Minnesota United FC contemplated starting the season with its captain coming off the bench.
Returning talent and several offseason signings crowded the midfield and made Aaron Pitchkolan's role less certain. But his versatility, along with his veteran experience and rookie-like stamina, made Pitchkolan tough to sit down.
He recently left his midfield spot, however, to become the center back and fortify the Loons' defense. Minnesota is unbeaten in its five matches since the switch, entering Saturday's match with Carolina at the National Sports Center Stadium in Blaine.
Pitchkolan, 32, has started all but two matches this season, his 11th as a professional soccer player. A veteran of Major League Soccer and three North American Soccer League teams, he understands well the tumultuous nature of keeping a job in the competitive U.S. soccer market. He did not take personal the offseason signings of midfielders Jonny Steele, Ibson and Kalif Alhassan.
"Ownership is going to bring in good players, coaches are going to pick the squad and you just have to control what you can," Pitchkolan said. "You give your best effort and hopefully things work out. Obviously, I'm still here for a reason."
A starter at the beginning of the season, Pitchkolan saw his value increase as Steele failed to find his form and Ibson suffered an injury. Later in the season, veterans Jamie Watson (injury) and Miguel Ibarra (transfer) became unavailable. But Pitchkolan, the captain, endured.
Fitness is a big reason. Like Ibarra, lauded for running at top speed for 90 minutes, Pitchkolan's engine impresses teammates.
"He's a freak athlete," midfielder Greg Jordan said. "If you see him with his shirt off, he looks like the Terminator. He's just ripped. It seems like he never gets tired."
Pitchkolan, a self-described "gym rat," said staying fit helps him be an effective leader by example.
"You always want to be available for the squad. That's been my motto throughout my professional career," he said.
He was selected as a NASL Best XI defender in 2013, his first season with Minnesota. Primarily a midfielder last season, Pitchkolan accepted a move to defense earlier this fall season.
"When you're playing center back, you're going up against the other team's forwards," he said. "You've got to be physically tougher and have a mind-set to win the ball. At midfield, it's more about keeping the ball, possession and helping the team move forward."
At center back, Pitchkolan works closely with Tiago Calvano, the team's other primary veteran influence. Like Pitchkolan, Calvano dismissed the idea that one player sparked the team's current run. And while the defense hasn't been perfect — Minnesota earned a clean sheet just once in the past five matches — Pitchkolan's arrival brought stability.
"He's very calm and comfortable on the ball," Calvano said. "He reads the game well and he does a good job with communication."
Jordan has noticed the subtle, savvy ways that Pitchkolan has helped defend while also keeping Minnesota tops among NASL teams with 37 goals scored.
"Being a midfielder, you read the game and that really helps him excel at center back," Jordan said. "And he's got really good feet and that makes a difference for us playing out of the back and playing the style we want to."
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574