Ridley Drive in the Delco suburb of Wallingford is an unlikely home for a professional sports team. A sleepy cul-de-sac off the main road, it’s flanked on one side by a row of two-story brick houses, on the other by what appears to be a cow pasture. About a hundred yards after the turnoff, a small yellow sign warns: “Slow: Children at Play.” On a brisk Tuesday morning in March, the sign assumes a double meaning.
Over on the pasture—which turns out to be the practice field of the Philadelphia Union, the city’s 3-year-old Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise—16-year-old Zach Pfeffer struggles to free himself for a shot in a five-on-five scrimage. Staring him down in goal is fellow rookie, 19-year-old Zac MacMath. Off beyond the sideline doing calisthenics with the rest of the squad is another rookie, 21-year-old Ryan Richter, a La Salle guy.
These young men represent the new faces of MLS, a league that’s gone through nearly as many incarnations as it has seasons.
When it opened for business in 1996, MLS was hailed as the Zion of the exiled American stars who’d long been forced to toil in distant lands. National team icons like John Harkes and Tab Ramos flocked home from Europe to kick off a new era in American soccer.
Next came the MLS-as-international-retirement-home phase. Washed-up greats like German legend Lothar Matthaus and Mexican striker Luis Hernández arrived to great acclaim, only to disappoint fans with underwhelming performances and a distinct lack of interest.
After that, a surge of young American talent—DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan, Freddy Adu—gave the league a much needed, albeit temporary, shot in the arm.
Then, in 2007, the David Beckham era. The English megastar signed a five-year, $250 million deal to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy. To reconcile Beckham’s $6.5 million annual salary (the rest comes from endorsements) with its $2.1 million salary cap, MLS introduced the Designated Player (DP) rule, which allowed each club to sign one player at an unlimited salary with only the first $400,000 counting against the cap.
Beckham’s arrival triggered frenzied speculation about an impending influx of expensive international stars. It hasn’t happened. Although MLS clubs have landed some marquee talents under the DP rule, including French striker Thierry Henry and Mexican and former Barcelona defender Rafa Marquez, they have been few and far in between. Only two Designated Players have been brought in for the new season, and the majority of the league’s 18 teams don’t have any.
It turns out the coming of the Beckham era was a mirage. Instead, his four years in America have witnessed MLS’ evolution into its latest—and perhaps most lasting—incarnation as a home for up-and-coming talent. Young players, many still in their teens, now command a sizeable share of just about every club’s roster, and a number are rapidly emerging as full-fledged stars. Last season’s rookie of the year, Andy Najar of D.C. United, was 17 when he won the award.
Fittingly, the biggest story of the new season’s first weeks has been the New York Red Bulls’ 18-year-old striker, Juan Agudelo. A product of the club’s youth system, Agudelo bagged the winner in the Red Bulls’ 1-0 victory over Seattle in Week One. Several days later, he equalized for the U.S. national team in its 1-1 draw with Argentina.
This trend is no accident. In recent years, MLS has dramatically recommitted itself to nurturing young talent. In 2007, the league mandated that all clubs establish youth development programs, or academies, similar to those in Europe and South America. That edict coincided with the creation of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, whose Academy League features both MLS academy teams and top youth clubs.
Complementing the academy system has been the Homegrown Player initiative, also instituted by the league in 2007, which gives clubs first option on signing players registered for at least a year in their youth programs. Previously, all players entering the league were thrown into the MLS SuperDraft, where they could be scooped up by the earliest bidder. The setup served as a powerful disincentive against investing too heavily in local talents, who could just as easily end up with a conference rival as with the team that had devoted untold amounts of time and resources developing them.
Since 2007, nearly 40 homegrown players have joined MLS. In December, then-15-year-old Zach Pfeffer became the Union’s first homegrown signing and the league’s fourth-youngest player. Pfeffer, a native of Dresher, Pa., who has played for local youth powerhouse FC Delco and the Under-14, U-15 and U-17 national teams, was called up in July to compete for the Union academy team at the league’s SUM U-17 Cup in Houston. After impressing the coaches with his performances, Pfeffer was invited to train with the Union first team for the rest of the season. A few months later, the Union offered him a professional contract.
Pfeffer’s ascent is the most conspicuous symbol of the Union’s place at the forefront of the youth trend in MLS. Last year, the expansion Union had the youngest team in the league, the average player about 24 years old. This year’s group is even younger, despite the addition of 39-year-old goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon. Twelve of the 25 rostered players are 22 or younger. Seven are rookies.
A big factor in opening the door to so many up-and-comers has been the exodus of older American stars. Of the 23 members of the American 2010 World Cup roster, just three—Landon Donovan, Jay DeMerit and, as of last week, Benny Feilhaber—play in MLS. Three have left MLS since the World Cup for foreign clubs, with DeMerit and Feilhaber moving in the opposite direction. By contrast, the 2006 roster featured 11 MLS players and the 2002 roster 12.
MLS Director of Communications Will Kuhns says the movement of American players abroad, replaced by increasing numbers of youngsters and foreign imports, reflects the league’s integration into the globalized soccer marketplace and has bolstered the league’s overall quality. “Now there’s a full cycle of talent in and out every year,” he says. “Every year the clubs are improving. If you look at Year 15 versus Year 7, you’d see a stark contrast.”
It’s hard to quibble with Kuhns’ optimistic assessment. Attendance is on the rise—2010 had the third-highest average attendance in league history. MLS continues to expand, growing from 10 teams in 2004 to 18 today. By the end of this season, all but a few clubs will have soccer-specific stadiums to call home, a key league priority. And outreach to Latino-Americans has finally started to make inroads, positioning MLS to tap increasingly into the market of the country’s fastest-growing demographic. A few weeks into its 16th season, Major League Soccer has arguably never been healthier.
For the rookies of the Philadelphia Union, these are exciting times. They’ve entered MLS with vastly divergent backgrounds and pedigrees—some as youth national team standouts who toyed with playing in Europe before opting to start their careers in the States, others as relative underdogs who had to claw their way onto the roster. However they got here, though, they’re enjoying the ride.
For 16-year-old Pfeffer, life doesn’t get much better than this. Pfeffer, whose slight frame and boyish face belie his impressive maturity, speaks in measured but glowing terms about his first months as a pro. “It’s wonderful just waking up, coming to the stadium, and doing what you love to do,” he says. “That’s the best possible scenario.” He has no doubt that jumping to the professional ranks at this point was the correct choice. “We talked about it obviously, and made sure we were making the right decision, but ultimately it wasn’t something I was going to pass up.”
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