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 can exhale after bullpen nearly blows 10-0 lead

Phillies can exhale after bullpen nearly blows 10-0 lead

BOX SCORE

The moment when the ball struck first baseman Tommy Joseph’s glove for the final out of the Phillies 10-8 win over the Mets — dealing a major blow to their rival’s wild card hopes in the process — felt more like a collective exhalation than a moment of celebration (see Instant Replay).
 
Two days earlier, the bullpen faltered suddenly. A game-tying two-run homer by Jose Reyes in the ninth was the first body blow. The game-winning three-run homer by Asdrubal Cabrera was the knockout.
 
Saturday, the collapse occurred over the course of five innings as the Phillies let a lead that was once 10-0 slip away, one drawn-out at-bat after another.
 
Missing, of course, was the moment of impact in the proverbial slow-motion car crash, thanks to well-placed sinkers and four-seamers from Michael Mariot.
 
“The bullpen’s been sputtering,” manager Pete Mackanin said in an understatement.
 
Joely Rodriguez entered in the sixth inning with a 10-4 lead to face a string of lefties and it quickly became apparent that he did not have his fastball. A middle-in four-seamer that caught too much of the plate was slapped for a double by Mets shortstop Gavin Cecchini, his first major-league hit and a run. A second run scored when a little dribbler by third baseman T.J. Rivera died on the third base line, leaving Rodriguez with no play.
 
“He just didn’t throw quality strikes,” Mackanin said.
 
Even the normally-reliable Hector Neris struggled on Saturday. In his 77th outing of the season, Neris walked two straight batters and then surrendered an RBI double to Cecchini of his own which narrowed the lead to 10-7 and thrust the uncertainty of a save situation onto Mackanin.
 
Mariot was given first crack at the ninth inning one day after Mackanin said he would give Jeanmar Gomez a break from closing duties.
 
Mariot’s audition got off to a rough start. He gave up a pinch-hit solo home run to Jay Bruce — who had been mired in an 0-15 slump — with one out in the ninth and then walked Eric Campbell and Michael Conforto after a pair of grueling at-bats that lasted a combined 18 pitches.
 
The two hitters fouled off eight of Mariot’s pitches and took several four-seamers that just missed the plate.
 
“I was pretty upset about that,” Mariot said of the four-seamers that missed. “I was hoping to get at least a swing or maybe a call on those. Talking to [catcher] A.J. [Ellis], I think he said that they missed but I was hoping at least one of them to get called a strike.”
 
Gomez was up in the Phillies’ bullpen but Mariot ensured that Mackanin wouldn’t need to throw the recently-struggling closer back into the fire in a high-stress situation.
 
Mariot was able to locate his fastball when he needed to most. He fooled Lucas Duda with a two-seamer that the slugger popped out to Freddy Galvis and got Travis D’Arnaud to ground a four-seamer outside right back to him.
 
“I just told myself: ‘keep throwing strikes and good things will happen,’” Mariot said.
 
He threw just enough strikes to ensure that the Phillies didn’t end up on the wrong end of what would have been the Mets’ biggest comeback in team history.

Find great deals on Philadelphia Phillies tickets with TicketIQ. Buy cheap Phillies tickets with no hidden fees for all games on their 2016 schedule. 

College football wrap: Auburn upsets No. 18 LSU with controversial finish

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USA Today Images

College football wrap: Auburn upsets No. 18 LSU with controversial finish

AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn was ready to try anything to get a win for his Auburn Tigers.

Malzahn relinquished offensive play-calling duties. Following his daughters' advice, he traded his usual game-day visor for a cap. And then, when the clock expired and LSU players were celebrating an apparent last-second win, the Auburn coach put all his faith in a ruling he couldn't control.

Daniel Carlson kicked six field goals and Auburn beat No. 18 LSU 18-13 on Saturday night after officials ruled Danny Etling's apparent last-gasp scoring pass came after time expired.

Malzahn said he knew there were only zeroes on the clock before the snap to Etling.

"I was pretty confident time had expired," Malzahn said. "It was just a matter of going to the booth and confirming it."

Etling rolled to his right and found D.J. Shark in the back of the end zone on a 15-yard pass, setting off a short-lived celebration by LSU players (see full recap).

Hornibrook proves he's ready in Badgers' win over Spartans
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- By the time Alex Hornibrook's first start was over, there wasn't much question about whether he could handle one of the toughest road tests in the Big Ten.

Hornibrook threw for 195 yards and a touchdown, and 11th-ranked Wisconsin turned its early-season showdown with No. 8 Michigan State into a rout, beating the Spartans 30-6 on Saturday.

"You've got to have respect for a guy whose first start is against a Michigan State defense," Wisconsin running back Corey Clement said.

"He's going to come out the next game and do even better. I think he's just getting his feet wet."

The freshman quarterback outplayed fifth-year senior Tyler O'Connor, his Michigan State counterpart. The Badgers (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) were the better team in the first half and then outscored the Spartans 17-0 in the third quarter (see full recap).

No. 23 Rebels find their rhythm, beat No. 12 Georgia 45-14
OXFORD, Miss. -- Mississippi quarterback Chad Kelly faked the handoff and then took off running toward the end zone. A few seconds and 41 yards later, the quarterback had cruised through the middle of the Georgia defense and into the end zone untouched.

It was pretty much that easy for the Rebels all afternoon. Ole Miss finally built a lead it couldn't give away.

No. 23 Ole Miss rolled to a 45-14 victory over No. 12 Georgia on Saturday, building a 31-0 lead by halftime and a 45-0 advantage by midway through the fourth quarter.

Kelly threw for 282 yards and two touchdowns. Ole Miss (2-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) broke a 10-game losing streak in the series dating to 1996 (see full recap).

Dobbs rallies No. 14 Vols to 38-28 win over No. 19 Gators
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- This time, Tennessee delivered the comeback.

And in the process, the Volunteers took out 11 years' worth of frustration on Florida.

Joshua Dobbs accounted for five second-half touchdowns Saturday and No. 14 Tennessee erased a 21-point deficit to beat No. 19 Florida 38-28 and end their 11-game losing streak in the annual series.

"I didn't see anybody blink," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "Nobody flinched. They just kept playing."

This marks the first time Tennessee (4-0, 1-0 SEC) has beaten Florida (3-1, 1-1) since 2004. The Volunteers had lost to Florida by one point each of the last two years despite leading in the fourth quarter of both games (see full recap).