Minors take on Major League Soccer challenge

By Mike Woitalla

Not very long ago, Zach Pfeffer was still fine-tuning his skills in the basement of his Pennsylvania home with his twin brother, Jared.

“We would just play down there for hours, kick the ball around, and rocket balls of the walls,” said Zach, shortly after making his MLS debut last month at age 16. “And we put a big hole, probably a 10-inch hole, right through the wall. Our parents were absolutely pissed. In the end, they didn’t mind because we were doing what we loved.”

Zach’s talent and passion for the game -- and a promise that he would eventually earn a college degree -- convinced his parents, Scott (a cardiologist) and Margie, that going pro at age 15 would be a suitable course for him.

“I come from a family that has done well academically,” said Zach, currently a junior at Upper Dublin High School, where he balances classes and online courses with life in the pros. “My parents both went to college. Everyone in my family has gone to college. So that was a big decision.”

Last December, Zach inked an MLS contract that promised him $65,000 his first season. He became the first “homegrown” signing for the Philadelphia Union, which had rights to Pfeffer because he played for FC Delco, a Union affiliate club. Pfeffer had also spent a semester at the U.S. U-17 U.S. U-17 Residency in Bradenton, Fla.

Pfeffer made his MLS debut Sept. 17 when he started and went 63 minutes in a 1-0 win over Columbus. A week later, he came on as a 72nd minute sub in a 1-1 tie at Kansas City.

“Being a young player gives you more motivation to work hard,” Pfeffer said. “I’m still a young guy and need to prove to the staff I deserve to play. Playing these games gives you more confidence and experience.”

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Pfeffer was 15 years and 352 days old when he signed with MLS, making him the fourth youngest player ever signed by MLS. Here’s an update on the other four players among the Top 5 youngest signees.

Freddy Adu (14 years, 168 days when signed in 2004).
Born in Ghana, moved to Maryland at age 8, Adu was famous for getting a $1 million Nike endorsement deal before he signed for D.C. United in 2004. He played 98 MLS games for D.C. United and Real Salt Lake before, in 2007, moving to Europe, where he failed to break through. He returned to MLS this season and is a teammate of Pfeffer’s in Philadelphia. Now 22, he has 17 caps and two goals for the U.S. national team.

Abdus Fuad Ibrahim (15 years, 130 days in 2007).
The Ethiopian-born Minnesota product debuted for FC Toronto in 2008 shortly before his 17th birthday. He was waived after the 2010 season after playing 26 MLS games and scoring three goals.

Diego Fagundez (15 years, 273 days in 2011).
Born in Uruguay, Fagundez moved to the Massachusetts at age 5 and played youth ball for FC United and FC Greater Boston Bolts before joining the New England Revolution's Academy team. He made his MLS debut Aug. 6 and scored against Chivas USA, making him at age 16 the second youngest player to score in MLS after Adu, who netted at age 14 in 2004. Fagundez made his first start, after three appearances as a sub, Oct. 1 and scored in a 2-1 loss to Seattle.

Nikolas Besagno
(16 years, 60 days in 2005).
The Washington State product was the No. 1 draft pick in 2005 for first-year Real Salt Lake. He played 10 MLS games before dropping to the minor leagues. Now 22, he captains the Kitsap Pumas, the champions of the fourth-tier USL PDL.

A couple years after MLS launched in 1996, it began doing something unique for an American professional sports league – signing high school-age players.

DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey, Santino Quaranta, Eddie Johnson were among the first who played MLS ball before they were old enough to vote.

2010 World Cup starters Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore made MLS debuts before their 18th birthdays in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

More than 30 players have seen MLS action before their 18th birthday. Now that MLS teams have well established youth programs – as mandated by the league’s 2007 “homegrown initiative” – the number of young teens signed should continue to grow.

MLS YOUNGSTERS TO WATCH. Here’s a roundup of players who were 18 or younger entering the 2011 season and have seen MLS action this year.

Player (Club) age (games-goals-assists)
Andy Najar (D.C. United) 18 (27-5-6)
Juan Agudelo (New York) 18 (25-6-2)
Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake) 17 (24-2-0)
Jack McInerney (Philadelphia) 19 (16-1-0)
Omar Salgado (Vancouver) 18 (13-1-0)
Diego Fagundez (New England) 16 (4-2-1)
Zach Pfeffer (Philadelphia) 16 (2-0-0)

(The list includes only players who played youth soccer in the USA. All of the above have been part of the U.S. national team program except for Najar, who has played for his native Honduras. He moved to the USA at age 13 and played in D.C. United's youth program.)

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Five players on the USA’s roster for Saturday’s friendly against Honduras (6 pm ET, Fox Soccer & Univision) were signed by MLS as U-18s: Agudelo, Altidore, Beasley, Bradley and Brek Shea, the 6-foot-3 Texan who joined FC Dallas at age 17 in 2008.

Shea’s father played quarterback at Virginia Tech and Brek played quarterback and safety in middle school. While at the U.S. training camp Brek explained to the Miami Herald’s Michelle Kaufman why he chose soccer over football:

“Football was too much yelling, too strict, and soccer gave me more freedom and ability to express myself.”

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