Thursday marks the last day of training for the Fire in Bridgeview, and that also means the end of Austin Berrys first professional season. It also figures to be much more memorable for another reason.
Major League Soccer announces the finalists for its season awards as well, and Berry should be a shoo-in as one of the three vying for Rookie-of-the-Year honors. The actual winner of the award will be revealed on Monday and in this voters mind at least Berry should be a shoo-in for that, as well.
Berry, 24, got his chance when former U.S. national teamer Cory Gibbs was lost to knee surgery in the third game. Though inexperienced, Berry did not disappoint. Benefitting by having Arne Friedrich a veteran on Germanys national team playing beside him, Berry blossomed into a solid defender just months after completing his collegiate eligibility at the University of Louisville.
It was a good season in that I got a lot of games under my belt, Berry said. Theres no substitute for getting on the field.
The Fire has done its part in promoting Berry for the rookie honor, having even put his likeness on a Life cereal box. If Berry does have a challenger, itll probably be Nick DeLeon, a former college teammate who plays for D.C. United.
The only Fire defender honored as MLS Rookie-of-the-Year was Carlos Bocanegra in 2000, and Berry at least had a better day than Bocanegra did on Wednesday. The U.S. national team captain, Bocanegra came off early with an apparent hamstring injury in the teams 2-2 draw with Russia in an international friendly in Krasnodar, Russia.
Bocanegra and Berry were both first-round draft picks by the Fire, and Bocanegra eventually took his talents to major European clubs in addition to establishing himself as a U.S. mainstay. The only other Fire Rookie-of-the-Year was striker Damani Ralph in 2003.
Berry could only dream of being in this position when the season started, and he figured to be playing behind Friedrich and Gibbs.
I set some lofty goals, said Berry, but you never know how close you can come to them. Fortunately now Im reaching a lot of those goals.
Berry figures to be the only Fire player among Fridays finalists for the various awards. Friedrich has already been named the clubs Defender of the Year, Chris Rolfe was the teams MVP and Golden Boot winner, and forward Patrick Nyarko was named this week as the 2012 Supporters' Player of the Year. His selection will be celebrated at 2 p.m. on Sunday at Cleos when Section 8 fans donate 1,000 in Nyarkos name to the charity of his choice. Two hours later the Illinois State Soccer Assn. will hold its Hall of Fame banquet at Toyota Park.
The Fire, as per usual MLS policy, continued training after being eliminated from postseason play. The last match was Oct. 31, a 2-1 home loss to the Houston Dynamo in the Knockout Round of the MLS Eastern Conference playoffs the first postseason appearance for the Fire since 2009.
Though Houston was the bottom seed in the Eastern Conference, the Dynamo is in a great position to reach the MLS Cup final for the second straight year. The finalists are determined in a two-game home-and-home series and Houston was a 3-1 winner over D.C. United in the first match of the series. United hosts the second at 3 p.m. (Chicago time) on Sunday.
The Western Conference representative in the Dec. 1 MLS Cup will also be determined when the defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy visits the Seattle Sounders in an 8 p.m. match. Los Angeles won the first game of that series 3-0.
Thursdays final training session figures to be routine, what with head coach Frank Klopas travelling and goalkeeper Sean Johnson on the way home from Russia. Johnson was again called up by U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, but he didnt dress for the Russia match. He did get a good taste of international soccer over the course of the year, though, as the U.S. went 9-2-3 in Klinsmanns first year and posted first-ever road wins over Italy and Mexico.
Tim Howard is the U.S. mainstay in goal, and Nick Rimando was the backup on Thursday. Johnson, though, has received regular call-ups and could play a part in next years final stages of World Cup qualifying.