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?
June 4, 2014, 11:34 am
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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.

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