Major League Soccer Undergoes a Rookie Revolution

By Aaron Ross
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Apr. 27, 2011

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Pfeffer’s leap entailed more than just adjusting to the increased physicality and speed of play of the pro game. It’s also meant juggling a full-time job with a full academic course load and as typical a high school sophomore’s life as possible. Pfeffer takes two classes each morning before heading to practice. (He won’t get his driver’s license until July, so he typically relies on his mom for a ride.) After practice, he completes the rest of his courses online.

As for missing out on much of the teen experience, Pfeffer seems unbothered. “I can still be a teenager, I can still hang out with my friends on the weekends and see them in school during the week, so it’s sort of just a normal routine right now.”

Richter, a native of Southampton, whose previous visits to the Union’s PPL Park in Chester were as a fan, is also living a dream. Coming from La Salle, a school not known for churning out professional soccer players, Richter was nonetheless determined to make it as a pro. After a senior year in which he scored 14 goals, Richter sensed a future in soccer could well be in the cards.

“As soon as the [college] season was over, I immediately started talking to people. I was just trying to continue my career wherever it was—if it didn’t work out in the MLS, then somewhere else.” Chosen in the first round of the supplemental draft, he had to prove himself over a month of training camp in Orlando and then Greece, where he impressed the coaching staff with his fitness and work ethic. On March 1, Richter was officially introduced on the Union website as the team’s latest signing.

Like Pfeffer, Richter’s days are jam-packed between soccer and schoolwork. Richter, who hopes to graduate in May with an accounting degree, is plodding his way through six courses this semester by combining night classes, online work and meetings with professors. However, he’s not necessarily eager to put that degree to use anytime soon. “My goal is to [still] be playing for the Philadelphia Union in five years,” he says.

Goalkeeper Zac MacMath took a rather different path to MLS. MacMath, a longtime fixture on the U.S. youth national teams, stepped straight into the starter’s role as a freshman at Maryland in 2008, helping lead the Terrapins to a national title. Questions followed MacMath around for the next two years over when and where he would go pro. He spent part of last summer training with English Premier League side Everton, where he lived with starting Everton and U.S. keeper Tim Howard.

MacMath returned to Maryland in the fall for his junior season but soon decided that the time had come to take the next step. “I know this is the best thing for my career,” he says. “This is what I’ve wanted to do … my whole life.”

In December, MacMath signed a Generation Adidas contract, a program that signs about 10 of the top American college underclassmen and youth national team members each year and places them in the upcoming draft. The contracts tend to be significantly higher than the average rookie’s and include a stipend for continued education. Although MacMath had a couple options in Europe, MLS—and Generation Adidas—seemed like the best choice. Now in Philadelphia, he finds himself playing for three coaches—Head Coach Piotr Nowak, Assistant Coach John Hackworth and Goalkeeping Coach Rob Vartughian—he’s worked with before, either on the national team or at Maryland. For the moment, MacMath is stuck in the No. 2 spot behind veteran Colombian Faryd Mondragon, but he’s confident that this environment will help him realize his goal of becoming a starter within the next few years. “I kind of had an idea that for me it might be a process and that it might be a few years before I settled into a starter” he says. “I’m taking everything I can from [Mondragon] as long as I can. And I know what my role is.”

The past three months have been nothing short of a whirlwind for the rookies. The season began Jan. 24—six days after the supplemental draft—with indoor workouts in Wayne. One week later, the squad traveled to Orlando for a three-week training camp, followed immediately by another two-week camp in Greece, which included two exhibition matches, extensive tactical work, and what Coach Nowak described as “some kind of initiation for the rookies.”

Pressed for details, none of the rookies would budge. “I don’t want to be the one to give up the goods and have to go through that again,” laughed 20-year-old forward Chris Agorsor. “It wasn’t pleasant.”

The first weeks back home have offered little respite. The season opener in Houston came just nine days after the team returned to the States. Meanwhile, the rookies have been undergoing a complete immersion into the life of a professional athlete—practice, film sessions, media requests, public functions. One of these, a Meet the Players event, drew hundreds of fans to PPL Park days before the home opener.

The event’s success was hardly a surprise for one of the best-supported teams in the league. In its first season, the Philadelphia Union had the fourth-highest average attendance in MLS. And despite lacking any real stars within their ranks, Union players are treated like royalty by their followers, especially their fanatical supporters club, the Sons of Ben.

At home games, the Sons of Ben occupy the stadium’s River End along the banks of the Delaware. When the starting lineup is introduced, the announcer calls out each player’s first name, and the crowd responds by shouting his last. By far the loudest—and longest—cry is reserved for last season’s leading goal scorer, French forward Sebastien LeToux, whose last syllable is drawn out as much as humanly possible—“Le-Tooooooo!!!”

Throughout the game, the Sons of Ben wave their blue and yellow flags, mercilessly taunt opposing players, and chant and sing. If you close your eyes briefly and somehow block out the sound of Philly-accented men hurling abuse at the ref, you might just convince yourself you’ve landed in one of Europe’s famed soccer meccas.

One of their favorite songs goes to the tune of Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him”:

We love ya, we love ya, we love ya

And where you go we’ll follow, we’ll follow, we’ll follow

’Cause we support the Union, the Union, the Union

And that’s the way we like it, we like it, we like it

Oh-oh-oh-oh-ohhhhh …

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1. Jeff said... on Apr 27, 2011 at 09:30AM

“Aaron, this is my first time reading your work, but you did a fantastic job. Great article and an interesting insight into the life of a rookie. I hope to make it out to a reserve match sometime soon to watch these guys play,”

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2. MAURICIO BARREIRO said... on Apr 28, 2011 at 04:50PM

“Very fine and well researched article that covers everything one needs to know about making it in the MLS. The depth of the article tells me that you respect the sport, as well as the athletes. And a new soccer writer is born.... Congrats!”

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