Hackworth: Europe training invaluable for Philly youngsters

For a few Philadelphia Union players, there is no offseason.

Earlier this week, goalkeeper Zac MacMath and midfielders Amobi Okugo and Zach Pfeffer set off to train overseas in Europe, with MacMath joining Everton FC of the English Premier League and Okugo and Pfeffer joining German clubs SC Freiburg and 1899 Hoffenheim, respectively.

Union assistant coach John Hackworth believes the experience will be invaluable for all three youngsters.

“As a young American soccer player going to Europe, the whole culture of football over there is so different,” Hackworth told MLSsoccer.com in a phone conversation. “It’s a pretty amazing experience being exposed to that, and it’s an important step in the process of their own development.”

While all three of these players are very young – Pfeffer is 16 and both Okugo and MacMath are 20 – they actually all have significant experience playing overseas. This is MacMath’s second visit to Everton, where the young Union ’keeper has developed a strong relationship with Everton No. 1 Tim Howard; Pfeffer trained with Hoffenheim last year and, according to Hackworth, the German club really likes the 16-year-old midfielder; and Okugo recently wrapped up the US U-23 camp in Germany and typically shuttles all around the globe in the offseason.

Is there such a thing as playing too much soccer in the offseason for young, developing players?

“It’s a fine line,” Hackworth said. “You need to have a time when you can regenerate and just relax and recharge your batteries so you can have a strong season the next year. All three of the guys overseas right now are not guys who were beat up from a long season, but we think it’s imperative for them to get a couple of weeks to completely shut it down.”

There is, of course, the possibility that these players could like their experience so much that they decide they eventually want to stay in Europe. For Hackworth, however, that isn’t so much a concern as it as an opportunity for both the Union and the player.

“Then it becomes more about the business side of soccer and player development,” the Union coach said. “In Europe, that’s what they depend on for a huge source of their revenue – to develop players and then sell them off. It’s much more difficult in this country to do that, but now that these guys are pros, that’s certainly an opportunity.

"Then it becomes truly for the individual and for our club – you have to make sure it’s right for both parties. If that opportunity becomes available, you want to hopefully make the most of it, for sure.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.