Dribbling the soccer ball at a full sprint across the expanse of green turf, Zach Pfeffer treads so lightly and moves so quickly that the ball passes almost imperceptibly from one foot to the other. The 16-year-old makes the drill appear as effortless as breathing.
Normally, such a display of skill and fitness would make the Upper Dublin High School sophomore stand out. But not here, at the first public workout of the year for the Philadelphia Union — the Major League Soccer franchise that's entering its second season — where everyone is a high-caliber player.
On Dec. 22, a little more than a week shy of his birthday, Pfeffer became one of the youngest athletes ever to sign a professional contract with an MLS team.
He's now competing against bigger, stronger and more experienced athletes. But according to one coach, what caught the team's eye was Zach's highly developed technical skills, honed through a desire to play that his parents said started around age 3 or 4.
By signing the contract, the trim teen — who stands at 5' 8" and weighs 145 pounds — also became the team's lone Jewish player. The particulars of the contract haven't been made public.
"There's not many Jewish players that are playing professional soccer, but hopefully, by me doing what I'm doing, who knows, maybe I can start a trend," he said in a recent interview.
Choosing to forego a chance at a college scholarship and play pro ball at 16 — he's said if he couldn't make it in the pros, he wouldn't want to play college ball anyway — surely isn't a typical decision for a high school student.
And the road to get here has been atypical at times; Zach has traveled all over the world for competition. He spent the first part of 2010 living and training in Florida as part of a national player development program, and this past fall even spent several weeks in Germany.
Now he attends Upper Dublin for chemistry and geometry, and completes the rest of his classes online, but he will miss over a month of school traveling with the team.
Yet despite all the scheduling craziness, his parents, Scott and Margie Pfeffer, made the decision that many sports parents make — there is still time for a Jewish education.
Zach and his brother Jared became Bar Mitzvahs at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, where they had gone since preschool, and attended confirmation classes for one year before deciding to give it up.
And while there may have been games during Passover or the High Holidays, Margie Pfeffer said that both boys always made it to services or seder afterward.
And as far as applying an aspect of Judaism to soccer, Zach said that "when you focus on something, you really try to believe in it, you really try to put all your efforts into what you are doing, and I think that's one thing being Jewish has taught to me," he said.
A 'True-Turf' Soccer Mom
Several dozen diehard fans of the Philadelphia Union gathered Monday at YSC Sports, a cavernous indoor facility in Wayne with multiple, "true-turf" soccer fields. Among those watching the action through the plexiglass was Margie Pfeffer, who is driving her son to and from practice since he doesn't have a license yet.
With a heart-monitor strapped to his chest, just like his other teammates, the teen joined the 24 other players in ball-handling drills and taking part in a full scrimmage, minus goalies.
The youngster's mother couldn't go for long without being recognized. A few fans asked if she was Zach's mom, and began offering good wishes and peppering her with questions, which she patiently answered.
One questioner took out his smartphone and showed her a Facebook posting about Zach; another fan offered to tutor her son in chemistry.
(For the record, he's doing very well in that subject; and the one thing the grandson of a Cuban Jew wanted for his birthday was a computer program to improve his Spanish and so better communicate with some of his teammates.)
"You never expect this to happen to your own child," said Margie Pfeffer.
Staying on Course
Despite her obvious pride, she acknowledged some misgivings about her son's nascent pro-career and the somewhat unusual path he's taking for a Jewish American teen.
And while she said that he's done a good job of keeping up his schoolwork so far, she wonders how well he will be able to focus when the team heads out of town for several stints of intensive training, followed by road trips during the season.
However, she insisted that her son doesn't have a choice; he must earn a college degree. Zach said he'd probably do so through online coursework.
Scott Pfeffer, a cardiologist who was at work on the day of the practice, said in an interview: "We had advocated education as the way to get ahead in the world, but at a very young age, he made it known to us that this is what his dream was going to be."
Zach said that his parents still joke with him about becoming a doctor, but he takes the occasional ribbing in stride.
"Really, we have all known what I have wanted to do, and I'm thankful that they have supported me a lot and helped me reach my dream," he replied.
Addressing the very real possibility that he might not see a lot of playing time this year, the teenager replied: "I've got a long way to go. I've still got to really prove myself to everyone.
"It's definitely great to become a professional, but now I need to stay grounded and work hard every day."