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

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.

Doug Pederson: Eagles rebound after getting 'lip bloodied a little bit'

Doug Pederson: Eagles rebound after getting 'lip bloodied a little bit'

They were great before the bye. They were bad since.

The Eagles rallied against the Lions only to lose late because of two turnovers. Then last week at Washington, they laid an egg.

But on Sunday, they looked like the pre-bye team — at least defensively — and handed the Vikings their first loss of the season.

"This is a team that for two weeks in a row has kind of got their lip bloodied a little bit," head coach Doug Pederson said after the 21-10 victory (see Instant Replay). "The Detroit game, obviously feeling sick about that one, and then last week in Washington not playing well and up to our potential.

"These guys are professionals. They know how to get themselves ready to go. I don't feel like I have to motivate them. ... They really took it upon themselves this week to really make the corrections, No. 1, from last week and the adjustments. The veterans, the leadership stood up today, took command of the game, and that's what you like to see from this group."

More from Pederson and quarterback Carson Wentz:

The defense
If the Eagles were going to win this game, the defense would have to dominate.

It did (see story).

The Vikings finished with only 282 yards from scrimmage — or 52 more than the Redskins rushed for last week against the Eagles.

The Eagles held Minnesota to 93 yards rushing (3.4 per carry) and battered Sam Bradford, who was 24 for 41 for 224 yards with a pick and a garbage-time TD. They sacked him six times (they had zero last week) and forced him to fumble four times. Bradford entered the game without a turnover this season.

"I think the guys just put it in their mind to play better than last week," Pederson understated. "Our defensive line really came off the ball today, really took it upon themselves to just attack the line of scrimmage and play on their side.

Two of the Eagles' three takeaways occurred in the red zone and in the first quarter, when the game was scoreless. They picked off Bradford on 3rd-and-goal at the 6 and forced a fumble on 1st down at the 17.

"It's huge," Pederson said. "Our defense playing as well as they did down there and stopping them. ... It was fun to watch our defense today. That's the defense that we expect every week going forward."

Bring the heat
The Eagles blitzed more than they had all season (see story). 

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz prefers to let his front four bring the pressure, but it hadn't worked the last two weeks, and now they were facing Sam Bradford, who was familiar with the scheme.

"Anytime you know a quarterback on the other team and kind of know his strengths and weaknesses and things like that — just try to give him some different looks, put some pressure on him from different areas," Pederson said. "It was a great game plan. ... Sometimes just changing things up to help your guys be in position — we benefitted from that today, and guys did a nice job."

Going for two after a made PAT
Midway through the second quarter, Pederson took a point off the board and decided to go for two after the Vikings were penalized for hitting Caleb Sturgis on an extra point, which was successful.

Wentz made the conversion with a QB sneak.

"It was kind of a no-brainer, because you get the ball at the 1," Pederson said.

"I've got a lot of trust in our guys. If you don't work those situations in practice and talk about those situations, then yeah, negative things can happen. But I felt totally 100 percent confident in our guys to execute that play."

Another "no-brainer"
Pederson hasn't been afraid to go for it on fourth down — the Eagles entered the game 4 for 4 on fourth downs — and on Sunday he converted another.

On the aforementioned drive, the Eagles faced a 4th-and-2 at the Vikings' 44. After unsuccessfully trying to draw the Vikings offside, the Eagles called timeout ... and sent the offense back out to go for it.

"Sometimes at that point, they feel like you're going to rush the punt team out there and burn the timeout," Pederson said, "but I went with the offense. I just had total confidence that we were going to get the first down.

"It was a kind of, again, a no-brainer — almost like the two-point conversion."

The play was an run-pass option ... until Wentz dropped the snap. He then ran six yards for the first.

"Obviously when he dropped it, at that point, it was run all the way," Pederson said. "But great execution."

"One more shot"
With 15 seconds left in the first half, the Eagles had the ball at the Minnesota 17. 

Pederson sent out the field goal unit for a 35-yarder, but when the Vikings called timeout to ice Sturgis, it gave Pederson time to change his mind.

The offense came back onto the field. Wentz threw incomplete to Jordan Matthews in the end zone, and then Sturgis came back and hit the field goal.

"Take one more shot," Pederson said. "Max the protection. It's two-man route. It's either a completion or an incomplete pass."

Wentz said there was "a little indecisiveness on the sideline," but once the play was decided on ... 

"It was just a max protect throw to Jordan or throw it away," Wentz said. 'It was pretty plain and simple: Don't take a sack."

All's well that ends well
Wentz botched a handoff. He threw two ugly interceptions in the first quarter. 

OK, those things happen (see Wentz's overall evaluation).

But he also dropped three snaps. How?

"I'm not really sure," Wentz said. "I just have to catch the ball, for starters. Some of them were a little off, but those are the things that we have to clean up."

On one of the dropped snaps, he converted the 4th-and-2. On another, he recovered and found Darren Sproles for a 19-yard gain.

Now, about those interceptions. On the first, he overthrew a blanketed Brent Celek. On the second, he forced a throw to Nelson Agholor with too much purple around.

"That one was 3rd-and-12, and there's no need to force that one," Wentz said. "As a quarterback, sometimes that happens. There's really no rhyme or reason. You see things and you kick yourself in the tail after the play, but you learn from it and move on."

Picks aside, Wentz's numbers weren't pretty — 16 for 28 passing for 138 yards with a TD. Pederson said Wentz "might have been pressing a little bit early" but overall "played efficient."

"Love the way he settled in," Pederson said. "There was no panic for him and any of us on the sideline."

Big V
Wentz was sacked five times last week. On Sunday, he wasn't sacked at all.

The Eagles at times max-protected, but they also benefitted from the improved play of rookie right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who was in his second game in place of suspended Lane Johnson.

Pederson said he didn't help Vaitai as much as he did against Washington.

"I felt he kind of settled in this week, did a nice job," Pederson said. "The run game obviously helps. ... We were in some two tight-end sets a little more today, and that obviously helped him a little bit. We'll evaluate the film tomorrow, but I thought overall he did a nice job."

Josh Huff's acrobatic kick return touchdown sparks Eagles to win

Josh Huff's acrobatic kick return touchdown sparks Eagles to win

For the first 40 yards of Josh Huff’s kick return touchdown on Sunday, he went untouched.

When he got to the Eagles’ 42-yard line, Vikings kicker Blair Walsh was the only guy left in his way.

Huff ran through him.

“Yeah, I can’t let a kicker tackle me,” Huff said. “If he would have tackled me, I really would have been pissed at myself.”

The 170-pound Walsh couldn’t make the tackle and was sent spinning as Huff ran through. Fifty-six yards later, Huff took off from the 2-yard line, flipping into the end zone to give the Eagles their first lead in an eventual 21-10 win over the Vikings (see Instant Replay).

Huff said he knew he was scoring as soon as he saw that he had just the kicker to beat.

With the Eagles’ down 3-0 and with their offense sputtering through the first quarter and change, Huff’s play was a game-changer (see 10 Observations).

“Josh did a great job on the return,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “[Special teams coordinator] Dave Fipp really has those guys ready every single week. You need those things. You need special teams scores.”

After Wendell Smallwood’s kick return touchdown last week, this is the first time in franchise history the Eagles have had kick return touchdowns in back-to-back games. They also have the NFL’s only two kick return touchdowns of the season (see Standout Plays).

“It’s super cool,” Smallwood said. “Now teams have to pick their poison. They can’t go away from one. They can’t say they’re not going to kick to Smallwood, then they kick to Huff and he takes it. I think we’re going to get a lot of teams’ attention.”

Huff also had a role in the Eagles’ offense against the Vikings. He caught four passes for 39 yards, including two that picked up first downs. His 14-yarder in the third helped set up the touchdown that sealed the win for the Eagles.

This season hasn’t been great offensively for Huff. He is clearly the Eagles’ fourth wideout and came into Sunday with just eight catches for 24 yards.

“Obviously, I want to play good on offense, but we have three great guys in front of me,” Huff said. “I’m doing what I can to stay ready and I’m at my best when those guys do need me. At the end of the day, as long as I’m doing my job and as long as I stay ready, today was evident. Whenever they call my number, I’m going to make the most of my opportunities.”

Huff finished off his 98-yard kick return touchdown the same way he finished off his 41-yard receiving touchdown in New England last year: With a flip.

Huff took off from the 2-yard line and did a front flip, landing in the middle in the black end zone on his backside.

“It’s just something that happens,” Huff said. “Everybody says I should have stuck the landing, but I’m not a gymnast.”