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Union’s Pfeffer joining Hoffenheim on loan (move could start a trend for young MLS prospects)

Young Philadelphia Union midfielder Zach Pfeffer will spend 2013 in Germany rather than MLS, joining Bundesliga side TSG Hoffenheim on a year-long loan deal, the Union announced on Tuesday.

The 17-year-old Pfeffer is one of the more promising youth prospects in the MLS system, having helped lead the Philadelphia Union academy team to the Generation adidas Cup title while also earning looks with the U.S. Under-18 national team.

The loan deal should be seen more as a year-long training stint, with playing time for the Bundesliga side a highly-unlikley proposition. He should still benefit from the experience of training with one of the better youth set-ups in Europe and a club with several ties to American soccer. Along with featuring U.S. national team players Fabian Johnson and Danny Williams, Hoffenheim also has American winger Joe Gyau on the books, as well as youth team standout Russell Canouse, a close friend of Pfeffer’s.

Pfeffer was unlikely to be a key figure in the Union’s 2013 plans, but joining Hoffenheim could allow him more opportunities for quality playing time with the Hoffenheim U-19 team.

The loan move is a very interesting one, and could wind up setting a trend among teams that have young players who are talented but not quite ready to earn playing time in MLS. With the MLS Reserve League still just a 10-game season, teams are desperate to find more ways to earn their best youth talent regular playing time.

What do you think of this development? Like the idea of a teenager player spending a year in Europe, or think he’d be better off staying with the Union?

Share your thoughts below.


  1. The problem with expanding the academy season is for teams that are not associated with an MLS club (and even some that are) is that pay to play is really expensive. My son plays U-10 and we pay thousands a year already. Asking parents to foot the bill for additional expense of an expanded season at the academy level is too much. My son’s club just affiliated with an MLS team and all it meant was we had to shell out for new uniforms.

    The US system is a joke. Because of the costs involved, the US loses great athletes to other sports. If, in a few years, he shows serious potential we’ll send him to live with family in the UK. We are lucky that he holds dual citizenship and has that option.

    • As someone who played club, HS, and college, I couldn’t agree more. My parents had limited means and while I played for a good club I had to worry about financing it. And at least when I was playing, the Olympic Development Program — the youth pipeline — was itself pay to play, with travel and training costs. Players I know were even cut from ODP on an affordability basis. Most went on to play college, but perhaps not at the same level of college team an ODP stamp of approval would have allowed. It’s silly to make means a factor in who emerges from the system, and with what ease.

  2. Another variation on the theme of getting young, promising guys good training and some sort of playing time, why not?

    Some loans to NASL/USL work well (Connor Shanosky from DCU to Ftl Lauderdale this year, from everything we heard), some guys are better off going to college for a year or two or more, some guys will get training opportunities like this.

    Long term, easy to agree that the reserve league needs to expand, get better, maybe have reserve teams play against USL/NASL teams closest to them, etc, but, in the meantime (and probably for a long time), it is going to be a menu of options teams and players choose from and try to make work.

    • The problem is that the 25-30 type roster spots in MLS, in light of the short reserve season, are basically a Frankenstein CBA compromise between teams that wanted deeper first teams — to handle injuries — and players who wanted deeper rosters to employ more of them, as well as increased salaries. To justify having all these players standing around they revived the old reserve league but with a shortened, regional season to seemingly save money. Which to me hints at the issue, a lot of the teams don’t really want to spend the money to increase the schedule. With the size of our country there is lots of travel involved.

      I think as long as the reserve team is a first team adjunct a la England it’s not going to work for us, because the way the players are treated is dictated by first team needs and it’s seen as an added cost to be minimized rather than a potential benefit. I think we need either minor league affiliates, or like Mexico and Germany, the reserve teams need to compete in another league, either just themselves or with our lower divisions. The players need to get PT and they need to be brought along to the first team only when ready, not just because they could be signed or drafted a given year.

  3. The post makes it sound like the reserve league is the only way to get minutes. Virtually all young players like him also play for their club’s academy team. For example, Jack McBean, a 17 year-old Galaxy player who got a bit more senior team time than Pfeffer (although mostly, but not exclusively, in CONCACAF and US Cup competitions) regularly supplemented his reserve league games by playing with the Galaxy’s U18 Academy team. So, the problem is not so much that the reserve league is too short, but rather that Hoffenheim’s U19 team must be getting better training and competition than the Union’s U18 or U19 academy team.

    • You can’t really compare academy minutes to reserve team minutes or U-19 Bundesliga minutes. Academy minutes are pretty useless for serious pros. It’s better than nothing, but there are much better alternatives.

      • True, but that’s why I pointed out that this is the real problem, not the lack of reserve league games. If we had higher quality academy set-ups, then that would be the place for these kind of very young pro players.

      • Expanding the reserve league matches is the easiest least expensive option. If MLS expanded to U-19 teams and U-21 teams that would be extremely costly. These players would be adults. Would you pay them? If so you’re talking about paying 20 players per team. In addition all these players would have to give up college for a small percentage chance of becoming a well paid professional.

      • Actually, I don’t know if it’s better, but loaning players to lower divisions, as DC United did with youth products Ethan White and Conor Shanosky this year, is certainly cheaper.

        Sending them to college is also cheaper, and I think you’re seeing more MLS teams decide that Home Grown players can play a year or two of college while they are getting physically ready for the pros.

    • What about homegrown players that are 19-21? Most aren’t getting playing time for the MLS team and are too old for the U-18 team. Thats why the best option is to expand the number of reserve team matches.

      • I think we should act more along the lines of US baseball or basketball where entry level players progress through the minors (OK, more hoops players make the first team, but…) and prove their bona fides — while getting valuable PT and training — before moving up to the first team when the first team believes they are ready.

        I don’t think we need pro-rel, I think we need minor league affiliates. If you’re going to send Soto to San Antonio or Pfeffer to Hoffenheim, to play some random style not necessarily related to yours, why not have our own minor league teams in some other North American city, which gives those fans an improved product of players with more upside, and gives the MLS teams a real resource for developing their players? Because the current system is really just an excuse to roster a deeper bunch of first teamers with a short league to justify the added payroll. In which case, why not have a separate minors team, which you can draw upon say once per player per season, if you have injury issues?

    • Pfeffer led the Union’s U18 team to the Generation Adidas cup (it’s in the article) and has been getting call ups for the national team at every age group. I think this is more about getting him around better players to help him grow. Pfeffer was on Hoffenheim’s radar before the Union signed him as a Homegrown. Philly was also at a developmental disadvantage as they started from scratch where as a lot of the expansion teams came from a pre-existing team in a lower division. Those clubs had been established and had their academies already working. The Union, instead of trying to create a whole new team, decided to adopt local academies into a system under the Union. This gives them both flexibility but also causes them to not have fully structured youth teams. Pfeffer played for FC Delco which is one of the areas better youth clubs.

  4. This is probably a good thing, but it makes we wish that as much attention and effort went into building the lower tiers of American soccer as went into talking about MLS expansion. The European option should always be on the table, but it’d be nice to have more viable NASL or USL Pro teams for these kids to play on.

    • NASL has announced they will be playing with 11 teams in 2014, USL PRO that they will be playing with 14 in 2014 (NASL played this season with 8, USL with 11). While MLS expansion has slowed for the time being, expansion in the second and third tiers is once again brisk.

  5. I was a bit confused when I heard about this. From everything the Union have said about it, they are definitely planning on taking Pfeffer back when the loan is up. So why would Hoffenheim dedicate playing time with their youth/reserve teams to someone who isn’t going to be with them in the future? The only thing I can think of is they plan on buying him if they like what they see…or maybe there is something I’m missing..? Either way, congrats to Zach, this is definitely a promising development for his career.

    • I know Hoffenheim has been chasing Pfeffer even before he signed with the Union so it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a bid to purchase him outright if he impresses on loan. It might not be immediately after the loan is up, but possibly in a few years.

    • I agree. What’s the win for Hoffenheim here? Other than goodwill and I suppose potentially getting to see a player they may want for their full team someday… but that seems like its not the point of this from their side.

    • Those are good points, David JS. I also am a bit confused by this move and I am not so sure it is good deal. I am not saying it won’t be good, just that I don’t know. But let’s not forget that Joe Gyua in the interesting interview he gave SBI a couple weeks ago said he wanted out of Hoffenheim’s youth set-up, and he and his agent took the initiative to make St. Pauli happen.

      Hoffenheim is now sitting in the relegation zone of the Bundesliga and yesterday fired coach Markus Babbel–the fourth firing in 24 months. Lot of stories in the German press are declaring the Hoffenheim experiment a failure and a lot of uppity German fans who love traditional clubs that are not propped up by rich owners or corporations (Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg) are hoping for the demise of Hoffenheim. All that said, with a billionaire owner who desperately wants to succeed, I would not bet against Hoffenheim.

    • Most loan deals contain a buy clause, so if he goes over there and blows them away, they get a chance to buy him before anyone else. That’s the risk of this deal for Philly. If he’s really good they’ll make some money, but lose the player. It also helps build a pipeline for Hoffenheim to tap into the American youth talent pool.

      • Philly is emphasizing that they “have already exercised Zach’s contract option for 2014”. I guess, in one sense, that drives up the price of any potential deal, but also suggests, to me at least, that this about developing the player not trying to deal him.

  6. Not only a real reserve league, but some sort of real youth leagues as well. Take some money out of the 10 million they were going to offer Drogba and lets put it into these systems that will actually end up helping develop our youth and in turn create a better standard of league over time.

    • The development academy system for youth players (not perfect, but much better) is already in place for MLS academies and non-MLS academies who meet the standards. Not sure what more you are after. Can you elaborate?

  7. I like the way this sounds and the precedent it sets. Until the MLS figures out out how to actually develop talent. Strictly stay under 16 then farm out the better prospects to Europe for training. Will get more complete players when they return. Wouldnt be a bad move to send over some youth coaches also.

    • I don’t think you can send a non-EU player to Europe before age 18, unless his parents go with him for “non-football” reasons.

      • That’s correct. It’s considered Slaving a player since he is not of age. It’s a FIFA policy. If the player leaves for certain amount of kilometers from his home, his parents must be moving also; like Messi moved to Barca as a kid. That way players are not just moving to the big clubs alone and the little clubs suffer.

  8. Philly is like the extreme couponing of MLS, they always find ways to do things on the cheap. Such as having a couple of academies that they don’t provide any funding for. The Pfeffer loan is a great move because it will allow him to have a long 10 month season with plenty of games and training. In the long term, MLS needs to expand the reserve league. Any idea who will pay Pfeffer’s salary?

  9. I’m sure he will get playing time for Hoffenheim II that plays in the competitive Regionaliga Sudwest. Addtionally, if anyone is wondering how he can be loaned to a European club at 17, when he comes outside of the continent, he turns 18 Jan. 6th hence the loan starting Jan.7th. This is a good move. Reserve games simply don’t provide the number of games.

    • I am not so sure. Gyau and Renken made a similar move to Hoffenheim and Renken never emerged from their youth teams, only to come back home an injured wreck, while Gyau progressed up to the reserves after a few years, then dressed with the senior team but didn’t play, only to move down? sideways? to St. Pauli on loan. I’d not assume at all he’s on their reserves. I’m sure Hoffenheim agreed precisely because he’s going to be just another youth team body that will either pan out or not.

      • In Europe it’s not as easy as you’re X years old with X year of experience so now you get to be on the full men’s team. Gyau is doing what most other kids his age are forced to do: go on loan.

        And Renken was just unlucky. It happens to hundreds of prospects a year. It just hurts us more because we have so few.

      • I understand Renken had bad injury luck and Gyau is still earning his stripes. My point actually dovetails with that. The initial poster seemed to assume he’d be headed straight to the reserve team in the fourth division. Renken, luck or not, never made it; Gyau made it but had to go on loan to progress meaningfully upwards.

        The one positive I see in this is that he will likely move into an age-appropriate development environment, where people like him are the focus. I think the fallacy of the MLS approach is that these players are treated like they’ve progressed to the first team when you might be plucking them from a U-18 academy that’s not entirely rigorous. In the more comprehensive structures in Europe a player like this would have more intermediate steps, eg, all the steps Hoffenheim has in its ladder between U-17-ish and the first team. You can literally go play for a separate reserve side with a full slate of games. IMO PT is everything. Even England that we’re imitating has moved towards calling its reserve teams U-21 sides.

        Until the academies are more resourced and the squad numbers higher and the reserve league more real, I actually think a marginal player might have a better shot going to college for at least a few years, or signing for a European or Mexican youth team. The first team coaches won’t risk their jobs playing the kids unless they become can’t miss, and that puts the kids in the position of ramping up from U-18 to senior adult pro level in roughly 1-2 years before the first team flushes them and tries someone else. If that’s the case, why not go to Louisville like Berry and DeLeon (or whatever equivalent you can think of), get PT and personalized training, and come out more prepared?

        Added thought: is there a possibility that the homegrown “dibs” system encourages academy-committed players to come out too early and participate in this shambles since they aren’t going to be draft-eligible anyway? Cause at least theoretically, if I was a kid, I’d want to be at the worst possible team (or at least worst staffed at my spot), where they would have the need to use me ASAP. I don’t even know if I’d bother homegrowning at LA or Houston cause what’s the chance of you playing in 1-2 years? You might as well play Powerball.

      • Academy players *are* draft eligible. There’s nothing binding about the Academy relationship (you can’t sign that sort of contract and retain NCAA eligibility, and in fact it might not even be legal), if the player wants to graduate from the academy, go to college for 4 years, and then declare for the draft, he can.

      • I know they are draft eligible but if you have to endure a full college stint to get around the homegrown label….well, I don’t know if these players need 4 years and a degree……average player soon to enter the real job market, yes, but high draft pick likely to have at least 1 MLS season….you’d be better off coming out a year or two early and GA’ing it.

        However, what you are suggesting is possible, Sebastian Ibeagha of the US U20 and Duke and Dynamo academy has had an excuse every year why he won’t sign with us (this year it was an ineffective campaign for the U23 squad), and I’m sure part of that is keeping his options open. So, yeah, you don’t have to sign the deal.

      • Renken had injuries – these things happen. Gyau is still only 20, how many 20 year olds do Hoffenheim typically have on their match day lineup? I didn’t have time to look up the answer to that, but my guess is not many if any. Russell Canouse seems to be doing well in their system, I thought I read he just signed a professional contract. Pfeffer will get better training and play more games at a higher level, what is the downside to this?

  10. Is there a reason our reserve league is still only 10 games? Seems like we would change that with all the emphasis on developing youth in America. Has there been any talk on this subject recently?

    • 1 game, 4 minutes, and then off to Europe to play in a youth system????? I think this underlines the absurdity of the current MLS development strategy. We have a 10 game, half-cooked reserve league season to justify 30 man rosters and homegrown signings of players not ready to play. The reality is that players ostensibly signed as homegrowns like Pfeffer and Houston’s Soto are then farmed out to minor league teams, or now, European academies. They don’t actually play and don’t really seem to be ready to play either. I fail to see the point. They might as well be in college, or actually playing in the minors. If you’re selfishly signing homegrowns to scoop up rights but can’t actually develop the players you get, what’s the point to it all?

      IMO, this is why we’ve gone from high quality US youth products to U-23 and U-20 not even qualifying, is that not everyone can sign for Arsenal, and domestically we are shifting from Bradenton and college where the up and comers are the focus, to these people signing as homegrowns and young draft picks in MLS, where it’s sink or swim, and you have to beat out some 28 year old veteran who plays exactly how the coach likes. The focus here is on the first team, where in Europe most of the teams have their own pipelines, and not just ones parasitic of the pre-existing club system.

      • give it some time, Rome was not built in a day. Hell, look at where MLS was 10-15 years ago. IT will take time for the reserve league to grow. MLS is on top of it.

        @Imperitive Voice, +1 college is still a great way to develope players until MLS does the reserve league better.

      • Developing a reserve system and an academy pipeline takes time. Some clubs are better with the Academy players than others. The U.S. soccer Development Academy program, and the MLS clubs’ participation in that program, is starting to pay some modest dividends. The problem is that investment takes two things that MLS has little of–time and money.

        The money issues are clear–an academy set up is a financial drain until such time as a club is able to sell and Academy product for a decent size fee after MLS takes their cut. For every Pfeffer or Andy Najar, there are dozens of players who never make the jump to the first team and end up playing in college (a very good thing) or in the lower tiers of soccer (also not a bad thing). But those players use resources for training etc.

        The second element, time–is simply not present. A full integrated youth development program is not very old at all in this country if it even exists yet. But assuming what we have qualifies, it is less than a decade old.

        This youth investment is a long view project. You have to look not at the next five or ten years. You have to look on a time horizon of 20 years. the U.S. had that opportunity with Carlos Quieroz 20 years ago, but failed to grasp the idea. Blame is fair, but the lesson appears to be taking root.

  11. Seems like a really smart move and I agree that on paper it could set a good trend. Until the MLS reserve league becomes bigger this is a way to get experience for players while covering their salary (assuming that is part of the loan deal). Because these bigger clubs have the infrastructure it seems like a no brainer and the continued relationship with MLS and european clubs is nothing but a positive. We obviously see a few big clubs like Fulham not afraid to go to the USA/MLS well. Can be nothing but win win for both. I am still surprised ManU or Barcelona does not have a American training camp or some sort of USA operations. Anyone who has any kind of perspective should know that soccer is popular in the USA and if given the right attention, the USA can continually produce quality international players. Look at the Olympics as the prime example, we can support multiple sports and soccer has still not scratched the surface as far as development. Those that get in first will make the most of it.

    • Wait… we are now in a situation where young players not yet good enough to break through on an MLS team will go train with the young players in Germany not yet good enough to break through to the Bundesliga. That’s weird, but then again most progress is weird.

      • I don’t get what Hoff gets from this. I guess they could get a player under the radar so it’s a trial for them. But it costs them a lot of resources to have someone for a year.

        If it’s Philly paying for this, I can’t see it being beneficial for Philly.

        Not sure how you would turn this into a trend. Otherwise, surely you would have seen this in the 90s when it was popular to bring over Africans.

        Shoot, the visa problems would be a headache by themselves.

      • I imagine there’s a set purchase price involved, if Hoffenheim decides they like the kid.

        Here’s what I think happened:
        Back when Pfeffer was first coming up for consideration by MLS, European teams were already sniffing around. In order to get their hands on a good prospect, MLS let the Union fudge the then-existing participation rules a bit because they wanted to be able to sign a player with European potential. The enticement that MLS had is that the kid wouldn’t have to wait until he was 18 to go pro. On the other side, the thing that made it work for Pfeffer was a promise that once he turned 18, the Union wouldn’t stand in the way if European teams were still interested; they could collect a reasonable fee, but not try to hold on to the player if he wanted to go.

      • NYRB, Philly, DC are all close enough where these reserves should be playing all the time. Same with Seattle/Portland/Vancouver and Chivas/LAG.

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