Berry, Fire close out postseason training

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Berry, Fire close out postseason training

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.

Fire seek to use first road win as a "catalyst"

Fire seek to use first road win as a "catalyst"

Saturday was a big day for the Chicago Fire. The team won on the road for the first time since 2014 and almost certainly had its best performance of the season.

It’s fair to celebrate the accomplishment given how long the Fire went without winning on the road. After being asked about it frequently in the beginning of the season, coach Veljko Paunovic, who wasn’t responsible for a majority of the streak, would bring it up on his own before every road. It was something the team was clearly thinking about. Having that gone is a major step for the rebuild of the club and it was clear in the players’ reactions.

The reality check is that the Fire still have the worst record in the league, still have the worst road record in the league and are still a sizable, although not insurmountable, six points out of the playoffs.

Paunovic is aware of this and addressed how important it is for the team to use the Montreal win as a “catalyst.”

“It’s a process and a part of the process was winning on the road,” Paunovic said during a conference call with the media on Monday. We are not looking back. We are just looking forward. We want to take advantage of this momentum… We want to use it as a catalyst, an important boost for us.

“I think it’s a fantastic moment and momentum that we have at this point.”

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The Fire only have to wait a few days to return to the field and find out if they can keep the momentum or if the win in Montreal was a one-off. The LA Galaxy come to Toyota Park on Wednesday.

David Accam, who had a goal and an assist, was named to the MLS Team of the Week while goalkeeper Sean Johnson was named to the bench. Accam will join Ghana’s national team for the next international window, scheduled for Aug. 29 to Sept. 6, and is expected to miss the Sept. 3 match against Philadelphia. David Arshakyan, who is still waiting for his visa so he can join the Fire, will join the Armenian national team. Collin Fernandez, currently on loan with Saint Louis FC, was called into Peru’s under-20 team.

With Accam healthy and playing well, recent additions Michael de Leeuw and Luis Solignac both contributing to the attack and Arshakyan still coming, there are signs of improvement. Ever the optimist, Paunovic used Saturday’s win as evidence that the team is finally showing the progress it has made this season.

“I just see the team that is starting to play the way we want to play and that we were chasing during all this season,” Paunovic said. “I just see a great opportunity in being strong at home and the win on the road at Montreal. I see a great opportunity, but the game against LA is either going to be the confirmation or we will have to adjust again.”

Considering Paunovic said earlier this season that “at some point we will surprise everyone by how well we played,” it comes as no shock that Paunovic said Saturday’s performance was not surprising or unexpected.

“We were getting closer,” he said. “Maybe in some games we didn’t compete on that level, but I can say in most of our games on the road we played well and it was only the posture that we were missing, which in this game I think we finally started and we found it.”

Oddly enough, this weekend three MLS teams won on the road for the first time in 2016. Columbus, 2-0 winners at New England, and Houston, which won 2-1 at San Jose, stayed ahead of the Fire in the league standings with wins. Defending champion Portland is now the only team yet to win on the road this season. There are eight teams, including the Fire, with one road win.

The Fire’s 3-0 win was the sixth time this MLS season that a road team won by three goals or more.

Fire get first road win since 2014 in rout of Montreal

Fire get first road win since 2014 in rout of Montreal

The Chicago Fire’s road winless streak is finally a thing of the past.

The Fire beat the Montreal Impact 3-0 on Saturday at Stade Saputo to end the club’s MLS-record 36-match road winless streak.

Luis Solignac scored his first goal since joining the Fire and David Accam had a goal and an assist in the win.

The Fire (5-11-7, 22 points) last won on the road on July 12, 2014. That was a 1-0 win in New England.

Saturday’s win in Quebec featured a lot of firsts for the Fire. The Fire had not led going into halftime on the road in 2016. It was the first time the Fire led by two goals in an MLS match, home or away, all season.

Solignac sparked the big victory by scoring on a counterattack in the 15th minute. Following a Montreal corner, Michael de Leeuw made a short pass from just outside the Fire’s box to David Accam. Accam went full speed to create a counter by himself before laying it off to Solignac on his left. Solignac cut inside on two defenders and curled the shot past Evan Bush.

It was one of the prettier Fire goals of the season and gave the Fire a lead on the road for just the second time this season.

“We tried to isolate them 1v1 and for me I think if I get 1v1 against anyone in this league I’m having a lot of joy,” Accam said during the halftime interview on CSN+.

The Fire got an insurance goal in the 73rd minute via Accam. De Leeuw slid a centering ball to Arturo Alvarez, who had just subbed into the match a minute before. Alvarez’s shot deflected in off Accam, slowly crawling over the line after the deflection wrong-footed Bush.

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Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson emphasized the importance of getting that second goal instead of simply defending a 1-0 lead.

“I think so often we get up a goal and then we tuck in and we sit back,” Johnson said on CSN+ broadcast. “The message was we’re in a good spot, we’ve played well, we’ve been in this position before. We have to learn how go on and score again and again and close out games… We did that tonight.”

With Montreal (8-7-9, 33 points) still pushing numbers forward to get back into the match, the Fire had even more opportunities on the counter. Matt Polster put the finishing touches by scoring one of those counters in the 89th minute.

When the match ended, the Fire moved within five points of the playoffs, but remained last in the league due to Houston and Columbus also winning this weekend. The win should be a confidence booster, but if nothing else it is a relief to not have a negative record hanging over the players’ heads.

“This is massive,” Johnson said. “I think for everybody in the locker room it’s a weight off the shoulders.”

The Fire next have a midweek game at home on Wednesday against the LA Galaxy.

Minnesota officially set to join MLS as 22nd team in 2017

Minnesota officially set to join MLS as 22nd team in 2017

Major League Soccer has finally given the official stamp of approval for Minnesota to join the league in 2017.

MLS commissioner Don Garber and Minnesota’s ownership group, led by Bill McGuire, made the announcement Friday from CHS Field in St. Paul.

In March of 2015 Minnesota was announced as an expansion team, but details like when the team would begin play, what name the club would play under and where they would initially play remained unknown. Minnesota will retain the name of the NASL franchise, Minnesota United FC, and join the already announced Atlanta United to give MLS 22 teams for the 2017 season.

Minnesota will play in the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium in its first year. Barring some final political barriers, the team will eventually have its own stadium in St. Paul. The Star Tribune reported the team expects to get that final approval.

Support for an expansion team in Minnesota began when McGuire’s Minnesota United FC had success in the North American Soccer League. The club has averaged around 9,000 fans per game since the NASL’s fall 2014 season.

In addition to keeping the same name as the NASL team, the popular loon logo remains.

From a local perspective, Minnesota gives another regional opponent for the Chicago Fire although Minnesota will play in the Western Conference with Atlanta joining in the Eastern Conference also in 2017.

As for other MLS expansion news and rumors, SI’s Brian Straus gave an update on other expansion teams coming. Straus reported that Los Angeles FC is scheduled for 2018, David Beckham’s Miami team could be close behind and Sacramento, St. Louis and Detroit are the leaders for spots 25-28.