COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KXRM) — Aaron Wheeler stopped short of comparing his game to the energy of a Boykin Spaniel, but after five years away from professional soccer, the intensity in his Switchbacks debut will surely will be more like his younger pup instead of his other dog — an eight-year-old Yorkie.
“He’s pure chaos. All gas, no brakes,” Wheeler said of his younger canine, whose breed is the official state dog of South Carolina, where Aaron used to live. “Our older dog is a 10-pound, grumpy old man.”
Wheeler, comparatively speaking, is an old man among the Colorado Springs Switchbacks — the USL Championship best team in the Western Conference. The 34-year old was brought in by Switchbacks head coach Brendan Burke not just to be a mentor to the team’s offensive playmakers like Hadji Barry and Elvis Amoh, but to have additional reliability down the roster.
“(Burke) had asked, ‘We are looking for depth at the 9, can you still play,'” Wheeler said. “It wasn’t on the radar at all. I told him you need to have a conversation with Ashley, my wife.
“We were sitting downtown in Phoenix at lunch with Brendan. He brought it up to her, and she said, ‘As a player?'”
Ashley didn’t hesitate.
“What she told him, and what he told me, she said, ‘Anything to support the big guy,'” Wheeler said. “My wife is just that woman. She’s fantastic and I’m super grateful.”
Aaron and Ashley had just bought a house in Phoenix and were in the remodeling process. That, along with coaching soccer in the evenings, Aaron adjusted his wake-up time from 5:30 a.m. to 4:15 a.m. in order to efficiently complete the 13-week training program with Switchbacks Director of Sports Performance Alan McCann.
“As far as the rigorousness, it was nothing over the top, but it was listening to my body,” Wheeler said. “This isn’t a two-week program. This is 13 weeks, then you come in and acclimate to the altitude.”
Aaron last played for the Harrisburg City Islanders, most recently known as Penn FC of the USL Championship before the team folded in December 2019. His professional resume also includes time in Major League Soccer, making 25 appearances over the 2013-14 seasons with the Philadelphia Union.
Because of his tenure in the city of brotherly love at the same time where Burke was an assistant coach, it was an easy decision for the Switchbacks head coach to gauge his interest.
“Certainly with a ton of experience, but he’s always taken care of his body, so it hasn’t been a huge adjustment,” Burke said. “We told him six months ago that we’d be bringing him in in the summer, so he had all that lead time to prepare himself physically.”
Even with successful training, individual preparation is only a simulation compared to keeping up with game speed for the first time in years.
“The guys are a lot faster than I remember,” Wheeler said. “They train at such a high tempo and there’s a climatization period. There were some jeers about being the old guy, but it’s been good.”
Wheeler could make his Switchbacks debut Sat., June 11, when his new team visits LA Galaxy II. Whatever role in which he’s placed, he’s happy to do it.
“We thought it’d be a great locker room presence and piece, and it’s been just that already,” Burke said. “Hopefully he grows into the role. He knows he’s here to supporty Hadji (Barry) and Elvis (Amoh) but not take their jobs, but he will push them.”
“My job is to improve the quality of the group, however I can,” Wheeler said. “Whether it’s me showing professionalism in the locker room day to day, whether it’s me playing five minutes or 90 minutes, me pushing the tempo in training, holding people accountable and being ruthless in that, that’s what I’m here to do.
“The reality is I’m here not to mess up what this group already has going, but find a way to add something to it to make sure that down the stretch that we are as solid as we possibly can be.”