College or pro? Soccer in America increasingly faces a choice of how to develop players

By John McGonigal

The rusting, gray Commodore Barry Bridge overlooked PPL Park, wind whirled on the pitch, and patches of ice bobbed along the recently melted Delaware River as members of the Sons of Ben -- the Philadelphia Union's riverfront supporters section -- banged their drums. And banged their drums.  And banged their drums.

On a bleak March day in Chester, Pennsylvania, with the Union deadlocked in a 0-0 game, the persistent fans waited for a spark.

Zach Pfeffer, a 20-year-old midfielder wearing lime green cleats and a highlighter orange penny, warmed up on the sidelines, preparing to breathe life into the crowd of 18,000.

Finally, Pfeffer jogged onto the pitch to a spattering of applause in the 85th minute. It was another chance to live the dream of playing professional soccer for the young American, in his fifth season since he first signed with the Union. Another chance for his big break.  


About 800 miles from PPL Park, another player waited for his turn to get in an MLS game, though his route to the doorstep of pro soccer was completely unlike Pfeffer’s.

Andrew Wolverton, a lanky, bearded shotblocker from Atlanta, spent a good chunk of March resting his fractured right foot.

The 22-year-old former Penn State keeper was picked by the LA Galaxy in January's MLS SuperDraft, a stellar college career overcoming any concerns the Galaxy had over his injury.

While Pfeffer and Wolverton are -- or will be -- MLS players, each chose a drastically different path years ago to pursue a career in the sport: Pfeffer was signed by the Union at age 15, while Wolverton went the traditional route of college ball.

The former situation is becoming increasingly popular among promising prospects, while the latter is making strides to maintain relevance in the long-term future of American soccer.

American-born players make up about two-thirds of MLS players, according to the league’s official website. As of May 7, there were 291 American-born players rostered on MLS sides. A staggering 248 -- 85.2 percent -- played in college.

Nonetheless, it's in the 43 non-college players -- mostly prospects who have signed in the last few years -- that many see a trend starting to form, one that questions the value of joining a college team if the goal is to play in the pros.

With the game progressively stealing the sporting hearts of Americans (it cracked the top five among the nation’s favorite sports this year in an annual Harris Poll) what will be better for the game’s future in the United States?  Will college soccer move the needle, or will it be club soccer?


Excitement, nerves and apprehension.

Margie and Scott Pfeffer were on vacation in Las Vegas, but it wasn't the roulette table that had them feeling this array of emotions.

Their son Zach, then a 15-year-old sophomore at Upper Dublin High School in the Philadelphia suburb of Fort Washington, had been offered a contract with the Philadelphia Union.

"We had a lot of questions," Margie said.

What was their first concern?

"We didn't want him to go without a college education," Margie recalled.

Like a majority of parents in America, Margie and Scott had envisioned that Zach would finish high school and go to college.

There was one thing that stood in the way of that plan, though: Zach's dream to play professional soccer.

And the Union presented that opportunity. Immediately.

In talks with Zach and his family, the midfielder said Philadelphia brass showed they wanted him to be an integral part of their future by signing him as their first "Homegrown Player." Through the initiative introduced in 2006, local prospects have increased opportunities at hometown clubs.

Not only was Zach the Union's first player of that status, but, at the time, he was also the fourth-youngest player in league history to sign a professional contract.

It was a huge decision for Zach and the Union, and it's one he remembers fondly.

"It was the best moment of my life," Zach said. "That's an opportunity that barely any kids in the entire world have."

He's right. And it's a life decision not many can handle.

Even though he signed a professional contract, Zach still had high school to finish.

To cover all the bases, Zach would attend two morning classes at Upper Dublin during his junior year. Then his mom would pick him up and take him to PPL Park for training.

Photo by Nick Thomas

Come his senior year, Zach was taking just one morning class, supplemented by online classes after practice. He'd arrive at PPL Park at 11 a.m. and train with grown men until 1 or 2 p.m. Zach said that was tough at first -- "I was a little kid," Zach pointed out -- but his teammates knew that.

"Everyone wanted to help him along his way," longtime Union defender Sheanon Williams said.

Between school and soccer, it was a daily grind. But it was one he wanted -- and one his family and friends wanted for him.

Did Zach's road to where he's at now -- an emerging playmaker with the Union's senior team and contributor with the United States' youth national teams -- go the way he planned? As significant as those accomplishments may sound, Rob Irvine, Zach's coach at youth club FC Delco, doesn't think so.

Zach spent all of 2013 on loan to German club 1899 Hoffenheim and collected just nine appearances with the Union prior to the 2015 campaign.

But from what he saw early, Irvine, now head coach at Kean University, thought Zach had the chops to compete.

"With a player with talent, it's up to them. A player is responsible for their own development ... If they don't want to do the work, that's on them. And with Zach, you never had to worry about that," Irvine said. "I think Zach was as ready as you can be."

Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin agreed.

Curtin, who coached him with the Union's U-18 squad, has seen Zach transform from that kid who had his mom drive him to practice to the young professional he is now.

But even Curtin is still getting used to Zach's development.

"He's a kid -- well, I shouldn't call him a kid anymore ... He's a young man I've been with since he was a kid," Curtin said. "Every player is different. For Zach, what was right was taking that jump and going professional."


Penn State men's soccer coach Bob Warming, with Big Ten Championship trophies on prominent display on the hutch behind him, leaned back in his cushioned chair.

"It's great," Warming said, slightly shaking his head in disbelief. "It's unbelievable."

Warming, a man who's won more than 400 career collegiate games and joined Penn State in 2010, was proudly talking about his first Nittany Lions recruit: goalkeeper Andrew Wolverton.

Wolverton and Warming, a former goalkeeper in the 1970s for Berea College, connected from the start. It was one of many reasons why Wolverton chose Penn State -- and didn't actively pursue a professional career after graduating high school.

"Penn State was a place I really wanted to be," Wolverton said, "whether I was playing soccer or not."

Wolverton, or "Wolvie" as Warming calls him, always wanted to play professionally. He grew up a Manchester United fan, trying to emulate former Red Devils keeper and Dutch international mainstay Edwin van der Sar.

Like van der Sar, Wolverton has European ties, even though he grew up in Georgia (the state, not the country). His mother and her side of the family are Swiss, and Wolverton has dual citizenship. That would make a professional move to Europe easy.

But that potential career jump didn’t happen after graduating high school. After speaking to family and people he knew in the soccer industry, he determined college would be the best course of action. And it paid off.

Wolverton was dominant at Penn State. He started 70 out of 72 games played in his collegiate career while tallying 32 shutouts and logging a 0.53 goals against average. That included his freshman campaign where he started all 22 games and posted the Big Ten's best save percentage and goals against average.

Photo by Max Petrosky / The Daily Collegian.

The 6-foot-6 goal repellent mustered together an illustrious collegiate career, leading the Lions to two Big Ten regular season titles.  But it wasn't always so easy for him.

As a teenager, Wolverton's days after school weren't normally spent just goofing off with friends: more often than not, he was training. This attitude stemmed from a roadblock he encountered as a 14-year-old -- surprisingly losing the starting spot at his local club. That's what lit the theoretical light bulb in his head.

"I was working day-in and day-out to get that spot back," Wolverton explained. "That's when I learned how much work it took to become a professional and act like it on and off the field."

From that experience, Wolverton learned a lesson in commitment -- something that boded well for him when arrived at Penn State.

For any college student, not just a student-athlete, the transition from high school to college quickly emphasizes time management. Some adapt. Others don't.

"If you go to a school like Penn State, you can pretty much drink any time you want. During your free time, you can fill it with soccer or going to drink," Wolverton said. "It's difficult because some players fall into that, and if they didn't have that college experience, that probably wouldn't have happened. Other players learn how to deal with it if they end up going pro."

Wolverton filled it with soccer, and Jan. 20 of this year was his pay off.  Selected by the Galaxy in the fourth round of this year's MLS SuperDraft, the younger version of Andrew Wolverton would have been thrilled.

"It's another step to my dream," Wolverton said. "Going back, I wouldn't have believed it."


Nestled adjacent to a residential neighborhood in Matawan, New Jersey is a tan, warehouse-like building. The brown, weather-worn overhang to the entrance read: "Tab Ramos Sports Center."

On the top floor of the building, next to a bar that overlooked a roller hockey rink and turf soccer field on either side, was the room's lone illuminated light, shining out of a side office.

Standing in the doorway was a shadowed figure in a track suit and black athletic hat perched on his head.

Tab Ramos is an opinionated man. And in his position as the head coach of the United States U-20 men's national team, as well U.S. Soccer's Youth Technical Director, his observations are both informed and bold.

"College soccer becomes a strange situation because you want to continue to keep it relevant, only because there are some late developers," he said while peering at his wall-mounted flat screen TV to catch Champions League action. "The reality is that the best players are signing somewhere else when they're younger. They're not going to college."

Ramos said there simply isn't the same level of talent in college soccer as there has in the past decades, partially because players are signing professional contracts at a younger age with local MLS clubs and their academies, which he sees being the "right direction."  Ramos has at least one detractor: Warming.

The longtime college coach compared MLS academies to a superficial art dealer that collects pieces, hopes they become popular, and sells them for well higher than the original purchase price.

"There's an emphasis to make everything not in [the MLS] model seem irrelevant," Warming said with bite. "College soccer will always be relevant. MLS is a college league."

They may disagree on the importance of college soccer, but both Warming and Ramos are united on how to make the college game better: a change in how college soccer's season schedule is formatted.

Currently, the college game operates in the fall, stacked with games for three to four months, which puts everyone at a disadvantage, Ramos said.

"In the end, all you're looking for is a result," Ramos said. "You're not developing your players or the actual team. Players develop because they're playing a lot of games, so they are getting better. But at the end of the day, it's not like your typical professional environment."

Warming and a collection of his colleagues are trying to change that.

At the MLS Technical Committee Presentation last August, a group of athletic directors and Division I college coaches proposed a 2016-17 schedule model in which there would be 15 games in the fall semester and 10 in the spring.

There would be a limitation on "mid-week" games, and a minimum break of three nights between games.

"The benefit to that is seen in the substance of weekly training sessions and how you periodize those with games," Army men's soccer coach Russell Payne said. "You focus more time on training and development ... so you can perform at a peak level."

Payne, also an assistant coach with the U.S. U-20 men's national team, is on the proposal's advisory committee along with Warming. A former professional soccer player himself in Germany, Ireland and MLS, Payne sees the schedule change as a way to legitimize the college game's setup.

According to the presentation, the proposal wants to modernize “the collegiate paradigm from its current state, to better parallel the administration of the sport of soccer, both domestically and internationally."

"It would give a more realistic look at the professional experience in terms of the year-round development and playing model," Payne said.  There's a major roadblock, though: the NCAA.

The collegiate athletics governing body is currently under a "legislative moratorium," which means no new legislation can be presented because the NCAA's system and rules are under review. Nevertheless, the NCAA hosted a soccer summit in February in Indianapolis where the proposal was a pressing topic.

"[The proposal committee members] haven't been able to bring it forward in an official manner," said Sharon Cessna, Director of Championships and Alliances at the NCAA. "But that doesn't mean it hasn't been talked about in different circles."

Given the NCAA's deliberate nature, it may take some time. Payne said that with the moratorium in place, it's hard to predict a timeline for when the proposal will be presented.

"It's a transitional period for the NCAA, and so to set a time on this would be unrealistic," Payne said. "We'd obviously all love for it to happen sooner rather than later."


Both Pfeffer and Wolverton had the same dream growing up, and they both reached it.  They started on and followed through with different paths, but the end result is almost the same: the two are professional soccer players.

Pfeffer, at 15, was considered a future star. At 20, he’s not there yet, but there's still time.

And if he doesn't reach that status, he'll be covered; ironically enough, Pfeffer is taking college classes online at Penn State World Campus, so he and Wolverton could one day be fellow Nittany Lion alumni.

"I don't regret a single decision I made," Pfeffer said. "I'm enjoying every second."

Meanwhile, Wolverton could have forced an early professional career.

He probably could have utilized that dual-citizenship and found a club in Europe to take him out of high school. And if an intriguing offer came along during his years at Penn State, the goalkeeper admitted: he probably would have taken it.

But in the end, he knows there was really no rush.

"It was a really easy decision for me, and it worked out in the end," Wolverton said. "I had a lot of developing left to do before going pro."

And that's essentially what it comes down to: a personal choice.

Does the emergence of youth academies mean the death of college soccer's relevancy? In the present, no, and if the scheduling proposal can be passed, it doesn't look like that would be the case moving forward.

Irvine, when talking about players signing with MLS young, said, "There are no guarantees."

Wolverton can relate to that, too. Going to college, he became one of thousands of players competing for scouts' attention, and the foot injury he thinks was due to “overuse,” didn't help his draft stock, either.

While the keeper’s right foot was healing on that March day, Pfeffer almost made a career memory with his. The score still locked between the Union and the Colorado Rapids, Pfeffer fielded a bouncing ball, settled, tried to avoid a defender, and pounded a shot from the 18-yard box.

Hanging in the air for a brief moment, the ball curved. And curved. The crowd felt a rush of anticipation that was audible.

Wide right.

Pfeffer’s shot wasn’t the game-winner. But it was one with promise.

As Wolverton waited in Atlanta to heal completely and Pfeffer fought for time with the Union, it's clear neither choice is devoid of risk.

But whatever system they came from, both men now have a new goal: make an impact domestically and, subsequently, help the game in the United States flourish.

And like American soccer, Wolverton and Pfeffer still have room to grow.

"You're never going to be fully ready ... But you have to do the best you can in the situation," Wolverton said. "Hopefully I can make the most of it."

Postscript: Zach Pfeffer has established himself as a starter on the Union and scored in its 2-1 win over New York City FC. On Wednesday, he was the last cut on the U.S. U-20 World Cup team as FIFA cleared Arsenal's Gedion Zelalem to represent the USA. Four months after being drafted, Andrew Wolverton finally joined the LA Galaxy for training.  After the goalkeeper's first session, Galaxy coach Bruce Arena commented, "He's done well so far."
John McGonigal wrote this piece as a student project with the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.  

3 comments about "College or pro? Soccer in America increasingly faces a choice of how to develop players".
  1. R2 Dad, May 14, 2015 at 10:26 p.m.

    "With a player with talent, it's up to them. A player is responsible for their own development ... If they don't want to do the work, that's on them. And with Zach, you never had to worry about that" - Rob Irvine, Zach's coach at youth club FC Delco. Perhaps we should start with a conversation that lists all the requirements for development to occur. It's easy to take some of these comments, parsed from a much larger interview, out of context. But I think the equation is more complicated than Skill + Work = Development. I think clubs are responsible for having the environment where development can occur, and many/most punt on that. I'm very glad to hear college coaches are trying to push the NCAA to change their antiquated seasonal structure. MLS may have started out as a college league, but it's been at least 5 years since that was the case. Our collegians weren't making the grade, and this is reflected in the non-event that has become the MLS draft.

  2. beautiful game, May 16, 2015 at 9:40 a.m.

    I see no problem with soccer players turning pro after college. In most cases, the good prospects have physicality, work ethic, and commitment to succeed. What soccer IQ and its nuances they lack in most cases was never honed unless they played travel ball or had a high school coach who demanded of his players to "make something happen." Unfortunately, that next level of development stops between the ages of 14-22. So the MLS will continue on its current physical play until such a time when the nuances of the game become part of the player DNA.

  3. Christopher Vreeland, May 27, 2015 at 7:34 p.m.

    "There's an emphasis to make everything not in [the MLS] model seem irrelevant," Warming said with bite. "College soccer will always be relevant. MLS is a college league."

    I guess I would not expect a Big 10 coach to say otherwise, but anyone without a dog in the fight can clearly see that college ball is not doing anything to move the game forward in this country. Abolish the NCAA (or at least get them out of soccer - they can continue to muck up football, basketball and baseball for all I care).

    A two and half month season does nothing for a player other than exhaust them and take away from their studies. Pesonally, for me it is the "college" aspect of MLS that makes it a less desirable product to watch. I can watch "physically fit" players play "robust" soccer all day without getting the least bit excited.

    Once we get rid of the "robust" college players, MLS´ "watchability" will increase to the point of making me a regular attendee. Until then, I will watch occasionally but it is difficult to get as excited for a Chicago Fire (to pick on the team whose games I occasionally attend) as for a Barcelona or Bayern match on TV.

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