Zach Pfeffer’s a 20-year-old kid living on his own in Manayunk, who is also a professional soccer player. In fact, he’s been one for close to five years.
Zach Pfeffer’s a 20-year-old kid living on his own in Manayunk, who still finds time to call or text his Mom or Dad three to four times a day. When he’s not at work, he’s studying hard to fulfill a promise to his parents to earn his college degree, though he’s not quite sure what he’ll do with it.
He also likes to travel, and has already visited more places than many of us will get to in a lifetime.
Oh, and one more thing: Pfeffer is a professional soccer player. In fact, he’s been one for close to five years.
“I was at a regional Olympic Development Program camp when I was 13,” recalled Pfeffer, who’s already played more games this season as a midfielder for Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union than in his first four years combined, scoring two goals —including a game-winner — in 16 games. “One of the coaches told my dad, ‘Your son’s something special and he can go really far in this game.’
“I knew on all my club teams I was one of the best players. But until I got to the U14” — 14 years and under — “national team, I didn’t know how good.”
Someone with the Union obviously did, offering Pfeffer the rare opportunity to turn pro at 15 — the fourth-youngest player to sign an MLS contract. A typical high school day for Pfeffer, who has a deep appreciation of his Jewish roots and wishes there were more like him in his profession, meant morning classes at Upper Dublin High, then heading out for Union practice. While that’s quite an adjustment for any teenager, Pfeffer has no regrets.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I had to take,” said Pfeffer, who attended the Union’s Academy over the next few years — getting on the pitch only sporadically — before spending a year playing for a team in Hoffenheim, Germany. “When I was younger, I never expected this or knew how it would be. I just worked hard and hoped something like this would happen. Now that it has, I just sit back at moments and say, ‘Wow!’ ”
So do Margie and Scott Pfeffer, who continue to be amazed by Zach, their youngest son — by four minutes — to his fraternal twin brother, Jared. “He’s got an innate drive or determination unlike any other kid I know,” said Margie, who adds that Zach was always working on developing his skills from the time he was a little boy. “He was just so driven to try to accomplish his dream — he wanted something badly enough and didn’t stop until he got there.”
Yet as far as he’s progressed, there’s still much farther to go. “You’d like to look back 10 years from now and recognize this as the season he started to break out,” said Union coach Jim Curtin, who grew up in Oreland, not far from Pfeffer’s Dresher stomping grounds. “He’s had some good games, but as his coach, I want more and I know he’s capable of it.
“At 15, I was probably throwing rocks at cars. But everybody has a story. Zach’s is a unique one in that he literally got thrown into the fire right away and did well. He’s grown as a player, but he’s not a finished product yet.”
The 5-foot 8-inch, 150-lb. Pfeffer, who just completed a grueling five-games-in-15-days stretch, doesn’t disagree. “I still think this is the beginning for me,” said Pfeffer. “I think I’m getting comfortable now, but I’ll be even more comfortable as I play more games and am able to express myself even more. I’m a skillful, technical, creative, attacking player. I still want to show more of that flair, that creativity as I continue to play.”
At the same time, being one of the few Jewish players in the MLS, he realizes he has a responsibility to live up to a certain standard. “I don’t know how many there are,” said Pfeffer, who was B’Nai Mitzvahed with Jared at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. “I think Benny Filehaber in Kansas City is half-Jewish and so is” former Union teammate Zac MacMath in Colorado.
Pfeffer’s clear-eyed comprehension of his potential to influence young Jewish soccer players belies his youth. “I didn’t have a Jewish role model, so this is definitely something I take pride in and hope it gives other aspiring Jewish athletes someone to look up to,” he explained. “I just have to handle myself properly off the field and set a good example. I was taught to give back to people, be mature, be respectful.”
And when asked if he has any advice for those would-be pros — Jewish or not — what he offers is pretty basic. “I would say first and foremost, enjoy the game,” said Pfeffer, who’s still hopeful the struggling Union (5-10-4, in eighth place in the Eastern Conference) can get it together in time to make the playoffs. “Make sure you’re confident and happy. And just continue to work. When you’re not training, there’s someone else throughout the world that is training. I heard that from a player somewhere and it always stuck with me.’’
While the Union and the MLS season is Pfeffer’s current priority, it’s not hard for him to look a bit ahead and imagine the day he’s wearing “USA” on his jersey and playing for the national team — perhaps as soon as next summer in Rio at the Olympics. Geographically, at least, it’s not much of a stretch, considering all the places he’s already been, including Canada, Italy, France Germany, Austria, Colombia, Argentina, Greece, Costa Rica, Holland, Portugal, Mexico and Denmark.
“I haven’t been to Spain or England yet,” Pfeffer said, almost apologetically. “I try to make the most of every experience, taking pictures. It’s been amazing. Soccer has really given me so much — it’s opened my eyes to the rest of the world.’’
Even though he has had years to adjust to his twin’s career, Jared Pfeffer admits it is still kind of mind-boggling. “Everybody says they’re gonna be a pro athlete,” said Jared, who just finished his sophomore year at Indiana (Pa.) University, where he’s a business major. “But very few do. Not many people were able to see his journey; to see him firsthand grow up and put the countless hours into practice when it was raining or snowing out. It’s pretty cool to see that all come together. As kids, we played in the Maccabi Games. Whatever we’ve done we’ve tried not to forget our Jewish heritage and where we come from.”
Meanwhile, “little’’ brother Zach has an apartment in Manayunk he shares with teammate, Eric Bird. On his own, he is always mindful of what he was taught by Scott, a cardiologist and Margie, who holds an MBA. “My parents have done a tremendous job helping me along the way,” said Zach, who’s not sure how long he’ll keep the beard he grew this season. “I came into this professional environment as a kid. Now I’m a young man, but they’re the ones who guided me. I was 15-16, so obviously I needed guidance; I didn’t know everything.’’
Perhaps not, but he’s already learned so much. “I wasn’t a pro until I was 22 so that’s pretty awesome,” said 26-year-old Union forward, C.J. Sapong. “What impresses me is his professionalism. He plays and moves like a guy who’s done it for a while. He can be a very good player, but he’s got to keep working hard to take it to the next level.’’
Good thing Pfeffer got an early start on the process.