Injuries forcing converted striker Aaron Wheeler into action at center back for Philadelphia Union

Aaron Wheeler, Philadelphia Union

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CHESTER, Pa. – With the Philadelphia Union currently nursing a couple of injuries along their backline, manager John Hackworth is prepared to hand the starting center back spot over to a converted striker for Saturday’s game against Columbus at Crew Stadium (6 pm ET; MLS Live).

In line to start in Austin Berry’s spot, Aaron Wheeler has certainly made some big strides since changing positions during the preseason.

“We’ll have to see what happens with Austin,” Hackworth said. “But for sure, right now I would think Aaron is the next choice for us.”

Berry – who the Union traded for late in the preseason to start at center back alongside Amobi Okugo – was forced out of this past Saturday’s win over New England because of tightness in his hamstring.

He was replaced by the 6-foot-4 Wheeler, who helped Philly preserve the shutout and later drew considerable praise from his teammates.

“He’s a student of the game,” full back Ray Gaddis said. “He’s always asking questions to the other defenders. He’s going to be a great presence in the aerial aspect of the game and winning a lot of corner kicks and goal kicks.”

Wheeler’s big frame is one reason he’s been able rise in the depth chart ahead of Ethan White, who came over in the offseason deal that sent Jeff Parke to D.C. United.

But Hackworth said that White has “done really well in the last three weeks” and that rookie Richie Marquez will also be a factor at the center-back position when he returns from injury.

What does having that kind of depth mean?

“It means that we’re not going to have a drop-off,” Hackworth said. “Aaron was a really good example of that. How often do you see a center back come into a 1-0 game? And the opposing team clearly went at him right away. But he handled it in the right way. He played well and was ready.”

Hackworth said the team is currently being “cautious” with Berry as they work on his hamstring. The coaches are taking the same approach with starting right back Sheanon Williams, who has yet to play a minute this season because of a strained quad and is “a little farther behind” other injured players like Conor Casey (who also hasn’t played yet but is nearing his 2014 debut).

But the Union, who have given up just one goal through two games, are confident their defense will be fine, even if both Williams and Berry are out of commission.

“If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready,” said Gaddis, who has started in Williams’ spot at right back through the first two games. “That’s always been my mentality. I think we’ll be OK for this fixture against Columbus this weekend.”

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