In 2011, Zach Pfeffer was 15 years old. He was also, as he told the assembled members of the Philadelphia Union academy last Friday, "the man" on the soccer field, often playing up at least one age group.
Then Pfeffer signed on with the Union, becoming the club's first homegrown player. And all of a sudden he had to, again, in his own words, "grow up, I had to mature, I had to learn the ropes."
"I had to become independent."
A day after Pfeffer spoke at YSC about his journey from 15 year old homegrown to, most recently, recipient of a highly selective financial analyst job at Goldman Sachs, Union academy graduates Zach Zandi and Jeremy Rafanello faced off against each other as members of Villanova University and Penn State respectively, highlighting the growing link between the Union's academy and the academic future of its graduates. Both players scored, by the way.
Zandi and Rafanello are only two of many former academy members still playing soccer as they advance through their collegiate careers.
However, Pfeffer, now 23 and finishing his degree at Temple University before moving to New York for his new job, is retired. "My boots are on the wall at this point," he said with a laugh.
The former FC Delco, Montgomery United, and Upper Dublin Soccer Club player explained how he managed to grow his soccer career without abandoning the academic side of his life.
"It's a balancing act," Pfeffer admitted, sitting in front of the academy players and alongside YSC founder and Union minority owner Richie Graham. "When you're on the field, put all your time and energy into that because that's what you guys are here for at the end of the day. But for some of you, that [dream] may not happen — hopefully for all of you it does. Some of you may play 5-10 years, some may play 15, some may play in MLS, some may play in Europe. But at some point it will, unfortunately, come to an end, and you have to make sure you're prepared when the time comes.
"There always has to be a Plan B and C in case something unforseen comes up and maybe derails some of those plans."
Pfeffer encouraged the academy members to lean into the skills they develop on the pitch as they transition to new careers. "Your background as athletes is very attractive to a lot of employers," he said, "It's just that innate competitive feel that you guys have, coming in every day, working hard. That, for me, was a differentiating factor, especially when I got into the interviewing process."
The setting for Pfeffer's talk drove home the growth of American soccer since the Union entered MLS. Players from across the world now attend classes at YSC and train twice daily around their academic schedule as they try to make their way into the Union's first team plans. This is a similar setup to European academies, as Pfeffer knows from his season on loan with Hoffenheim, the same club where incoming Union Sporting Direct Ernst Tanner once worked (in fact, Pfeffer said Tanner was the one that picked him up from the airport the first time he flew in to train at Hoffenheim).
Little of the Union’s academy structure was in place when Pfeffer came through the ranks, though. And that fact underlines the key role the growing academic side of YSC provides for young athletes. Pfeffer had a very academically-oriented family to ensure he prepared for a life after soccer, but not every young player has the same support system. And while academies can provide an opportunity to progress academically and athletically, Pfeffer emphasized that it's up to each individual to push themselves to recognize that they will need to be prepared for what comes next when it's time to, like him, put their boots on the wall.
"All of this is unbelievable," Pfeffer said, indicating the classrooms and replica Allianz Arena in YSC. "I only wish I had something like this when I started. You guys have the academics, you the fields right here, you train twice a day, it's exactly how they do it in Europe."
But in the end, both on the field and in life after soccer, the message to the young men in attendance was to work hard and differentiate yourself from those around you. And Pfeffer said the best way to do that is to pursue your interests with passion and then turn those interests into a career.