21113_pfeffercanouse_traeber Terence Traeber
The Kids Are Alright

Young Americans Pushing For Bundesliga Chance

Teenagers Russell Canouse and Zach Pfeffer are working their way through Hoffenheim's Academy with designs on reaching the first team. Brian Blickenstaff spoke with them about their progress.

BY Brian Blickenstaff Posted
February 11, 2013
1:00 PM
Most Americans born in 1995 have just begun their last semester of high school. They’re waiting for college acceptance letters, ordering caps and gowns. For Russell Canouse and Zach Pfeffer, two of the brightest young American soccer talents, things are different. Both live in Germany and play for the TSG 1899 Hoffenheim Akademie, as members of the U19 squad. They’re not worried about getting their high school team to States or whom to take to prom. They’re worried about their match next month against Bayern Munich.

As members of an international sports academy, Canouse and Pfeffer live a life many Americans have trouble relating to. Not only are they out of the house at a young age—Canouse joined the academy at just 15—but they’re in another country, learning a foreign language. And while most elite American athletes in their age group are now considering scholarship offers, Canouse and Pfeffer are already professionals, living with the day-in, day-out pressure to preform and improve.

I recently visited Hoffenheim’s Nachwuchsleistungszentrum, the center for the 75 or so members of the U16, U17, and U19 teams. Canouse and Pfeffer showed me around the impressive dormitory-like facility. The Nachwuchsleistungszentrum houses extensive workout facilities—weight rooms, locker rooms, physiotherapy rooms, a sauna—as well a study hall (complete with tutors), a rec center, and individual bedrooms. In a downstairs meeting room, Canouse and Pfeffer told me about the challenges associated with turning pro and becoming expatriates at a young age, and the pros and cons of a life in Europe.

Canouse, who is listed at five-foot-nine but seemed taller, plays as a holding midfielder. He described his transition to the academy as “hard,” mostly due to his initial struggles with the language barrier. “When I first came in here I didn’t feel as comfortable with the team,” he said. “But as time passed I was able to communicate and feel more comfortable with the culture.” That comfort has paid off. Canouse captained the club’s U17 side before moving up a level, and was recently named academy player of the year.

Pfeffer, an outside midfielder, is about as tall as Canouse but has a smaller frame. Like his compatriot, Pfeffer sees language skills as a key part of on-field success: “To be confident on the field, you have to be comfortable and happy off the field. And part of that is being able to communicate,” he said. The academy staff and most of the German players speak English, but having the foreign players speak German is a top priority at the academy. Pfeffer, who only arrived on year-long loan from the Philadelphia Union in January and speaks hardly a word of German, starts language school in February. He already speaks Spanish, and seemed excited to learn another language. “I like languages,” he said. “I’m trying to learn as quickly as possible. I think it’s something that’s really interesting and a good skill to have.”

While he looks forward to the independence language fluency will give him, for the time being, Pfeffer knows he’s lucky to have Canouse around. He told me they’re “like brothers.” (The players have been friends since age 13, and members of the same youth national teams ever since. As we talked, they often finished each other’s sentences.) Canouse described a moment early in his career when, in training, he didn’t understand the German words for different colors and went to the wrong colored cones during a drill, much to his embarrassment. That Canouse can now move so freely through the German language and culture is lucky for Pfeffer, as he doesn’t have to worry about such training-ground indignities.

MLS enthusiasts might recognize Pfeffer’s name. He made history in 2010, when the Union signed him as the club’s first ever home-grown player. He’s the fourth youngest player to ever sign an MLS contract. Since 2011, Pfeffer has made a handful of first team appearances for the Union, and he acknowledged that trading that first-team experience for the Hoffenheim academy was a big decision. “Here it’s much harder to get into the first team,” he said. “But the goal is to play more competitive games,” which is something the academy will give him.

I asked both players how soccer in the United States differed from German soccer, and they both agreed that it was faster here, and, at least for their age-group, the tactical side of the game is a little more advanced. “It’s the little things,” said Pfeffer. “They want to make sure you pass into the lead foot, so people can continue their run.”

“One thing they stress on specifically here is countering fast: Win the ball—first pass forward,” said Canouse. “They want everything one touch.” According to Pfeffer, the technical part of training in Germany is similar to what coach John Hackworth expects of the Philadelphia Union. He explained that the main difference between the soccer in MLS and that of Hoffenheim—aside from the fact that, back in Philly, he was training with grown men every day—is the amount of training they do: “[At Hoffenheim we] do two-a-days two or three times a week, which we don’t really do back home.”

When I asked about the pressure to perform, both players acknowledged that it existed, but that it wasn’t oppressive. “The players [in Germany] want it more,” said Canouse with a shrug.

Much of that pressure comes from simply living in a soccer-obsessed country. “It’s a different mentality,” Pfeffer said. “When the TV’s on, there’re only soccer games on. It’s in all the newspapers and magazines.”

“It’s what they live for here,” said Canouse.

Both players acknowledged that they’re missing out on a typical American youth—high school and college (they both plan on taking courses online)—but they felt lucky to be having such a rich cultural experience. What they have in Germany is just as formative as college and far more unique. “[Missing out on high school or college] is just part of wanting to be a professional soccer player,” said Pfeffer.

Canouse agreed. He only spent six months in a regular high school before going to the USMNT residency program in Bradenton, Florida, and then onto Hoffenheim. “I’m fine with it,” he said. “High school—yeah, you only go through it once, but this is what I’m working toward. This is my future. This is what I want to do.”

Brian K. Blickenstaff is a writer and a professional geographer. His work has appeared in Slate and other publications. He tweets @BKBlick.

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