Philadelphia Union center back Aaron Wheeler continues to excel after conversion from striker

CHESTER, Pa. – Austin Berry arrived in Philadelphia this past offseason as the clear-cut choice to be a starting center back on a Union team that was very thin on defense.

But after missing some time with a hamstring injury and then having a poor game in his return to the staring lineup against Real Salt Lake on April 12, Berry was surpassed in the center-back pecking order by converted striker Aaron Wheeler.

And that’s the way it’s going to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

“Aaron, right now, is still the first choice,” Union manager John Hackworth said in his weekly press conference Wednesday.

Hackworth isn’t ready to return Berry to his starting role in part because the Union are coming off a shutout in Saturday’s scoreless draw with the Houston Dynamo. Early in that game, the Union manager said he told Wheeler he needed to be more aggressive – and the 6-foot-4 defender responded by helping to completely lock down the Houston attack in the second half.

Wheeler is now poised to start his third straight game – and sixth in the team’s last seven – when the Union face the Montreal Impact on Saturday at Stade Saputo. Before that, the former striker had little, if any, experience as a defender in MLS.

“We do want to build that continuity and that’s one reason why Aaron’s played the last couple of games and will probably get another chance on Saturday,” Hackworth said. “Once you’re doing well in the back, it’s hard to change.”

Will Berry – the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year who played almost every minute for the Chicago Fire in his first two seasons in the league – have the opportunity to play again after starting the first two games of the season for Philly?

Considering he not only has to compete with Wheeler but also Ethan White, a young center back who was brought over in the offseason trade that sent Jeff Parke to D.C. United, it could be an uphill climb.

But Hackworth has said time and again how he likes having that kind of competition in training, and believes that Berry will stay play a big role on the team this season.

“Aaron Wheeler has emerged from a talented core group of players and has played at a consistent level,” Hackworth said. “And then, since he has earned that right to be a first-choice center back, it’s up to the guys who are No. 2 and No. 3 to play that much better than the guy sitting in front of him.

“Austin, I think, is going to play some valuable minutes for us one way or another this season – as are some other guys that are not featuring as much.”

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