BRIDGEVIEW, Ill – Austin Berry was just happy to get on the field when Louisville coach Ken Lolla moved him from the midfield to central defense midway through his freshman year of college.
Though Lolla smiles as he jokes that the Chicago Fire center back still sees himself as a midfielder, the Cardinals head coach knew early on that the 6-foot-2 defender’s career belonged on the backline.
“He’s so dominating in the air,” Lolla told MLSsoccer.com after his team’s 1-0 exhibition loss to the Fire on Saturday, which Berry started alongside Arne Friedrich at center back. “As a center back, that’s a wonderful quality. His ability to destroy the game, win balls and start the attack, it allowed him to be a very good center back.”
Berry was never a player that would jump off the page — that’s why Louisville only had to compete with Xavier and Wright State for his services. But Lolla saw early in Berry’s career that he had the work ethic necessary to become a high-level center back.
“We put him in some games, and we weren’t sure how he was going to deal with it,” Lolla said. “Although tactically and technically he was not necessarily prepared, his mentality, grit and determination were signs that he was going to be pretty good given time.”
Given that time, Berry flourished at the position. He was named second and third-team All-American during his junior and senior years, and the Fire drafted him with the ninth overall pick in January’s SuperDraft.
Austin Berry selected 9th in SuperDraft
“I came in as an athlete, and I developed into an all-around soccer player and a leader as well,” Berry told MLSsoccer.com. “He saw the potential in me, and here I am now. A lot of that comes from Ken believing in me as much as I did.”
In Chicago, Berry joined former Louisville strength and conditioning coach Tony Jouaux, who took the same position with the Fire in early 2011. Almost immediately, Jouaux began working on Berry’s diet and weight training. Since the season started, the 23-year-old has lost three pounds of fat and gained three pounds of muscle.
“I’ve been around him a lot so I know what he needs to do,” Jouaux told MLSsoccer.com. “He’s getting better with his diet and he’s getting stronger. He’s going to be ready for MLS; he fits in very well.”
Berry hasn’t seen any time in the Fire’s first three games of the year, but with fellow center back Cory Gibbs ruled out on Tuesday for up to six months, Berry’s chances of appearing in league play are on the up.
With Berry and second-year defender Jalil Anibaba, the Fire have a starting central defensive tandem of the future learning the ropes already.
Lolla doesn’t seem to think it’s a bad thing that the Fire are bringing the rookie along slowly. Watching Berry play most of Saturday’s exhibition alongside Friedrich, he saw similar flaws to when Berry was just a young, virtually unknown athlete.
He also sees the same potential.
“What he needs to grow on, still from the little I’ve seen, is cleaning up his technical abilities with the ball,” Lolla said.
And if he does that?
“He has the potential to be one of the best in this league.”
Not bad for a guy who may still be a midfielder at heart.