Fire's Berry to make MLS debut vs. Chivas USA

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Fire's Berry to make MLS debut vs. Chivas USA

The Fire will have a new face in its lineup Friday night when it takes on Chivas USA at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles. Austin Berry will man a central defenders spot while making his debut in Major League Soccer.

Berry might seem a liability as the Fire (2-2-2) tries to recover from last Saturdays 2-1 home loss to the Seattle Sounders. He was the Fires first-round selection in Januarys MLS SuperDraft out of the University of Louisville and the only reasons hes playing is because Cory Gibbs is recovering from knee surgery and Jalil Anibaba is serving a one-game suspension.

Still, Berry feels hes ready for his first big chance as a pro player.

"I had a strong preseason, and Im getting better every day," he said following a training session in Bridgeview this week. "I feel confident."

Experience-wise, of course, he lacking. Berry has played only in three reserve team matches and a friendly against his college team since coach Frank Klopas finalized his regular season roster. Berry, though, feels hes better prepared than it might seem.

"In college I had some opportunities to train with teams at the next level, so that made me sure about what it would be like," said Berry, "so there were no surprises for me. I knew what I had to work on."

A three-sport athlete in high school, Berry became a student of soccer while at Louisville and was invited to train with the Fire Premier Development side as well as stints with the Columbus Crew, Portland Timbers and Sounders of MLS and a club in Sweden.

"All those 10-day training sessions were good preparation for me before stepping into this preseason," said Berry, "and just being out (at Fire training) every day has helped my technical ability. But its not just technical ability, its making the right decisions on the field."

Berrys biggest adjustment was to the faster speed of play in MLS, and he believes playing beside German veteran Arne Freidrich will ease his transition to MLS game action on Friday.

"Organization and communication have always been one of my strong suits," said Berry, "and itll help having Arne beside me. Hes a world-class player whos big on communication."

With Klopas unable to communicate with the club while at the Home Depot Center (he will make the trip with the club to Los Angeles), the Fire will be coached by assistants Mike Matkovich and Leo Percovich on game day. Both are former Chivas USA assistant coaches, having worked with that club when Preki was its head coach.

Chivas USA (3-5-0) is coming off a 4-0 loss to the Colorado Rapids last Saturday. The Goats, as the team is called, has a defender, Rauwshaun McKenzie, who grew up in the Chicago area and played for Chicago Fire Premier in 2007. Orr Barouch, a Fire reserve, was with Chivas in a similar development program before turning pro with Mexican club Tigres prior to being acquired by the Fire.

The match with Chivas USA will be the first of six MLS tests for the Fire in May, and the teams first game in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup will be on May 29, with the opponent and site yet to be determined.

The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

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USA TODAY

The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

The 2011 Eastern Conference Finals between the Bulls and Miami Heat featured three future Hall of Famers in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Derrick Rose had been named the youngest league MVP in league history weeks earlier. Luol Deng was blossoming and would earn All-Star nods in each of the following two seasons. $82 million man Carlos Boozer had averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 rebounds in his first season with the Bulls. The series was loaded with star power.

But buried deep in that series was a matchup of unsung reserves that influenced the series far greater than their numbers in the box score indicated. Udonis Haslem averaged just 4.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in 22 minutes in the series – the Heat won in five games – but his impact was felt nonetheless, in part because of the physicality he brought against an energetic second-year forward named Taj Gibson.

“When we played them in the Eastern Conference Finals, Gibson had an incredible impact on that series, and (Haslem) was just coming back from an injury,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said before Saturday’s tilt between the Bulls and Heat. “And we thought that was probably the missing component in that series early on, was having a player like UD to match up against (Gibson). And that really helped us close that series.”

Five years later Haslem is on the final leg of his NBA career. He’s only appeared sparingly in seven games for the Heat in this his 14th NBA season. But the two-time NBA champion has had a lasting impact on the Heat organization – so much so that they allowed him to miss Friday’s game to attend his son’s state-title football game in Florida – and has etched himself in Heat lore, despite never averaging more than 12 points or nine rebounds in a season.

It’s not unlike the career path Gibson has taken in his eight seasons in Chicago. The now-31-year-old Gibson has spent the majority of his career playing behind the likes of Carlos Boozer, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. And while he’s been an integral part of the Bulls’ rotation since joining the team in 2009, his role has never matched his ability or production. It’s why Haslem said he sees so much of himself in Gibson, an unselfish, care-free teammate, yet also someone who is willing to work every day despite the lack of accolades.

“Taj plays hard, man. He’s a guy that gets all the dirty work done. The banging down in the paint, he knocks down that 15-footer, (he) rebounds,” Haslem told CSNChicago.com. “A lot of similarities to myself when I was a little younger. Like you said, unsung. Doesn’t look for any attention, doesn’t look for any glory. Just goes out there, is professional, and does his job every night.”

And in his eighth NBA season, Gibson has done his job every night incredibly well. Through 23 games he’s posted career-best numbers in field goal percentage, rebounds, assists and steals, and isn’t far off in points and blocks per game. His 16.9 PER would be a career-high.

He’s done all this with little real estate in the spotlight. Jimmy Butler has cemented himself as a legitimate MVP candidate, and free-agent acquisitions Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo have earned headlines.

But Gibson has been as reliable and consistent a frontcourt player as the Bulls have – he’s one of three players to have appeared in all 23 games this season – and he’s playing some of his best basketball while the Bulls are mired in a mini-slump.

“He’s a rock for us on this team,” Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s going to go out and do his job. He’s never going to complain about his role. He’s going to put on his hard hat and make the little plays that may not show up in the box score, but help you win.”

Including Gibson’s 13-point, seven-rebound effort in Saturday’s win over the Heat, he’s averaging 12.6 points on 58 percent shooting and 7.3 rebounds in the Bulls’ last 11 games. He’s corralled 16 offensive rebounds in that span – including two on Saturday that he put back for layups – and is the main reason the Bulls entered as the league’s top offensive rebounding team in the league (and second in total rebound percentage). The Bulls are also nearly six points per 100 possessions better defensively with Gibson on the floor.

Gibson’s and Haslem’s career numbers are eerily similar – Gibson has averaged 9.3 points on 49 percent shooting and 6.4 rebounds, compared to Haslem’s 7.9 points on 49 percent shooting and 7.0 rebounds, with this year excluded. And both players accomplished their numbers while acting as the third scoring option, at best, on their respective teams. Wade, who spent 13 seasons with Haslem, also sees similarities in the two forward’s games and personalities.

“Taj does his job. He doesn’t try to do too much. Some nights he’s featured a lot. Some nights he’s not. He’s out there to do his job, wants to win,” he said. “(Haslem and Gibson) are very similar. He has that mentality where he’s a workhorse and he’s going to do whatever it takes.”

Added Spoelstra: “Incredible amount of similar qualities. In my mind both those guys are winning players and have all the intangibles and toughness. Doing the little things, the dirty work, both those guys embody all those qualities. We’ve always respected Gibson because of that.”

Gibson is third on the Bulls in field goal attempts per game, the first time in his career he’s been higher than fifth in that category. The Bulls are using him more than ever before, and it’s paying off. He's in the final year of his four-year contract with the Bulls, and is looking at a significant pay raise in free agency this coming summer. Whether his future is in Chicago or elsewhere, don’t expect him to change his persona or mentality anytime soon. Much like Haslem did for years in Miami, Gibson has defined being a consummate professional, teammate and player.

“When you’re on championship teams, competing for a championship, trying to go deep in the playoffs, trying to do special things, guys are doing to have to sacrifice their game. Everybody can’t play big minutes; everybody can’t take the shots,” he said after the Bulls’ win over the Cavs on Thursday. “I’m one of the guys that sacrificed my game for the good of the team. Whatever the coach wants me to do, I’m going to go out and do (it).

“If a coach wants me to set 100 screens and not take a shot, I’m gonna do that because I’m about helping the team. And that’s what I’ve been doing all these years. As long as I’m out there enjoying myself, having fun and playing with great teammates, I’m blessed.”

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USA TODAY

Morning Update: Bulls take down Heat for second time this season

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