Chicago Fire first round draft pick Austin Berry’s return to the Windy City earlier this month was under much better circumstances than his last extended stay.
The team’s first round selection at the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, Berry had first become acquainted with the club back in 2010 as a member of the Chicago Fire Premier, the club’s entry in the USL Premier Development League. Berry’s initial path to Chicago came on the heels of recovery from a broken leg suffered during the previous college season at Louisville.
It was September 25, 2009 and the Cardinals had just conceded a goal to go down 2-0 in the 60th minute at Notre Dame. Seconds later, Berry went in for a hard challenge where he connected with an opponent’s knee, effectively fracturing his right tibia in two places.
“Initially I didn’t think anything was wrong,” recalled Berry. “I just thought it was a knock and tried to walk on it but it was obvious things weren’t right. I found out later that day it was broken. At the time I didn’t think I was going to get a red shirt so I thought I was done for the season. I only had one more year in college and I didn’t know what was ahead.”
Having already played seven matches during the 2010, Berry was surprised when he received a medical redshirt later that year, effectively allowing him two more years of college eligibility. The Cincinnati, OH product had been on the Fire Premier’s radar before the injury and as he showed signs of progress in recovery, Berry joined the team for the 2010 season.
“Coming off that injury, I really just needed to get games under my belt.”
Berry got the maximum number he could, becoming the only player to appear in all 16 of the PDL teams matches that season. Despite a star studded roster, many of whom were part of the record-setting 11 Fire Premier alums selected at this year’s SuperDraft, the season was the first in which the team failed to make the PDL postseason, having been knocked out on a tie-breaker.
“By the standards set by previous Fire Premier teams, we didn’t have a successful season. I had a bunch of quality teammates, there were a lot of good training sessions but it didn’t correlate to making the playoffs. For me it was still another good experience, just being around a professional environment every day, getting good training sessions with guys from all around the country and jumping in with the first team at different points. It definitely helped heading back in to the college season.”
Berry returned to Louisville in the fall as a red-shirt junior, stepping back into a program under head coach Ken Lolla that was becoming a national force in college soccer. The 6-2 defender would help guide the Cardinals to a 20-0-3 record and a spot in the NCAA National Championship match where they tasted defeat or the first and only time that season, falling 1-0 to Akron.
Berry didn’t just see familiar faces on the player side when he returned to Chicago for training camp last week as his selection by the Fire also meant being reunited with former Louisville fitness coach Tony Jouaux, now into his second season as the Strength and Conditioning specialist in the Windy City.
“Tony does a really good job. Before he got to Louisville a lot of our spring trainings and preseason were mostly just fitness – it sometimes felt like we were a track team. When he came in he made it more soccer-specific and I think we became a lot better team because of him. I was really excited when I knew I’d be working with him again because I know the hard work he puts in and the passion he brings to his position.”
The tall defender will provide depth at the center back position whose incumbents from 2011 include former U.S. international Cory Gibbs and second-year defender Jalil Anibaba. Both players were fantastic in the air on both sides of the ball last season, combining for five goals off of headers during 2011.
Like the two veterans, Berry counts his aerial prowess as a huge strength in his game and feels he has a good understanding of positioning and tactics which add to his defensive attributes.
After the whirlwind of this month’s MLS Combine and SuperDraft, more than anything Berry is happy to be back amongst some structure and in a team format again.
“I was just anxious to get on the field again. Games at the combine I was just playing with a bunch of people I didn’t know. Here I’m finally with the team so I was anxious to get to know the other guys and to start learning how to play with everybody. I’m looking forward to the next few months as I continue to grow. There’s still stuff I need to learn but I feel confident after the first few days in camp.”
Jeff Crandall is the Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall.