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Union's teen midfielder Pfeffer heading back to Germany

Many of Zach Pfeffer's friends are looking forward to relaxing days by the pool and earning extra cash at part-time jobs at home this summer before heading off to college.

(Joseph Kaczmarek/File photo)
(Joseph Kaczmarek/File photo)Read moreJOSEPH KACZMAREK / FOR THE DAILY NEWS

Many of Zach Pfeffer's friends are looking forward to relaxing days by the pool and earning extra cash at part-time jobs at home this summer before heading off to college.

Pfeffer, instead, is brushing up on his German and preparing this week to rejoin his new friends in a tiny Rhineland village and play soccer for 1899 Hoffenheim in the country's top pro league.

Pfeffer, 18, returned home to graduate with his friends at Upper Dublin High School on June 10 but is scheduled this week to get back to life playing with his German club, where he is on loan from the Union.

"It's a different mentality over there," Pfeffer said. "All the players, even if you look down to the underages, 16, 17, 19, 23 and up to the first team, they just set a very high standard."

Pfeffer hasn't lived a normal teenager's life since he was a freshman at Upper Dublin and signed a three-year contract at a reported $70,000 per year with the Union in 2010. He was 15 and became the fourth-youngest player to sign with a Major League Soccer team in the league's Homegrown Player initiative, a program started in 2006 to allow MLS clubs to develop local prospects.

For most of his time at Upper Dublin, Pfeffer went to class in the morning, practiced with the Union players - many nearly twice his age - in the afternoon and logged onto online classes in the evening.

After he wrapped up his school requirements in January, Pfeffer, a 5-foot-8, 145-pound midfielder, was assigned by the Union to play on loan for Hoffenheim. He had played sparingly for the Union's first team in his first two seasons, making his debut in September 2011 and appearing in four games altogether.

Pfeffer also played with the Union's reserve squad, but both he and the Union coaches want him to get more time on the field. He had trained with the under-19 Hoffenheim players twice in recent offseasons, and Union manager John Hackworth described this assignment as a learning experience on and off the field.

"He's getting games week in and week out and has the ability to adjust and be successful at that level in a very different culture," Hackworth said. Pfeffer is facing "a lot of challenges that no one truly knows until you do it yourself."

Family matters

Pfeffer's family first experienced his absence when he spent a year of residency training with the under-17 national team during high school at U.S. Soccer's IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

Zach's twin brother, Jared, said that experience made Zach's stint in Germany easier to handle, but Jared still misses kicking a soccer ball around in the backyard like old times. Zach's parents, Scott and Margie, would love to have him around the house as well, but it's just another one of the sacrifices made for their son to achieve his goals.

"We have sacrificed a lot by not having him around, not being able to go to dinner with him, not being able to say good night to him," Scott Pfeffer said. "It's just a tremendous sacrifice."

Graduation night at Upper Dublin was special for the twin brothers. Zach followed Jared in the procession, and the family cheered in the stands as the brothers walked across the stage to receive their diplomas.

"To hear 'Jared Pfeffer' and then hear 'Zach Pfeffer' right after, to throw my cap in the air after with him. . . . It was a pretty special moment," Jared Pfeffer said.

For Zach Pfeffer, sharing pizzas after graduation and making family trips to Margate and Ocean City made his visit home worth the trip.

"It's good at any age just to get that little break," said Pfeffer, who grew up playing on club teams such as Yardley-Makefield and FC Delco. "Especially if you're playing in a foreign country, [it's good] to be back in a place surrounded by people that love you and make you feel comfortable."

Back in Germany, Pfeffer's situation is starkly different from the one that Jared will encounter when he enrolls at Indiana University in Bloomington in the fall to study business.

A typical day for Zach Pfeffer at Hoffenheim's soccer academy starts with four hours of German language class in the morning, with a break for lunch and evening soccer training sessions afterward.

Pfeffer struggled at first with tasks such as figuring out the local train schedule but has since acclimated well to his new lifestyle. He can hold conversations in German and has also learned to enjoy the local cuisine.

"There's a lot of different meats," Pfeffer said. "Some of them I know what they are. . . . Others I don't."

When Pfeffer's family visited him for spring break, he impressed them by ordering their entire meal in German.

Lofty expectations

On the soccer field, the technical skills and agility that have helped Pfeffer land spots him on various levels of the U.S. national team since he was 14 are a perfect fit for German soccer.

He still wants to improve his physical strength so he can match up better with older MLS midfielders, but a newfound mentality is so far Pfeffer's biggest takeaway from Hoffenheim.

"Every time you're on the field, you're there to work," Pfeffer said. "Obviously you need to enjoy it. But you're 100 percent focused. Every tackle you go into, every pass you make, you want it to be perfect, and you want to win every time you're on the field."

Hackworth said that Pfeffer has to guard against focusing too much on the "lofty expectations on a teenager that turns professional."

"My biggest emphasis to him is don't push it," Hackworth said. "Know that this is a long-term process. This is an evolution stage to your long-term goals and where you want to be as a professional."

Scott Pfeffer said his son had made every sacrifice that has been required. What will happen next is a mystery.

"You roll the dice," Scott Pfeffer said, "and you hope the sacrifice pays off."