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.

There's another Embiid WWE 2K17 entrance and it includes Hinkie

There's another Embiid WWE 2K17 entrance and it includes Hinkie

He’s done it again.
 
Eleven days ago, Sixers social media went wild over a video that showed Joel Embiid walking out to the ring as a WWE character in WWE 2K17. Well, YouTube user Hillman811 is back with an even better version of the video complete with Sam Hinkie and fans chanting.
 
The first video sparked questions to Embiid about his favorite WWE wrestler, and he even did his own Triple H introduction at the Wells Fargo Center after The Game threw him an All-Star vote (see story).
 
Watch the video below and let your mind run wild with what this would look like if it actually happened.
 

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

There was no better story of personal triumph on the Phillies' roster than Tommy Joseph in 2016.

Dumped from the 40-man roster and passed over by 29 other teams on the waiver wire and in the Rule 5 draft in 2015, he reported to minor-league camp with his career on the line last spring.

Two months later, thanks to good health and a molten bat, Joseph's career began to spike upward.

But 4½ months in the big leagues and the promise of a starting job in the majors in 2017 hasn't changed Joseph's outlook or the mindset he will take into spring training camp next month.

He's still going to scrap and claw for everything, just like he did a year ago when he was fighting for his baseball life after a series of concussions put his career in jeopardy.

"I'm preparing the same way I did last winter," Joseph said during an offseason stop at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.

"The job is not given to me. I still have to win it. I'm not going to walk in and have it. Obviously, it's mine to take and I plan on going in and winning the job."

Joseph, 25, earned a significant slice of the starting first base job last year. But with Ryan Howard, the last piece of the 2008 World Series team, gone, Joseph has a chance to stake an even greater claim to the position in 2017 and establish himself as a serious building block in the Phillies' rebuild.

"Tommy came out of nowhere last year," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's something to be excited about there. He was off the map and he did enough to warrant a real strong look this year. And hopefully, he can improve and take baby steps toward being a final product."

Joseph pushed himself to the majors and cut into Howard's playing time last season by hitting .347 with six homers, 17 RBIs and a .981 OPS in 27 games at Triple A. He came to the majors in mid-May and hit .257 with 21 homers and 47 RBIs in 107 games. In the fall, Joseph briefly played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but right wrist tendinitis, now fully healed, cut the stint short.

Joseph's good showing at the plate in 2016 was partly the result of his finding good health. As he recovered from a fifth concussion in the summer of 2015, it was discovered that he had a series of ocular problems. They were addressed through therapy and ... well, it's amazing what a hitter can do when he can see the ball.

This year, Joseph will look to improve in the field. The converted catcher is looking to add quickness around the first base bag and that starts with better footwork. At the urging of bench coach/infield instructor Larry Bowa, Joseph has been jumping rope and doing box drills all winter.

Joseph also wants to improve his approach and mindset at the plate. Though he wants to drive the ball like his size — 235 pounds — and position dictate, he wants to improve his on-base percentage and thus his OPS, on-base plus slugging percentage.

Joseph struck out 75 times and walked just 22 times in 347 plate appearances in 2016 and his on-base percentage was just .308. But over the final month of the season, he made an effort to be more selective at the plate and he recorded a .327 batting average and .406 on-base percentage (while slugging .618) over the final 23 games of the season. He struck out 10 times but walked seven over that span.

"My whole career has been a battle when it comes to walking," Joseph said. "I started to listen and read more what veterans around the league were saying about on-base percentage and OPS. Slugging is important on the corners, but there are times you have to take your walks. It's relevant because the best players in the game have a high OPS."

Joseph needs to improve in this area for a couple of reasons. First, the front office is intent on building a long-term lineup around players who control the strike zone, i.e., those who don't chase bad pitches. And second, the Phils have a legitimate run-producing first base prospect in Rhys Hoskins set to take his game to Triple A in 2017.

Joseph knows all of this and takes nothing for granted.

"The only difference this year will be I'm on the big-league side in spring training, but everything still has to be earned," he said.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors — or "last in the world," as Mackanin said — with just 610 runs scored in 2016. The offseason additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders should help run production. So, too, should expected improvements from Maikel Franco and Joseph, two players who have the chance to be long-term building blocks.

"We've got guys at the big-league level that I choose to think are going to get better," Mackanin said. "Tommy Joseph is a perfect example."