Until Jack's back: Aaron Wheeler gives Philadelphia Union attack hope without McInerney

CHESTER, Pa. – Aaron Wheeler’s first MLS goal could not have come at a better time for the Philadelphia Union.

For starters, it came in very dramatic fashion as the reserve striker scored the go-ahead goal in the 87th minute of an eventual 2-2 draw with FC Dallas at PPL Park on Saturday.

And secondly, it shows that the Union might have some better options than people think to replace the scoring of joint MLS Golden Boot leader Jack McInerney, who left Philly to join the US national team on Monday and could miss all of July while playing in the Gold Cup.

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“It’s ideal for your first goal with the Union – your first MLS goal – to be on national television, the go-ahead goal late in the game when you think maybe you sealed it for your team, in front of the Sons of Ben,” Wheeler told MLSsoccer.com. “I felt like everything came together for that one perfect moment.”

Before Saturday’s game, Wheeler had played only a single minute in league action and was training at centerback as recently as two days before the Dallas game. He also claimed he’s not “starting fit,” so he was cautious to say how much he can help at striker while McInerney is gone.

His coaches and teammates, however, seemed more confident that Wheeler’s role will expand this month, starting with Wednesday’s game vs. Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium (10 pm ET, MLS LIVE).

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“We always talk about guys earning it in training and that’s how he’s earned some playing time recently,” Union manager John Hackworth said during a conference call Tuesday. “For him to go ahead and score a goal in a game like Saturday was fantastic. But we’re not really surprised because we see those qualities out of Aaron on a daily basis.”

Indeed, a handful of Union players mentioned how good Wheeler has been in training, as he’s patiently waited for his chance after signing with the club in January.  

“Wheeler showed everyone what he can do,” fellow reserve forward Antoine Hoppenot said. “We’ve known he’s able to do that since the beginning. He’s been doing that in practice every day for about six months now. It was great for him to be able to come out and score a goal and show fans that with Jack leaving, we still have some talented forwards left.”

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The 6-foot-4 striker has also enjoyed a good connection with right back Sheanon Williams in training. And that connection extended to game action as Williams served up the cross that Wheeler scored on.

“It’s funny because I came in today and asked if he was on the roster and he said, ‘Yeah,’” Williams said after Saturday’s game. “So I said, ‘When you get in, I’m looking for you.’ He’s a big boy. Even in practice, any time he’s on my team or I’m just crossing to him, I just lob it up and he’s going to go get it.”

Said Wheeler of Williams: “He always jokes, ‘When are you going to get some burn so I can put some balls in the box for you?' It’s an ongoing joke with me and him. He whips a great ball in, he looks for me and everything worked out.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.