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Philadelphia Union's Aaron Wheeler back in forward mix as center back experiment ends

Aaron Wheeler of the Philadelphia Union

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USA Today Sports

CHESTER, Pa. – The Aaron Wheeler center back experiment has come to an end.

After giving the converted striker eight starts on the backline this season – a decision that surprised many – Philadelphia Union manager John Hackworth admitted during his weekly press conference Wednesday that Wheeler is now training with the forwards.

“When you try different guys in different positions, I think that’s the risk you run,” Hackworth said. “In this case, clearly we decided that was a direction we were not going to move forward in.”

Wheeler was first thrust into the fire this season when Austin Berry went down with an injury in the second game of the season. And the Union coaches thought he played well enough at center back to remain the starter alongside Amobi Okugo even after Berry returned to full health.

But in his last two starts, Wheeler made a couple of critical mistakes in a 2-1 loss to Seattle on May 3 and was then yanked off the field after just 52 minutes of action as the Union’s backline imploded in a 5-3 defeat to the New England Revolution on May 17.

“It’s 100 percent our responsibility,” Hackworth said. “I think any time you’re looking for solutions, you’re going to try things. And look, I don’t think it’s fair to Aaron to have this conversation around whether he’s going to be a center back or a forward. He is a good pro. He’s played some really valuable minutes for this club this year.”

Hackworth added that Wheeler – who didn’t make the trip to Los Angeles for the Union’s two-game road trip last week – will have an “opportunity” to find minutes at striker, which is where he’s played for most of his career and where he scored a big goal for the Union in limited action last year.

But more pressing at this point is finding a permanent solution at center back. Over the last two games, natural right back Sheanon Williams has started there as Berry continues to battle the injury bug. And then there’s Ethan White, who has yet to play a minute this season but has “done really well establishing himself on our depth chart right now,” according to Hackworth.

“It’s a fluid list right now because we honestly haven’t had the consistent play out of our center backs that you would want or expect at this point in the year,” the Union manager said. “We’ve tried a lot of guys back there and it’s been a struggle.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.