Season review: Aaron Wheeler on the challenges of a major positional change

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

As a sports fan, there are going to be moments you remember even if they end up being little more than trivia over the course of a full season. Moments that catch you so off guard that they stick with you much longer than you expect.

For many Philadelphia Union fans, seeing striker Aaron Wheeler trot out as a central defender in the third match of the 2014 season was just such a moment. It seemed absurd: After all, hadn’t the Union recently acquired Ethan White, an experienced center back from DC United, in the Jeff Parke trade? What was going on?

But John Hackworth’s decision to start Aaron Wheeler as a defender was not a desperate or spur-of-the-moment decision. Wheeler was a highly regarded defender in college, and after stepping into the back line in a game against Reading United, the coaching staff felt they could put trust in a player who always puts the team first.

“We had been working on it from the previous summer when we were short numbers when we went to Reading and we just didn’t have another center back,” Wheeler told PSP. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll jump back there for a game, no problem.’ And, I mean, fortunately and unfortunately, it went really well so they kinda just said let’s mess with this and see where it leads us.

“So it wasn’t like Hackworth and them were just like, ‘Hey… what do you think about center back?’ It wasn’t just an out-of-the-blue kind of thing.”

Perspective, or hindsight

Some things to keep in mind:

  1. At the time Wheeler was named a starting defender, Union fans — and players and coaches — expected the team to be competing for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. A winter spending spree and trade for former rookie of the year Austin Berry seemed to portend big things.
  2. Ethan White had been struggling to beat out guys like Brandon McDonald for playing time in DC. Not a ringing endorsement.
  3. Say what you will about Wheeler’s performances in the back, but no matter who the Union put in defense in 2014, the ship kept leaking.

And Wheeler was actually quite good. He tallied six interceptions and three blocks against Columbus. He made the MLS Team of the Week after locking down Marco Di Vaio.

But Wheeler became an easy punching bag when the Union struggled to pull out wins week after week, and especially so when high profile mistakes against Seattle proved costly. It would be another month or more before everybody came to realize that it was the team as a whole, not simply a back line with (or as many incorrectly said at the time, because of) Aaron Wheeler, that was struggling.

Making the mental change

With the season over, it is easy to look back and see that Wheeler was not the problem on a team that simply never jelled into an organized unit on the pitch under Hackworth. The more interesting question, then, is how Wheeler did it. How did he go from a striker to a central defender with relatively little in-game practice? This was not moving from the middle to the wing, or from outside midfield to outside back. It was as extreme a positional change as a soccer player can make without pulling on gloves.

Wheeler told PSP that it’s about thinking. Thinking and adjusting.

“I’ve played forward in MLS more than I’ve played center back,” Wheeler said. “When I went up there [as a striker], I wasn’t worried about anything. I’m not thinking about… anything. I’m just playing. As opposed to playing a different position, you have to think more, get your brain going a bit more.”

“When you’re switching positions, your mindset has to change,” he said. “Particularly for me, it was going from a forward where you can be more aggressive with your tackling because usually you’re just charging at defenders, and you can’t necessarily do that in the final third as a defender because you can risk a red card or a PK or something like that. Whereas as a forward, you’re just attack, attack, attack. You’re just relentless in the way you’re supposed to go after defenders.”

That thinking has to translate into communication. “Especially as the type of forward they play me as, a target forward, you’re usually with your back to goal so you’re not seeing what’s behind you,” Wheeler said. “As opposed to a center back where everything is in front of you and it’s all about communication; the more you communicate the easier your job is.”

The heat of the spotlight

Talking to Wheeler, it is clear he understood that his performances would be scrutinized more than most. He knew that the narrative might be that John Hackworth made a panic move, and that many people wouldn’t know that he had been a standout defender in college. With the pressure on the Union to win, Wheeler knew he was not going to get the benefit of the doubt from outside observers.

But he also knew that the coaching staff had confidence in him. “They [the coaches] are not just going to throw anybody out there. I think it’s a compliment to any player because the conversation Hackworth and I had at the beginning of the preseason was — it was after our first scrimmage, I can’t remember if it was New England or something like that, just a friendly — and he said we’re looking for a way to get you on the field.

“So for them to be openly looking for a way to get you on the field in a different position,” Wheeler said, “obviously they think you’re capable of doing it, so it’s moreso just making sure that you’re buying in, mentally and completely, and fully devoting yourself to whatever the new task is.”

Not afraid to go through it again

So after all the scrutiny, all the pressure, knowing that he played well some games and made costly mistakes in others, would Wheeler do it again?

“I absolutely think if the opportunity came up again, if I needed to, if I was asked to by the Philadelphia Union coaching staff, I would make the transition no problem,” Wheeler said. “Again, players are different. It’s the confidence you have in yourself and your own ability.

“At the end of the day, I think it made me a more well-rounded player and it has my confidence even higher. I had success in back, I was [on the] team of the week, I had some good weeks, but unfortunately in this league there’s just such small windows of opportunity that, if you have a couple lapses, people can see, ‘Ooh, that just happened,’ so there’s not as much room for little blunders. And with all the pressure going on in the situation, I just didn’t have the time or the opportunities to get past those.”

It was a strange season for Philadelphia Union and for Aaron Wheeler in particular. Whether people look back, after seeing the plethora of central defenders the Union deployed in 2014, and think that giving Aaron Wheeler an opportunity was a reasonable move or a crazy mistake, it is clear how Wheeler himself sees it.

It was an opportunity to help his team. More than anything else, those are the types of opportunities he wants.


  1. Nice insight into the perceived cluster-F of last year’s backline. I don’t hate Hack’s decisions as much now.

  2. Good read and enlightening.
    I’m inclined to think/believe/know that moving Wheeler to the back line may not have had such a spotlight on it were it not for moving Okugo back there too. When your central defense is anchored by a DM and a practiced striker, it does not bode well for game in game out solidarity or cohesion- no matter what the possibility or probability points towards.
    IMO it was untenable for Aaron Wheeler to be ultimately successful just as it was untenable for Okugo to be ultimately successful- imagine if Conte put Pirlo and Llorente at CB last year while sitting Bonucci and Chiellini- yes I get it they are way better players but the reasoning is not far off. To my mind it displayed a grievous mismanagement of the job- like playing darts with a blindfold despite the author’s solid argument to the contrary.
    Kudos to Aaron for the team mentality and the joy out of just wanting to be on the field though.

  3. You see CDM’s switch to CB’s……Kompany, Fletcher, Okugo, and Edu. As stated in the piece……the switch from target striker to CB is a big stretch….maybe too big. While the physical skill set may seem similar, the mental aspect of both positions is entirely different, and not learned over the course of a season, especially at this level. I think Wheeler just wants to play, and will say what he has to…and move where he has to, to achieve that. We would all do the same. I didn’t know he played CB in college…….but its still seems a big stretch. He’s still an asset late in matches up front, because of his size and skill set that he brings. If it was between Casey and Wheeler……I’d keep Wheeler. He’s younger, faster, and hungrier. No slight on Casey, the guy was a beast for years……but time has caught up with him.

    • +Jermaine Jones.
      Casey v Wheeler is a tough one. Casey’s skill on the ball might make up for what he lacks in physicality/stamina/speed compared to Wheeler. Despite limited minutes, he was involved in a significant number of the Union’s goals last season. Second maybe only to Seba. I hope we keep him, personally.

      • I understand that…..and I agree to an extent. I’m just thinking Casey’s days are numbered….look like he could hardly move last year. I was thinking more of youth over a guy who only has maybe a year or two left or two in the tank…..

      • man I butchered that last sentence…….

  4. Some guy – “Klinsmann?” – said he hired some other guy – “Loew,” maybe – when that other guy was the first person who ever explained how the backline correctly played as a cohesive unit. It’s that kind of experience and insight that led a green head coach who’d spent his career developing youth to mistakenly think it’s a “plug-&-play” position. Elsewhere PSP has remarkably shown how many more GPG the U allowed in the first half under Hack than under Curtin. The burning question is how ripe is JC – with RM as a flyby consultant – so he avoids similar catastrophe next season. I’ll be watching. On TV. At least until April. You?

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