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

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The central conundrum: Hackworth weighs in on the Berry-Wheeler debate

Austin Berry, here jumping against Portland's Diego Valeri in the season opener,
finds himself on the bench behind Aaron Wheeler in the Union's
center-back pecking order. (AP)
John Hackworth is generally not one for grand declarations or illuminating insights into his coaching process as it pertains to players. That close-to-the-vest demeanor makes his open proclamation that Aaron Wheeler is his first-choice center back at the moment in favor of a healthy-again Austin Berry all the more poignant.

In full (asides and all), here is the answer Hackworth gave when I asked the question of the pecking order between Wheeler and Berry:

“I don’t think there’s a definitive answer for that because you have Aaron Wheeler, who’s played well. Being very honest – and I told Aaron this during the first half against Houston – he needed to be more aggressive. He needed to assert himself more. And he did a great job of that toward the end of the first half, and he continued to do that in the second half. You get a shutout as a team, and deal with an opponent in Houston who kind of like us came away from their previous game against New England, just they were going to go out and take shots from everywhere. And we defended pretty well as a group.

“My point is thought that Aaron has done well in the minutes that he’s played, and because we’ve had a positive result like getting a shutout and doing it against a team like Houston that was going to come out firing, I think Aaron is still the first choice. And Austin, and there’s other guys like Ethan White, who need to continue to work hard in training to see if they get that opportunity.”

So there you have it: Wheeler is the Union’s first-choice center back until further notice. The fact that in 2012, Wheeler was a forward in the Finnish second division while Berry was MLS rookie of the year as a central defender in Chicago is of no consequence in the debate, however interesting the sentence might read.

What is important for the Union and Hackworth is how they’ve stacked up this season. From what we’ve seen, there’s little separating the two. Wheeler has started five games, including the last two and five of the last six, while Berry has gotten three starts, finishing each game but the New England match, in which Wheeler spelled him for what goes a split clean sheet between them, I suppose. (Wheeler also played the final three minutes of the Portland game in a pseudo-defensive capacity; we’ll ignore that for this evaluation.)

So here are the raw numbers this season:

Berry: 234 minutes; 3 goals allowed (one per 108 mins); 0 clean sheets; plus-1 goal difference; one PK conceded

Wheeler: 486 minutes; 7 goals allowed (one per 69 mins); 1 clean sheet; minus-2 GD; one PK conceded

By the time you control for everything – like weighing out the goal differential and sample sizes – the numbers look fairly similar.

So let’s get qualitative: Wheeler has played well. Whether he’s played the best he can is hard to say since, less than 10 games into this defensive transformation, that is constantly evolving. How high the ceiling on his talent as a central defender is is difficult to discern.

What we can certainly say is that Berry hasn’t played to his capability for a variety of reasons. He played 90 minutes, then hurt his hamstring, got rushed back (as Hackworth admitted), and had a horror start to his first game back in the lineup with a clumsy collision with Olmes Garcia that unfortunately occurred in the box. After that, he never settled into the RSL game, played poorly and has been relegated to the bench since.

Now that Hackworth is calling for the continuity he prized in defense last year, Berry is on the outside looking in until an injury or loss of form by Wheeler.

“We do want to build that continuity, and that’s one reason why Aaron’s played the last couple of games and probably will get another chance on Saturday because once you’re doing well at the back, it’s hard to change,” Hackworth said. “Credit to Austin, though. He had an injury, came back maybe a little early. Maybe that was us forcing him back a little soon, but he’s very good in training as well, and that’s a good thing about our team right now. There’s good healthy competition in training, and I think that translates to guys pushing each other and performing better in games.”

So there it is, then, Wheeler is the guy … until he’s not the guy. Or until Berry is the guy. Seems a bit reactive to pin the playing hopes of an all-star caliber defender on the failures of a teammate, but that’s what Hackworth is doing, at least for now. Such logic could be in search of the lesser of evils, as we saw with Hackworth shuffling the two until he got a good performance recently, with Wheeler struggling against Chicago, then Berry struggling against RSL, then Wheeler struggling against New York before getting a second chance vs. Houston.

It’s also telling that he values some sort of consistency – from someone, anyone – over tinkering to find the best fit. Or read another way, it’s a rallying cry to Berry to light a fire under him.

“You’re looking at performance,” Hackworth said. “What a player does, especially in game and then when the camera’s not on players and it’s now training, what are they doing? When you have healthy competition like you have at center back, Aaron Wheeler has emerged from a talented core group of players and has played at a consistent level.

“Since he has earned that right to be the first-choice center back, it’s up to the guy that is No. 2 and No. 3 to play that much better than the guy sitting in the first position, or something happens like an injury, and then a guy gets his opportunity, and that’s what we’re as a staff trying to evaluate. Again, we feel good about the guys that we have there, and Austin I think is going to play some valuable minutes for us one way or another this season as are some other guys that might not be featuring as much.”

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