CHESTER, Pa. – Philadelphia Union center back Austin Berry returned to the practice field this week after sitting out last weekend’s game in Columbus with a strained hamstring.
But manager John Hackworth appears to be in no rush to reinsert Berry into the starting lineup, saying that he wants to be “careful” with the injury.
One of the main reasons for that kind of caution is the emergence of center back Aaron Wheeler, who has evolved into an unlikely but much-needed defensive option for a team in desperate need of one.
“I wouldn’t say this was the way I saw my career going,” said Wheeler, who made his first career MLS start at center back Saturday. “But I’m extremely ecstatic for where I’m at.”
Wheeler has certainly taken a roundabout route to Philly’s starting backline. Throughout most of his career – which has included stops at a few different lower-division US teams as well as a one-year stint in Finland – the 6-foot-4 Baltimore native has been a striker.
But after Wheeler signed with Philly before the start of the 2013 season, Hackworth began to tinker with the idea of using his size at center back. And after the Union traded away veteran center back Jeff Parke in the offseason, that idea turned into an important plan.
“I played center back for one year of college but that’s really all of the experience I had with it,” said Wheeler, who was also a trialist for the Union before the 2011 season. “But me and Hack just had an honest conversation about my size this preseason and how I’m physically dominant in the air. He was just looking for a way to get me on the field. So once we had an honest conversation about the way he saw my career going, I was open to it.”
Hackworth also has the luxury of moving Wheeler up top when the Union are in need of a goal, as he did in the final minutes of Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Columbus.
How does Wheeler deal with making those in-game adjustments?
“I think that as far as being a forward or an attacking player, you’re more reactionary,” he said. “You react to what’s going on around you – as opposed to a defensive player where it’s all mental. You have to watch so many different runs developing beforehand. If you just react as a defender, chances are the guy is by you and it’s an opportunity on goal.”
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Wheeler didn’t let too many guys run by him in Columbus – both of the Crew’s goals came on mistakes made by other players – and he’s similarly confident he’ll be able to slow down the Impact attack if called upon to make his second straight start Saturday (4 pm ET, MLS Live).
He never expected to be in this position. But he’s ready for it.
“I just say I’m a soccer player,” Wheeler said. “I think I can go out there and do a job and do a very good job wherever they give me the opportunity. I’m just grateful to be doing that.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.