Over the past month, Philadelphia Union rookie Aaron Wheeler has emerged as a dangerous offensive reserve, contributing one goal and one assist in limited minutes.
But on Tuesday, in an international friendly against Stoke City at PPL Park, Wheeler showcased another facet to his game, playing as a central defender in a 2-0 loss to the English Premier League side.
“It’s definitely different,” Wheeler told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s just a change of mindset. You go from thinking about trying to score goals to trying to not let them in. You just go about everything differently.”
It might seem like a dramatic shift but Wheeler has been used as a central defender before, both in training with the Union and while on loan with Philly’s USL Pro affiliate, the Harrisburg City Islanders.
But Tuesday’s test was certainly his toughest one yet as he led a team of Union reserves in the first half against an EPL squad that was playing its final contest of a three-game US tour.
“I like him on defense, as long as he’s not taking my spot,” laughed starting center back Amobi Okugo. “But he’s a great player. His aerial ability is great and he’s a better defender than people think. He’s able to get physical with the bigger forwards.”
Playing against “bigger forwards” proved to be the biggest challenge for the Union, and it was one reason why they fell behind 2-0 at halftime. But it also showed the value of the 6-foot-4 Wheeler, who looked comfortable running with players his size.
“I don’t think they had anyone in the starting 11 under six feet,” said Wheeler, the tallest player on the Union. “They’re big boys. I had no idea they made them like that over there. It was definitely different to see a whole squad that big and athletic. It was quite eye-opening.”
Because the Union were outplayed in the first half, Wheeler was disappointed with his own performance. But the rookie still believes he can become an important defensive reserve this season, just as he’s already emerged as an important offensive reserve.
“It doesn’t matter to me to be honest,” he said when asked which position he prefers. “I just want to play a bigger role. Wherever they feel they need me, I’m ready to do that.”