By DAN KARELL
While many 18-year olds in the United States are currently hitting the books at their respective colleges and universities in preparation for final exams, one 18-year-old is taking this time to relax.
Following a 12-month loan at TSG 1899 Hoffenheim in Germany, Philadelphia Union midfielder Zachary Pfeffer returned home no longer a boy. While plenty of students go abroad for a semester or two their junior year of college, Pfeffer couldn’t wait until then.
For the first time in his life, Pfeffer was living by himself, in a new country, with a different language, a long way away from his family. It would have been easy to wilt under the difficulties of living abroad, but Pfeffer dove headfirst into the challenge and came away from the experience a more seasoned soccer player and a more mature person.
“(The Hoffenheim coaching staff) were very happy with how I adapted off the field and threw myself into their culture and embraced the language,” Pfeffer told SBI in a phone interview. “They just think I grew in all facets of the game in the last year, especially in the aggressive side side of the game too.”
One of the many lessons learned by the young Pfeffer during his time in Hoffenheim was honing that aggressive side in training and in matches, and the daily battles each player takes to either keep their place in the lineup or wrench it from someone else.
Back in the United States, Pfeffer didn’t feel the constant pressure of playing week in and week out when he signed a homegrown player contract with the Union as a 15-year-old. He wasn’t expected to be providing for his family like many others around the world do. Pfeffer says he learned quickly that if he wanted to succeed at Hoffenheim, he needed to adopt what he calls a “German mentality” to come into training each day with a purpose.
“It’s just that mentality that when you go on the field, you see that guy across from you and you say ‘I’m going to beat that guy, or I’m going to win that contract, I’m going to work harder than him, I’m going to be more aggressive than him’, whatever you want to say,” explained Pfeffer, who says that he is now fluent in German. “I think that German mentality is something I really picked up and it will really help me going forward with the Union.
“In Germany and Europe in general, I feel like it’s a different environment. It’s very very competitive and you’re always fighting. (For) the younger players, if you don’t have a pro contract yet, you’re fighting to get that pro contract. A lot of the guys stop (school) at a younger age so they have to make it as a professional player to really make a good living and have a successful life. If you fight, it makes you work harder.”
The adjustment to living on his own in Germany was aided by Pfeffer’s familiarity with Hoffenheim and their numerous American links.
Pfeffer revealed that he had spent part of his first two MLS offseason’s training with the club, which currently includes U.S. Men’s National Team member Fabian Johnson in their first team as well as German-American Fabian Hürzeler and former youth National Team member Joe Gyau in the reserves. In addition, Pfeffer’s fellow Pennsylvania native, Russell Canouse, is a member of Hoffenheim’s academy and the two of them formed a tight bond during Pfeffer’s 12-month stay in Germany.
“Russell helped me a lot,” said Pfeffer. “The second half of my loan (after the summer break) we got an apartment together in Sinsheim, which is the next town over from Hoffenheim, so that was actually really nice. We consider ourselves brothers on and off the field.”
Both Canouse and Pfeffer took a trip in mid-November to Italy after being called up for a ten-day camp with the U.S. Under-20 National Team under the direction of Tab Ramos. After moving up the youth ranks with the U-15s, U-17s, and U-18s, it was the first U-20 camp for both 18-year-old players as Ramos begins preparing for the 2015 CONCACAF Under-20 Championship.
Though the Hoffenheim duo had to miss the final game due to club commitments, both Pfeffer and Canouse started the first friendly match against Hellas Verona (finished in a 4-1 defeat) and Pfeffer in particular came away from the camp with a positive experience.
“It was great camp, I really enjoyed it,” said Pfeffer. “We had a good group of players, a lot of players that were in MLS or European environments. I really like coach Tab and the whole training staff, they’re all great guys. It was a great way to start off the (U-20 World Cup) cycle.
“(Ramos) wants me to try to be a leader in the group going forward throughout the cycle, hopefully that will be the case,” continued Pfeffer. “I’m very excited for the whole cycle, hopefully we’ll get to qualifying and qualify to the World Cup. He expects big things out of me because I’ve been in the professional environment for a few years.”
After a few weeks of rest and recovery from a long year that included a few sessions with the Hoffenheim first team and reserves, which Pfeffer called “a great experience,” the Dresher, Pa.- native will be working with the Philadelphia Union fitness coaches to get his body in shape as the Union head into the 2014 season.
As he nears his 19th birthday, Pfeffer has already traveled and experienced more than some people twice his age, or ever will in their lives. And though he tries to maintain a balance between his friends back home and his professional life, Pfeffer is very grateful for all the opportunities he’s had so far.
“I think a lot of times, when you’re just sitting around not doing too much, you get thoughts that come to your mind and you get time to reflect,” revealed Pfeffer. “I’ve had so many experiences that many people don’t have in their entire lifetime. I’ve been to numerous countries all through the world, in Europe, South America, all throughout the United States, and those experiences also help me in my soccer career and in my life as well.
“I think I’m very blessed and I’m thankful for all the experiences I have had.”