Wheeler used Pumas game as proving ground, earning assist in gamewinner
Since preseason training began, Aaron Wheeler has consistently talked about seizing any opportunity awarded to him.
That was quite evident on Saturday.
The 6-foot-4 Wheeler played a terrific all-around match for the Philadelphia Union in a 1-0 victory over Pumas UNAM in an international friendly at PPL Park. Wheeler, 24, assisted on Michael Farfan’s goal in the 68th minute.
On the opposite end, the lanky forward did a great job of winning the balls in the air. He even headed a couple balls out of the box in the waning minutes with the Union clinging to that one-goal lead.
Wheeler received playing time for the first time this season and he proved his mettle in a number of ways.
“As a big guy, the first thing you’re asked is that you better win the balls in the air,” Wheeler said. “You should be able to hold the ball up. If I can’t do that, I shouldn’t be playing. That’s my first goal, first and foremost. If I can’t do that, it would be tough to contribute. Some people got to see me on the ball, see that I’m comfortable. I’m just connecting passes, keeping it simple.
“I’m not a guy who’s going to be dropping bombs from 25 feet or beating people one v. one or one v. two. I’m just keeping it simple.”Following the match, Union manager John Hackworth was quick to talk about Wheeler’s play.
“I think he’s probably a little bit of a cult hero already because he won so many balls in the air,” Hackworth quipped.
“Far from that,” Wheeler said smiling. “Like I said in preseason, I just do whatever I can to help the team, run around, bang with guys. I’ll do that and I’ll do whatever coach asks me. To be honest, I was just scared of him yelling at me for not running.”
In 2011, Wheeler was one of the trialists for the Union in the preseason. He wound up signing with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League and played six games before suffering a season-ending injury.
Last year, he signed with FC KooTeePee of the Finnish Ykkonen.
After a strong preseason with the Union this time around, he earned a coveted spot on the roster.
Even though Wheeler is competing with the likes of Sebastien Le Toux, Jack McInerney and Antoine Hoppenot among others, he’s doing all he can to stick around. This type of performance against Pumas certainly will help his cause.
“It’s difficult, but at the same time, we have a lot of very talented forwards on this team, so you know, I’m not one to come in and think, ‘I deserve to play right away,’” Wheeler said. “There are a lot of big-name guys here with great resumes who have scored goals. All of them have scored in the first three games of the season. Who am I to say I should be playing? I’m perfectly fine with waiting my turn and training. If I get the opportunity, I can take advantage of it, great. If not, it’s not the end of the world. You have to keep plugging away.
“I feel that when your time comes, your time comes. I’m learning patience, so it’s a good thing.”
It was worth the wait.
“That’s the biggest stadium I’ve ever played in,” Wheeler said. “I played in Montreal once and it was about 13,000 (fans). … It was definitely the biggest stadium I played in. It was phenomenal. The fans are great and you do actually hear them on the field sometimes. … It was an awesome atmosphere. I’m very happy to be here.”