Talk about an eventful year for 15-year-old Zach Pfeffer, now the first Homegrown Player in Philadelphia Union history.
Pfeffer, the fourth youngest player ever to sign an MLS contract (behind Freddy Adu, Fuad Ibrahim and New England’s recently announced Homegrown Player Diego Fagundez), began the year training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, as part of U.S. Soccer’s residency program. Come May, Pfeffer was training with the Union academy before joining Philadelphia’s U-17 squad in July for the U-17 SUM Cup in Houston, Texas. In August, the mid-teen phenom became the first-ever academy member to train with the Union first team. On September 1, Pfeffer saw time in an international friendly against Chivas de Guadalajara, coming on as a substitute in the 82nd minute. When the Union season concluded, Pfeffer was shipped off to train with Bundesliga side 1899 Hoffenheim, where he impressed enough for the German club to want to hold on to the youngster.
Now, less than a month before his 16th birthday, Pfeffer is a member of the Union first team. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be included on 18-man match day rosters in 2011 -- although he will be available for selection and nothing is out of the question -- but the signing makes a statement about the promise of Pfeffer’s future and his ability to keep up with the first team in training even at this early stage in his burgeoning career.
There’s really no reason for Pfeffer to worry about exactly how soon he’ll be seeing action in league matches. Suffice it to say, he’s already well ahead of the curve. For now, the youngster can revel in the accomplishment of being the first to carve a path from the Union’s fledgling youth academy to the regional soccer palace that is PPL Park.
“I was very excited,” Pfeffer told philadelphiaunion.com when asked about his initial reaction to the news of his signing. “It is a dream come true to be signed by my hometown team, so I was very excited and happy for the opportunity and for that I am very thankful.”
Pfeffer is the first to acknowledge that his work is just beginning. Training with the first team has been a new challenge, one that has already paid dividends in terms of accelerating his development.
“The sessions are a lot harder, a lot quicker, the pace of the game is much faster, so I have definitely adjusted to that,” he said. “I have learned to play quicker, how to use my body, and my game has definitely improved a lot playing with these guys. Hopefully that will continue.”
Pfeffer’s biggest obstacle at this stage is compensating for the size and strength he gives up to older players. When he begins to grow into his body, his highly advanced technical skills will become that much more impactful.
“I need to physically get a little stronger because I am still a little small right now, but I just need to keep my technical side of the game very sharp because that is one of my strengths,” Pfeffer explained. “I need to keep that along with getting stronger, faster, and then I think I will be able to have more of an impact. Hopefully I will get some time next season, or if not the following season.”
Union coach John Hackworth, who heads up youth development for the Union, has been watching Pfeffer for years. He knows just how good the youngster can become if he continues to develop at his current pace.
“He’s very good technically,” Hackworth told philadelphiaunion.com in September. “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.”
Hackworth also understands the perils of entering the spotlight too soon and is well aware that the technical staff must bring him along at the appropriate pace. That said, he also knows that only Pfeffer can ultimately determine his own fate.
“I think it is our responsibility to give him a career path and clear direction, while at the same time it is Zach’s responsibility to meet those expectations,” said Hackworth. “You have to have that confidence as a young player and that is really important when you are going forward that you have some moments where you get humble, but you also have to moments where you say ‘I am this good’ and ‘I can be as good as the coaches say and as good as what my own expectations are'.”
As a mid-teenager, Pfeffer faces challenges that even 19-year-olds Danny Mwanga, Amobi Okugo, Jack McInerney and Roger Torres don’t have to encounter. You know, like needing to hitch a ride with his mother to practice.
“My lifestyle is obviously different,” he said. “I am still taking school classes and so I need to be able to balance everything and monitor my time well. That has definitely been one of my biggest challenges - just being in control of everything. I have to grow up faster than the normal person my age.”
That expedited growth just sped up even further, but Pfeffer has shown the maturity to handle experiences that many his age couldn't. Good thing, because in a sense he's carrying the load of thousands of other aspiring professional soccer players in the region who are watching his success and will now attempt to follow in his footsteps.
Don't expect Pfeffer to be the last player to move from Philadelphia’s academy to the senior roster. In fact, creating a consistent funnel of talent from the academy ranks to the first team is what's going to fuel the club’s long-term success.
“This is what great soccer clubs do,” said Union CEO & Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz. “This is standard operating procedure for clubs around the world. 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 Pfeffer’s down the line.”
Pfeffer may not be the last academy member to find his way to PPL Park, but he’ll always be the first.
Consider the path paved.