A couple of little guys with some ball skills of their own already traded high fives and fist bumps and hellos with Union players earlier this week as the players strolled off the practice field along the Delaware River.

The last Union player off the field, Zach Pfeffer, stopped for a little chat. The little guys sent him toward the locker room with a "Thanks, Mr. Pfeffer."

That may have been the first "Mr. Pfeffer" Zach had received in his life. Pfeffer has always been the young guy, the phenom, a pro as a high school sophomore at age 15. Now he's a seasoned 20, making under six figures in salary but real money. Sure, his friends from Upper Dublin High are in college. But if you have the technical skills of Mr. Pfeffer, soccer these days almost demands that you take a different path.

"Playing college soccer would almost be too easy for him right now," said Union coach Jim Curtin, who played at Villanova himself before a decade-long Major League Soccer career.

Because Pfeffer turned pro so early - has there ever been a younger pro in this area in any sport? -  he'll always be sort of a walking lab experiment.

"It was a pretty obvious decision - I always knew I wanted to be a professional soccer player," Pfeffer said. "To my parents, it was fairly obvious. I come from a very educated family, however, so obviously giving up college at the time was a big thing for my family to consider."

He's taking online college courses at Penn State, two courses a semester. So he's on maybe an eight-year plan.

"I'm not sure the amount of years - I've gotten about 24 credits done so far," Pfeffer said.

He also moved out of home, living since March in Manayunk with 22-year-old teammate Eric Bird.

"This year it was important to live out on my own, to be independent, to take the next step in my maturing process," Pfeffer said. "We're a very close-knit family. My mom, she's like, 'Ah, I want you to stay home.' But at the same time, they understand. My dad was for it as well. He said, 'It's good for you. It's that age, in the rest of the world, most of the kids are going out on their own, too.' "

He played his freshman year at Upper Dublin High before signing with the Union.

"The first year, I would go in for two classes in the morning," Pfeffer said. "My mom would pick me up from school. She'd drive me to training. The next year, I did one class in the morning. I went to Upper Dublin for at least one or two classes in order to graduate from the actual high school and walk with my class."

Like every athlete in the world, there are ups and downs. Did his 15-year-old self realize there would be ups and downs?

"Probably not," Pfeffer said. "I was still a kid. I was on top of the world. I had just signed a pro contract. At that age, it's something kids don't even think about it. Then it brought me down to reality, which is good. It taught me how to be a professional, on and off the field. How to take care of myself. It made me grow up."

After two seasons in the Union system, Pfeffer was loaned to a German club, mostly with a U-19 team and sometimes with a U-23 team. He picked up the German mentality, not taking a day off mentally or he'd lose his spot.

"A lot of the kids there, the way to a better life is to be a pro soccer player," Pfeffer said. "That's their dream. It's a way of life in Europe. It pushes you every day. When you get there, as long as you show you can play and you're respectful, then they treat you well."

So his education has moved in nontraditional but interesting directions. But this was a big season for him. He's not always a starter for the Union but gets regular minutes. Both Pfeffer and his coach want to see his obvious technical skills displayed consistently.

"This is Year 5 for me as a pro," Pfeffer said. "Up until this year, I had not gotten significant playing time. I knew it had to be a year [when] I kind of assert myself and break in and show people I could play and contribute at the MLS level."

Soccer historian Roger Allaway recently wrote a story about how soccer has long been a sport in which phenoms turned pro at a young age. Allaway also noted that Walter Bahr played as an amateur but actually made his debut with the Philadelphia Nationals of the American Soccer League in 1943 when Bahr was 16 years and 8 months old. Bahr went on to be a star of the 1950 World Cup team and coach Temple and Penn State in addition to playing professionally.

"I actually played with his grandson," Pfeffer said of Philadelphia's greatest contribution to the sport. "I had an opportunity to meet him when I was 10 or 11."

The seasons change quickly like that, the journey from little guy to phenom to Mr. Pfeffer. It's never been just about being a good player. A clue about Pfeffer's maturity level: his big purchase when he turned pro?

"I don't even know," Pfeffer said. "I think it just went into savings."

@jensenoffcampus