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.

Phillies likely to carry rookie backup catcher in 2017

Phillies likely to carry rookie backup catcher in 2017

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The likelihood of the Phillies going with a rookie backup catcher in 2017 increased dramatically when the Miami Marlins signed free agent A.J. Ellis on Wednesday.

Ellis spent the final month of the 2016 season with the Phillies after coming over from the Dodgers in the Carlos Ruiz trade. Ellis, 35, got high marks for his work with the Phillies’ young pitching staff and the Phils had some interest in bringing him back. The interest, however, was complicated by a tight 40-man roster, which already includes three catchers — starter Cameron Rupp and minor-league prospects Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp.

With Ellis out of the picture, the Phillies will likely use either Alfaro or Knapp as the backup catcher in 2017. Knapp spent a full year at Triple A in 2016 and could end up being the guy as Alfaro moves to Triple A for another year of seasoning.

General manager Matt Klentak spoke earlier this week of the possibility of going with a rookie at backup catcher.

“Andrew Knapp just finished his age 25 season in Triple A,” Klentak said. “He has a full year of at-bats in Triple A. At some point for both he and Alfaro, we’re going to have to find out what those guys can do at the big-league level. During the 2017 season, we’ll have to find out — not just about those two guys — but others.”

It’s not all that surprising that Ellis ended up with the Marlins on a one-year deal worth $2.5 million. He played for Marlins manager Don Mattingly during the latter’s time as manager of the Dodgers.

Wired to win, Carson Wentz growing frustrated with Eagles' losing

Wired to win, Carson Wentz growing frustrated with Eagles' losing

He’s already lost more games as an NFL quarterback than as a college quarterback, and Carson Wentz says he’ll never get used to all the losing.
 
Wentz, who went 20-3 as a college starter, is 5-7 a dozen games into his rookie year.
 
The Eagles have lost five of their last six games and are 2-7 in their last nine.
 
From Seattle through Cincinnati, Wentz lost as many games in a 15-day span as he lost in his entire career as a starter at North Dakota State.
 
“It’s frustrating,” Wentz said Wednesday. “No one likes losing, especially in this business as a quarterback. 
 
“I’m wired to be a winner. I hate losing. But at the same time it doesn’t affect us going forward. I know it doesn’t affect me and I can probably say the same thing for the guys in that locker room. 
 
“We’re going to come in and prepare and be the same win or lose, because I think that’s what it takes to be great and you can’t waver. You can’t change how you approach things. You can’t change how you go about your business, win, lose or draw. 
 
“But at the same time, yeah, without a doubt. We don’t like losing around here.”
 
The Eagles have the third-worst record in the NFL since Week 4, ahead of only the hapless Browns and 49ers. 

They haven’t been eliminated from playoff contention yet, but it sure seems like only a matter of time.
 
Since building a 3-0 record, the Eagles’ only wins have come on Oct. 23 over the Viking and Nov. 13 over the Falcons, both at the Linc.
 
No NFL quarterback has lost more games than Wentz since Week 4. Wentz and Blake Bortles are both 2-7 during that stretch and Sam Bradford is 3-6.
 
North Dakota State went 71-5 with five national championships during Wentz’s five years in Bismarck, North Dakota. As a starter, he was 15-1 as a junior, including the postseason, then went 5-2 during an injury-marred senior year, although for a second straight year he led the Bison to the FCS national title.
 
So he’s not used to losing. Not at all. Not like this.
 
“You get in the locker room and it’s kind of a down feeling,” he said. “A lot of you guys are in the locker room after the game. They’re tough. You don’t like losing, no one does. Especially on the road having to get on the plane or the bus or whatever and come back home. 
 
“But you get over it. You turn on the tape and you learn from it. But right after you watch that tape, it’s on to the next. That’s kind of the nature of this league and that’s how you have to approach it.”

Fortunately, the Eagles have an expert on just this subject in the NovaCare Complex. 
 
Doug Pederson pointed out Wednesday he was a part of some really bad teams, and he said that gives him an ability to relate to Wentz on how to endure all the losing.
 
“In Cleveland we were 3-and-13 (in 2000), and then Philadelphia, my first year, being 5-and-11,” said Pederson, who was also an assistant coach on a 4-12 Eagles team in 2012. 
 
“Just kind of leaning back on those experiences and how we fought through. How we fought through adversity. How people try to divide the team or say negative things about players or whatever. We just kind of kept that thing nice and tight. 
 
“So those are things that I can lean back, when you talk about the experience factor. I lean back on those experiences to relay to Carson how we went about our business during those following weeks to come and kept that team together. 
 
“We had great leadership on the team, like we do now. With him, it's just a matter of keeping him grounded, keeping him level headed. He's a leader of this football team, and he doesn't have to do it all himself. That's the beauty of it. There are 10 other guys on offense, and 11 on defense, and special teams that have a big part in this whole process.”
 
Wentz has been going non-stop for almost a year now. From the FCS title game to combine prep to draft prep to OTAs and minicamps to training camp and now heading into Week 14 of the regular season.
 
But he said he doesn’t feel any signs of burn-out or fatigue. Although his numbers have dipped over the past couple months, he said he feels fresh and upbeat going into the final quarter of the season, which begins with the Redskins at the Linc on Sunday.
 
“I feel good,” he said. “I think it comes down to: Do you love it enough? I think if you love the game and you’re around it, you enjoy the grind. You attack it and it’s part of the process. 
 
“For me, there’s no more school to go to during the day. It’s just football all day every day and I love that. It’s been a lot of fun and by no means is it wearing on me in a negative way.”
 
What about his numbers? The stats are not pretty. 
 
Games 1 through 4: 67 percent completion, 7 TDs, 1 INT, 103.5 passer rating, 3-1 record.
 
Games 5 through 8: 61 percent completion, 2 TDs, 4 INTs, 72.4 passer rating, 1-3 record.
 
Games 9 through 12: 61 percent completion, 3 TDs, 6 INTs, 68.3 passer rating, 1-3 record.
 
Wentz shrugs it all off. 
 
“We’re all a work in progress. every quarterback in this league I think would say that,” Wentz said.
 
“You’re never a finished product, myself included. So you’re always analyzing different things you can do, from pocket movement to footwork. You’re always analyzing those things. So we talk about those things but we don’t harp on it. 
 
“Myself and really just everybody, we’ve just got to be better disciplined to things. Whether that’s alignment or pre-snap things, from recognition, from reads, you name it. We just all have to be disciplined. Really just execute better. It starts with me. Control our mistakes and that goes for everybody, myself first and foremost.
 
“We now what we’re capable of, I think everyone in the building does. We just have to get over the hump a little bit here.”