On Tuesday, the Chicago Fire will return to Illinois for their first practice of the year at Toyota Park. And even though he’s a rookie, Austin Berry is going to feel right at home.
A former center back standout at the University of Louisville, Berry trained just a few yards away from the first team last year as a member of the club’s PDL team.
“It was kind of separate but we train next to them every single day,” the 23-year-old said. “We would be doing the same kind of training regimen that the first team would do. For me it was also good to play in a different kind of formation than I normally would in college. It was a formation that was more like the first team’s.”
The Fire added Berry with the ninth pick in the MLS SuperDraft to add some much-needed depth at center back. That depth became even more important when it became apparent that Josip Mikulic and Yamith Cuesta, who combined to start 34 games last season, wouldn’t be returning this season.
Chicago head coach Frank Klopas has said repeatedly throughout the preseason that he plans on bringing in another center back, and German World Cup veteran Arne Friedrich has been linked to the Fire.
But with just 12 days before the opener against Montreal, Berry is the third center back behind Cory Gibbs and second-year starter Jalil Anibaba. Gibbs has had injury problems throughout his career, so a spot in the starting lineup at some point isn’t out of the question for Berry.
Gibbs sees a similarity between Anibaba and Berry, who could be the starting center back tandem of the future in Chicago.
“They both have the mentality of not only wanting to be in the 18, but wanting to fight to be in the starting 11,” Gibbs said. “I think his mentality and his attitude of just wanting to get better will help him in terms of fighting for a starting position.”
Like most rookies coming out of college, Berry is still adjusting to the speed of play.
He’ll probably have a long time to adjust with players in front of him, and he’s fine with that.
“It’s good just to watch them on a daily basis and go play against them,” Berry said. “The better I get, the more I improve, it pushes them, too. That just makes us better as a whole, as a team.”