While far from the same degree of challenge, Pfeffer is used to playing with older competition. In the SUM Cup, Pfeffer was going up against many players two years his elder. According to Hackworth, Philadelphia’s number 27 against Chivas more than held his own in Houston.
“(He was) good, strong,” said Hackworth. “In that competition he was a ‘95 playing with a lot of ‘93's. Even there, there’s a big physical difference. That’s where Zach’s soccer (ability) clearly made a difference. If you look at just a technical and tactical ability of a player, his ability shined over some of those older guys. Physically he hasn’t matured fully yet, and that’s going to take some time, but a lot of potential in there."
While talk of Homegrown Player status is premature at this stage, it’s clear from talking with Pfeffer that the youngster has his hopes set on playing at PPL Park on a regular basis one day. For a local boy, it’s hard to imagine a better outcome.
“It would be a dream come true,” said Pfeffer, doing his best to control palpable excitement. “That’s what I’ve been hoping for the past year, since the Union have been established. It would be fantastic.”