BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – When Fire rookie Austin Berry saw Eddie Gaven’s pass approaching Emilio Rentería’s feet in Chicago’s 2-1 loss to Columbus on May 26, the athletic central defender decided to dive in.
What unfolded then was a lesson in aggression, strength and how to be a pro defender. Rentería shrugged Berry off, knocked him to the ground, and buried the ball in the top corner, a play emblematic of the growing pains facing a young Fire defense that gave up 10 goals in five games leading up to the international break.
“It’s just my competitive nature, I try to step in,” Berry told MLSsoccer.com. “Sometimes you do have to step in, but in other cases you have to stay as a back four, let other guys do that and stay as a back four.”
And while Berry has improved decision-making over the past six weeks, part of the Fire defense's struggles can simply be attributed to the fact that the center back corps was down to its two youngest members after Cory Gibbs was injured in April and Arne Friedrich went down in early May.
Second-year pro Jalil Anibaba and Berry spent a short time playing together during preseason, but the 23-year-olds have both been learning on the job this year. The two-week international break gave them some much-needed time to work together on discipline and communication.
“We’ve been working really hard together to keep things tight in the back,” Anibaba told MLSsoccer.com. “I think we complement each other well. I think it’s a good option for our coaching staff. It’s a good opportunity for us to push the envelope.”
When the Fire played Columbus on Saturday, that discipline and togetherness was crucial after left back Gonzalo Segares received a red card in the 29th minute. The Fire defense passed the test, allowing just one goal and preserving the 2-1 victory.
“When you’re down a man, you have to be really good positionally,” Berry said. “Before the break, I was stepping out of my position, and we looked at that and corrected it a little bit. Now, we’re staying as a back four more and as a unit.”
The glimpse at the Fire’s center back duo of the future may be over this weekend, with Arne Friedrich set to rejoin the lineup. The veteran center back will probably push Anibaba to fullback with Segares suspended.
But the young pair was able to gain some valuable time together, which should pay dividends in the next few years.
“We didn’t know we were going to have so much time together already,” Berry said. “It’s good for us to get this experience early in our career so we can develop that relationship for future seasons.”