Wheeler's Union debut inches away from perfection
When the 6-4 striker made his MLS debut Wednesday night in the 90th minute of the Philadelphia Union’s 3-0 win over Columbus Crew, it was a dream come true. The dream, though, almost got better when Wheeler found space down the left flank and found himself on a 2-v-1 with the league’s leading goalscorer, Jack McInerney.
After galloping into the free acreage before him, Wheeler squared a pass to McInerney, and McInerney’s right-footed drive beat Crew goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum but missed the far post by about a foot. The shot, which Union manager John Hackworth admitted afterward that McInerney should’ve finished, would’ve been the 20-year-old’s 11th goal of the season ... and the first assist of Wheeler’s career.
“I haven't, but all the guys have been giving him a little slack for it,” a beaming Wheeler joked afterward from teh locker room of PPL Park. “They joked after that he said ‘I hate you Wheeler,’ before he shot it. He’s the leading goalscorer in the league; the guy finishes those nine times out of ten. It’s just unlikely that I happened to be the guy to pass to him that one time.”
Nonetheless, Wheeler was happy to get his debut out of the way. He’d made the bench just two other times, against Seattle and Los Angeles, only to be an unused sub. He’s got the physical tools to be an MLS player, moves well for someone his height and showed that he can quickly get into the flow of a game as more than just a target man, running well with the ball in his feet.
“I could say it was well worth it to get that kind reception from all the fans and everything,” said the 25-year-old, who spent last season in the second division of Finnish soccer. “That just makes all the hard work, all the two-a-days from preseason, the last three months just training, just waiting for your opportunity, it just makes everything worth it. All I can say is that the fans and everything, the atmosphere is just the perfect situation. It’s all you can ask for when you make your debut.”
Part of the process toward getting on the field in MLS play was a trip to Union developmental partner Harrisburg City Islanders last week, where Wheeler scored twice in a USL Pro match.
For the kind of work he does on a daily basis duking it out with professional defenders in training, there’s no substitute for the confidence provided by performing in a game, even if it’s two tiers down.
“I still feel good, like I’m training well and everything like that,” he said. “I feel like I’m in form. But there’s nothing that can replace game-time minutes and game-time fitness, so it’s good to get those minutes down there. And obviously finding the back of the net lets you know you’re still in form. You can score a hundred goals in training, but it’s nothing compared to one goal in a game. So it gives you that mental confidence that you want to have with you every time you step on the field.”
As far as the McInerney miss, don’t expect Wheeler to dwell on it long. With a pair of friendlies upcoming against Harrisburg and Reading United plus the potential for two U.S. Open Cup matches before the next MLS match, Wheeler knows his chances to show his stuff are growing. Couple that with the possibility of McInerney being away for several weeks if he makes the U.S. National Team roster for the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the fact that Wheeler’s skill set makes him the natural replacement as a true No. 9 should anything happen to starter Conor Casey, and he’s ready for more playing time, whenever it may occur.
“Stuff like that happens, just right place right time. I could see Jack, and I almost couldn’t believe he was that wide open to be honest with you,” Wheeler said. “And I’d be a lying man if I said I wouldn’t bet the house that he was finishing that. Crazier things have happened. It’s just a great situation to be in, but at the end of the day, it’s still just good to get my first minutes and feel really good out there.”