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15-year-old makes professional soccer debut with Philly Union

Cameron Smith
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It's rare that something meaningful happens with fewer than 10 minutes remaining in a soccer friendly. Yet, two weeks ago, something meaningful really did happen in the waning moments of Philadelphia Union's 1-0 win over Mexican power Chivas Guadalajara: Philadelphia Union introduced the youngest player in club history, and one of the youngest in MLS history.

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As reported by Philly.com, the Philadelphia Union brought 15-year-old Zach Pfeffer off the bench in the team's friendly matchup against the original Chivas. A 10th grader at Upper Dublin High School in rural Philadelphia, Pfeffer entered the game with just less than eight minutes of regulation remaining, officially starting a professional career that could help open MLS doors to other budding American prospects.

"I didn't expect it at all," Pfeffer told Philly.com. "The game was on a Wednesday. So that Tuesday morning, we had a light session, and at the end of the session, [Union manager Peter Nowak] brought all of the players in, and out of nowhere he just said, 'I think everyone's going to play, and I think we're going to get Zach some minutes, too.'

"So it was a surprise, but I was pretty excited and obviously a little nervous, too."

At just 15, Pfeffer is easily one of the youngest players to appear for an MLS franchise's first team, and could possibly be the second youngest, behind erstwhile American phenom Freddy Adu, who debuted for D.C. United just months shy of his 15th birthday. Given Pfeffer's dramatic rise through the organization's youth program, it might not be long before he's appearing for the Union's first team regularly.

A member of the U-14 and U-15 national teams, Pfeffer only started training with the Union's new youth academy in May, but impressed enough at a summer U-17 tournament to earn a call up to practice with the first team. After Pfeffer proved he belonged with the Union first team, he decided to go all-in, adjusting his school schedule to take only a pair of classes each day in the morning before Union practices begin (he's taking the majority of his classes online so he can graduate on time). Then, the teenager travels to PPL Park to participate in all of the team's workouts.

Despite the professional work regimen, Pfeffer looks just like you'd imagine a 15-year-old soccer wunderkind would. At 5-foot-7, the attacking creative midfielder is 130 pounds on a good day. That puts him at risk of being run over by larger players in the MLS, but Pfeffer insisted in his interview with Philly.com that physicality was nothing new:

"I was definitely trying to go in and show that I wasn't afraid and that I could play at the professional level. Obviously, I still have a long way to go. But going into the game, I wanted to show that I was getting into tackles and I wouldn't back down. And I also wanted to show when I got the ball, what I could do, too."

Pfeffer did just that, impressing against one of Mexico's traditional powers in just a handful of minutes. And he got to do it in front of his hometown friends and former high school teammates at Upper Dublin High.

Those fans made it clear who they were there to see as soon as Pfeffer trotted on to the field as the game wound down, as you can hear in the video above.

"It was kind of funny because nobody had any idea what we were cheering for," Upper Dublin boys' soccer coach Rick Schmidt, who is also a season ticket holder for the Union, told Philly.com. "But for us, it was an amazingly proud moment."

If Pfeffer has anything to say about it, his friendly appearance won't be the last time his friends get to cheer for him at PPL Park.

"Ever since I started playing soccer when I was 4 years old, that's all that I ever wanted to do, play professional soccer," Pfeffer said. "So to step on that field with so many people there to support me was amazing. It was a great experience. I'll never forget it."

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