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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Aaron Wheeler, center back? Hackworth thinks it's possible

If there was one question for which Philadelphia Union John Hackworth was looking for clarity in last week’s friendly with Reading United, it was if he had the kind of defensive depth that he’d hoped, the kind that made the trades of Bakary Soumare and Gabriel Farfan in the last month workable.

The answer originally looked murky. And then, thanks to one of the unlikeliest of sources, it showed shocking clarity.

An injury at the last minute meant that fans were forced into a bit of double-take when reading the starting backline: Don Anding, Matt Kassel, Chris Albright and Aaron Wheeler.
Wait, that guy who made his MLS debut just days earlier as a striker and darn near picked up his first career assist? Yeah, that guy.

The ability of the 6-4, prototypical center forward Wheeler to deputize in the center of defense was at the tip of the tongue for Hackworth four days later when reviewing the takeaways from the friendly at his weekly press conference.

The performances in the 2-0 win over the Union’s developmental partner in the USL Pro division may not have changed who will be on the pitch Wednesday when the Union travel to D.C. United for the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, but they certainly change the equation moving forward, Wheeler being among the main catalysts for that change.
“I don’t think it changes our selection process for this game, but I think it has a big effect on what we do long-term,” Hackworth said Wednesday at PPL Park. “I’ll give you a for instance: We had an injury come up last week very late in our planning going into Reading, and we put Aaron Wheeler at center back. And he did such a good job at center back against Reading that it has changed our perspective a little bit. We’ve thought for a long time that maybe we need to look outside to bring in a center back to provide some covering, and he was good.

“It’s a long-term process if you convert a guy from being a forward to a center back, but Aaron has a lot of those qualities and did well.”

Wheeler’s metamorphosis from goal-scoring caterpillar to goal-defending butterfly may not crystallize overnight. And it may not have to. But the option is there.

Wheeler wasn’t the only one to impress. Hackworth also made note of Albright, who wore the captain’s armband and was integral in marshaling the defense. Keeping a clean sheet with the likes of Anding and Kassel reflects well, especially against a team like Reading that has some big talents. Wheeler and Leo Fernandes are both Reading alums, and two first-round picks – Colorado’s Deshorn Brown and Columbus’ Ryan Finley – and five selections in the first two rounds of the 2013 MLS SuperDraft count Reading United as among their developmental stopovers.

The performance of the reserves was vital for a Union team that planned to stick with the youngsters no matter what, Hackworth admitting that the starters populating the bench took the trip to sign autographs and take pictures. The fact that the bench players knew that and reacted accordingly drove Hackworth to remark that “the mentality that we took into the first half was the best mentality we’ve had as a team in a friendly.”

As for the Wheeler situation, Hackworth doesn’t expect any imminent changes for a guy who had never even played defense in a 7-v-7 scrimmage in practice with the Union. But he did allow that Wheeler has the tools for the job, foremost among them his hulking frame and ability to move well, and offered an anecdote to encourage keeping an open mind.

“It’s a really tough thing to play there moving from a forward position, but I’ve had experience with other guys doing the same thing,” Hackworth said. “Jonathan Spector was a forward on the Under-17s. We were playing in Ballymena in Northern, Ireland and at halftime, we moved him to center back. He’d never played there before. (Former U-17 national team coach) John Ellinger said, ‘hey, teach him how to play center back at halftime in the next five minutes,’ and literally he played that second half so well that he caught the eye of the Manchester United scouts, and next thing you know he’s playing for Man U. So it can happen.”

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