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.

Notes from the rewatch: Trying to contain Sebastian Giovinco

Notes from the rewatch: Trying to contain Sebastian Giovinco

The Chicago Fire started a three-game road trip on Friday and it was yet another loss away from Toyota Park.

The loss at Toronto wasn't a shameful result because Toronto is one of the most talented teams in the league and has a former league MVP leading the way. Sebastian Giovinco torched the Fire for two goals and was upset he didn't get a third. Here's a look at Giovinco's game against the Fire and a couple other observations from the 16th road loss in 20 road matches for coach Veljko Paunovic.

Trying to contain Giovinco

The 2015 MLS MVP scored a pair of goals against the Fire and had chances for more. Heck, he was even angry when he got subbed out a couple minutes after scoring his second goal.

The Italian had 11 shots and six on target. As a team, the Fire had nine shots and one on target. Whatever the gameplan was on defending Giovinco, it didn't work. Those numbers are too much to allow and not expect him to score a goal or two.

Giovinco is so hard to defend because he can beat you with a powerful shot if you don't close him down, as happened on the first goal, and he can get by you with his quickness if you get too tight on him. He forced Michael Harrington into that tough choice on the first goal. Giovinco didn't move much in the lead up to the goal, but was allowed to receive the ball with a bit of space and was quick to turn and score with a hard right-footed shot.

Patience in midfield

The Fire's midfield has been revamped from a year ago with three quality players in central midfield. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Juninho all are solid passers. Having three players like this is very different from last year when the Fire were last in the league in time in possession.

Maybe the team needs some time to adjust to being able to play a different style, but this shouldn't be a long ball team like it was last year. The Fire can sit on the ball, be patient and control the tempo of the game. This is especially true when speedy winger David Accam doesn't start and also against a team like Toronto, which doesn't press high.

Without Accam in the lineup, the Fire don't have enough speed or technically adept players to play at pace. Forwards Nemanja Nikolic and Michael de Leeuw are best at finding space in the box and poaching goals, and a more deliberate buildup would play into that better.

Early on against Toronto, the Fire seemed to rush things and played at a higher tempo than necessary, which played into Toronto's hands. Only towards the end of the first half, after TFC led 2-0, did the Fire slow things down. There was a 19-pass sequence in the 41st minute with most of the passes coming in Toronto's half. The end result was a Juninho cross that was headed out for a corner kick. The Fire have shown at various times this season the ability to string passes together for extended periods. If the Fire had displayed that patience more consistently early on, they might not have been in a two-goal hole.

Check out this interaction with Schweinsteiger signaling to McCarty to play it wide to keep the ball. McCarty passes it forward and turns it over while Schweinsteiger looks up in frustration. Schweinsteiger was encouraging the route that wasn't going to lead to a chance, but would keep the Fire on the ball.

"Strange game"

After the match, Schweinsteiger called it a "strange game." Schweinsteiger's first road game may have been a bit of a "Welcome to MLS" moment for the German.

This isn't the pristine, manicured, high-profile game that Bayern Munich, the German national team and Manchester United play. This is MLS, where parity reigns and no team is as dominant as any of the three teams Schweinsteiger has played for.

Beyond that, MLS teams don't dominant games like Bayern or Man U strive to do. Toronto had a slight edge in possession early, but once the Reds went up two goals, they let the Fire control possession. This is something Schweinsteiger will have to get used to.

The Fire also weren't happy with either of the calls that led to the set pieces that Toronto scored on. Michael de Leeuw wanted a foul to go the other way in the 31st minute. Giovinco's ensuing free kick forced a corner kick and Toronto scored on that corner. Then in the 81st minute every Fire player in the vicinity was upset with the foul that went against Johan Kappelhof and led to Giovinco's free kick goal.

There's also the handball that got called in the 72nd minute against Justin Morrow, but was incorrectly called outside the box for a free kick. The Fire didn't have a shot on goal yet and were down two goals so a penalty kick probably wouldn't have turned things around, but would have made it more interesting down the stretch.

Welcome to MLS, Bastian. It sure can be strange.

Sebastian Giovinco scores twice in Fire's loss at Toronto

Sebastian Giovinco scores twice in Fire's loss at Toronto

The Chicago Fire showed improved home success in a recent three-game homestand, but road success again eluded them Friday in Toronto.

A trademark move from Sebastian Giovinco got things started for the hosts and Toronto FC cruised to a comfortable 3-1 win against the Fire at BMO Field.

Giovinco, the 2015 MLS MVP, showed why he is one of the best players in the league with his goal in the 28th minute. He got some space just outside the box, set up his right foot and drilled a low shot past goalkeeper Jorge Bava.

Four minutes later Toronto doubled the lead following a short corner kick. Justin Morrow's cross found Eriq Zavaleta, who headed in the goal.

After falling down two goals, the Fire (3-2-2, 11 points) gained a larger share of possession and finished the first half with a majority of the possession. However, Toronto (2-1-4, 10 points) was happy to play on the counter with Giovinco and the Fire were unable to get a shot on target until the 88th minute.

Giovinco added his second goal on a free kick that went in under the bottom of the crossbar in the final 10 minutes.

The Fire went 2-0-1 in the past three matches, all at home, and won consecutive matches for the first time in coach Veljko Paunovic's tenure. However, Friday's loss on the road looked like many of the 14 road defeats the Fire suffered last season. The Fire were down two goals in the first half and were unable to threaten Toronto's goal for a comeback until the final few minutes.

David Accam, who came off the bench for the second straight game, scored a consolation goal for the Fire. Him and Luis Solignac combined on a counter. Solignac centered the ball from the right and Accam scored with a first-touch finish. That was the Fire's only shot on target while Toronto had nine.

Paunovic went with the same starting lineup that started the 3-0 win against New England last weekend.

The Fire continue the road trip in eight days with a match at the New York Red Bulls.