Age isn't a problem for World Cup favorites ... so why do the Union refuse to play their young prospects?

Age isn't a problem for World Cup favorites ... so why do the Union refuse to play their young prospects?

It's time to take the shackles off 19-year-old midfielder Zach Pfeffer and some other Union youngsters. (Photo courtesy philadelphiaunion.com)

Of the 736 players going to Brazil to represent their countries a week from tomorrow for the World Cup (A WEEK FROM TOMORROW!), a whopping 106 are 22 years of age or younger -- almost 15 percent. Only three nations are without a player that age (all South American countries, strangely: Argentina, Chile and Ecuador), while multiple teams have a half dozen or more young players (Australia 8, Netherlands 7, Croatia 7, Nigeria 7, England 6, Switzerland 6, Belgium 6).

(Yes, I did research and math for a blog post ... we're all growsed up!)

Three 18-year-olds will suit up in Brazil: The United States' Julian Green, England's Luke Shaw and Cameroon's Fabrice Olinga (what were you doing at 18 years old, huh?).

The point of all these numbers is not to preview the World Cup (we'll get to that soon here at The Level), or even prove to you that I went glossy-eyed going through 32 rosters (I did).

The point is that for the greatest teams in the world, at the biggest tournament in the world, age is merely a number. If you're good enough, you're good enough.

Why is it, then, that the Philadelphia Union stubbornly refuse to let their kids play?

“There are two things you need in developing young stars: time and patience. Time is something everybody has. Patience is something very few have. As a fan, it’s ‘I want to see it now. I want to see a trophy now.’ That’s the hardest part of investing in this strategy, but we believe it’s the right strategy. We’re building this for the long haul, not the short-term. That’s how you build something sustainable that’s competitive each year.”

Those words were uttered more than a year ago by Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz, who has REPEATEDLY placated fans by saying that the team is committed to a foundation of development and youth. The Union even put their money where there mouth is over the winter when they had what many experts called the best draft of any team in the league.

Guess what? You and I have played as many minutes as all the Union draft picks this season: ZERO.

In fact, only three players age 22 or younger have seen the field for the Union this year: starting goalie Zac MacMath (22), midfielder Leo Fernandes (22) and midfielder Zach Pfeffer (19).

Fred, seen here during his first stint with the Union, played 90 minutes Saturday vs. Chivas. The question is: Why? (AP Photo)

Just last weekend against Chivas USA, the Union needed to fill one more spot in the midfield for the starting XI. Logic says, "Let's see what Pfeffer can do for a full 90 minutes." After a few decent -- albeit short -- substitute appearances, it would make sense to turn your first-ever homegrown player loose, especially against a bad team, and especially considering your season is pretty much a lost cause as it is.

But who does John Hackworth turn to? A 34-year-old guy who's nickname is "Grandpa."

“It was really good to see another wily old veteran out there,” Hackworth said. “And he still has game.”

How, exactly, is that "really good?" You have a few "wily old veterans" on the roster already. And you have guys like Amobi Okugo, who while not "wily" or "old," have plenty of experience under their belts.

It's way past time for the Union to decide what exactly they're trying to be.

Are they trying to win now? That's what they should be doing, of course. That's what the fans want at the beginning of every season. And that's the impression they gave when they splashed the cash (in a reserved, not-David Villa-to-NYCFC way) for Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana in the offseason.

I loved every one of those moves, as did almost everyone else. Nogueira is an absolute star, Maidana is finding his way (especially if it's past your bedtime) and Edu is a midfield anchor who very nearly had a seat on the plane to Brazil.

Those kind of moves are why I gave the Union the benefit of the doubt when they traded up to No. 1 overall in the draft to take goalie Andre Blake when they didn't need a goalie. Blake, who likely won't (and shouldn't, considering Zac MacMath's form) see the field in a league match this year, was the consensus "best player in the draft." And that's a strategy I've always supported, whether it's the Eagles, Flyers, Sixers or my fantasy football league.

But -- and hindsight is always 20/20 -- there are plenty of guys the Union passed on who would look really good in blue and gold right now.

Patrick Mullins would look good in a Union shirt right now. (USA Today photo)

Patrick Mullins won the Hermann Trophy (college soccer's Heisman) twice, so by no means was he a diamond in the rough among draft prospects. He ended up going 11th overall to New England, where he has four goals in six games (all starts) and has played almost 500 minutes. The Union could've taken him at No. 2 instead of trading up to No. 1. They could've taken him at No. 6. They could've even had him at No. 10 after they traded down out of the 6-spot.

But they traded back to No. 15 and took Ribeiro. Then they took two guys in the second round who were released before the season even began.

Draft misses happen. That's to be expected. But in the present, what exactly are the Union doing? Sure, they still have dreams of a playoff spot this year. That's great. Now, let's come back to a reality where sneaking into the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference just isn't good enough.

It's time to play the kids.

Union fans are smart. They may not like it right away to see the team "throw away" this season, but they'll understand. Plus, you pretty much stink as it is, so who's to say an injection of young talent and energy (and guys no one has scouted) won't change your fortunes slightly?

  • Let Zach Pfeffer start every game. You signed the kid at 15 years old and have enveloped him in bubble wrap ever since. He's 19 now. He's spent two seasons in Germany. It's put up or shut up time. The only way to see if he's a midfield staple going forward (and Sakiewicz has a dream about a starting XI of all local kids) is to let him play. And don't tell me that you're afraid of burnout. HE IS 19 YEARS OLD. He should be able to run for days.
  • Bench Conor Casey. Conor had a great year last year, better than most expected from his aging legs. But he's a late-game sub when you need a goal, nothing more. You traded away Jack McInerney for Andrew Wenger (a move I still don't hate, by the way), so put Wenger up there and let's see if he's got it. Stop shuffling people in and out at the slightest sign of trouble.
  • End the Brian Carroll era. In a vacuum, Carroll has (some) talent. But he brings everything down in the Union midfield. He forces Edu to play out of position. He is entirely too negative with his passing, when his passes actually reach their intended target. He brings you nothing offensively. Either bench him, or give him the respect of offering him around the league to a team where he's a better fit.
  • At least dress the younger guys. We've seen nothing of Pedro Ribeiro, Cristhian Hernandez, Jimmy McLaughlin or Richie Marquez, who are mostly playing for the Union affiliate in Harrisburg. Ribeiro (who is a physical freak of nature, by the way), is apparently getting a look at center back, because, moving players away from their natural positions is the Union way. At least give these guys some run in training, or some spot appearances off the bench. This is not Europe, where you get a guy at 16 and have a few years to groom him. Ribeiro is 23. Wenger is 23. McLaughlin is already 21. What exactly would you lose by having Ribeiro off the bench instead of Corben Bone or Michael Lahoud?

Tomorrow, we tackle the elephant in the room for the Union front office. A dilemma they'll likely ignore until the decision is made for them.

For now, as nearly every World Cup favorite is doing this month: It's time to play the kids.

Sixers' Ersan Ilyasova excited to see family in adopted hometown of Milwaukee

Sixers' Ersan Ilyasova excited to see family in adopted hometown of Milwaukee

Traveling to Milwaukee means a return to where Ersan Ilyasova began his NBA career.

Twelve years later, it also means a return to his family when the Sixers visit the Bucks on Monday afternoon at the Bradley Center.
 
Ilyasova planted roots in Milwaukee during his seven seasons with the Bucks, who drafted him in the second round of the 2005 NBA draft. Though he has played for four teams since the Bucks traded him to the Pistons in the summer of 2015, Ilyasova has maintained a home base in the city he adopted after coming to the NBA from Europe.

“I kind of grew up there,” he said. “It’s a lot of time spent.”

Ilyasova’s lengthy tenure with his first team - which doesn’t always happen in the NBA - afforded him and his family the time to make Milwaukee their home.

His wife and three young children (daughters ages eight and five years old and son age three years old) have remained there while Ilyasova has moved around the league frequently. He has been a member of the Pistons, Magic, Thunder and Sixers in a matter of two seasons.

“It’s a huge thing,” Ilyasova said. “I haven’t seen the girls for two months now - a lot of Skype and FaceTime. I see my son, he flies back and forth with my wife.”

The Sixers flew to Milwaukee on Sunday from Washington, D.C. after Saturday night's loss to the Wizards at the Verizon Center. Ilyasova planned to stay at his house and catch up on the time he has missed while being away from his family. This includes missed time during the holidays while the team was on a west coast road trip.
 
“It’s always really exciting,” Ilyasova said. “They’re counting the days when I will come. They’re all excited to come to the game.”
 
Another highlight of being back in Milwaukee? A home-cooked meal.
 
“They’re already preparing it,” Ilyasova said. “It’s duck with apples in it.”

Villanova's Donte DiVincenzo the next Josh Hart? Jay Wright believes so

Villanova's Donte DiVincenzo the next Josh Hart? Jay Wright believes so

NEW YORK — It’s hard to imagine higher praise from Jay Wright.

“I think he can be a Josh Hart,” Wright said. “I really do.”

Donte DiVincenzo is only two months into his redshirt freshman season at Villanova, and his coach is already comparing him to one of the heroes of last year’s NCAA championship team and a 2017 National Player of the Year candidate.

That’s pretty wild stuff, but it’s hard to argue with Wright.

The last two games have been a coming out for DiVincenzo, a Wilmington, Delaware native who played high school ball at Salesianum.

After scoring 20 points and shooting 5 for 17 in Villanova’s first four Big East games, DiVincenzo was 4 for 6 for 10 points with four rebounds and three assists Tuesday in a win over No. 15 Xavier at The Pavilion. On Saturday at Madison Square Garden — with his teammates all struggling from the field — he shot 7 for 10 from the field and 3 for 5 from three-point range for a career-high 19 points to go with three rebounds and two assists in the Wildcats’ win over St. John’s (see game recap).

Hart as a freshman? 7.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 0.9 assists in 21 minutes per game.

DiVincenzo so far as a freshman? 7.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 23 minutes per game.

DiVincenzo has been so good in these last two wins that, even coming off the bench, he’s played the third most minutes on the team – 31 ½ per game.

Josh Hart-esque.

“I talked to him about that before,” Wright said. “Just what impresses us so much about Josh is that he’s just complete. He does everything. There’s nothing on the basketball court he doesn’t do, and I think Donte can be that kind of player, too.”

On Saturday at the Garden, Villanova got off to another slow start. Ten minutes into the game, the Wildcats were shooting 2 for 12 from the field and 1 for 7 from three-point range and trailed by six.

It sure seemed DiVincenzo sensed how badly the Wildcats needed an offensive lift, because he proceeded to make four baskets in a five-minute stretch, including two confident looks from 3.

Those 10 points keyed a 16-6 run that gave ‘Nova the lead for good.

But DiVincenzo, echoing dozens of Villanova players from years past, said he never thinks offensively.

“No, not at all,” he said. “I don’t feel pressure offensively at all. Just focus on defending and rebounding. If the shots are falling for me, great. But if they’re not, just get back and focus on those two things.”

DiVincenzo is a freshman but did play in eight games last year before breaking his foot and sitting out the rest of the year. He did travel with the Wildcats and was on the bench during the NCAA title run.

Now, he’s the biggest surprise on the No. 3 team in the country. Villanova takes a 17-1 record and 4-1 Big East mark into a game Monday night at The Pavilion against Seton Hall, their first meeting since the Pirates beat the Wildcats in last year’s Big East title game.

Think about it.

‘Nova is down two players who Wright expected to be huge parts of this year’s team — title game hero Phil Booth, who's hurt and not expected back this year, and Amari Spellman, whom the NCAA ruled ineligible.

“We’re trying to get to a certain level of play,” Wright said. “We’re trying to figure ourselves out here. We thought we were going to be one kind of team earlier in the season and we lost a couple guys. We like our team, but we’re still trying to figure it out. We’re not a finished product yet.”

In six Big East games, DiVincenzo is averaging 8.2 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

No Villanova freshman has averaged 8.0 points, 2.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists in conference play since Lance Miller in 1990.

Overall, DiVincenzo is eighth among Big East freshmen in scoring, seventh in minutes, rebounding, assists and three-point shooting.

And trending upward.

“We’re really excited about him,” Wright said. “He’s doing everything for us. He’s playing point, he’s playing two-guard, he’s playing the three, he’s rebounding, defending, and that’s the kind of players you like to have.

“He’s only a freshman, and he works hard at it. Those two (DiVincenzo and Hart) compete against each other at practice, and he’s got the same competitiveness, so it’s exciting for us. We’re really fired up.

“And you’ve got to do it in games. We all know it’s going to come sometimes, but you’ve got to do it in games. Do it in the Garden? Against a tough aggressive team? Did it in the Xavier game? That’s big-time.”