Rookie Report: New hire Berry a huge addition for Fire
In EA Sports’ new ad campaign promoting FIFA 13, a handful of MLS teams get into the spirit of teaching gamers Soccer 101. Handballs, ramifications of yellow-card accumulation, number of substitutions allowed — the simple stuff in a funny way.
Chicago’s plug focuses on the game’s handball rule. Rookie center back Austin Berry is a new hire, and he’s quickly shown the ropes in a faux office setting where nobody is allowed to use his hands but goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who happily goes about his day within the confines of his marked off area.
The team’s left-back/office manager Gonzalo Segares leads Berry around the office introducing him to people — one guy (Dan Gargan) is stapling papers with his head, another (Jalil Anibaba) is dialing a phone with his toe. Segares, for his part, just keeps saying how great he thinks the new hire will fit into the team.
It’s no coincidence that every player featured is a member of the team’s backline, and there’s a lot of truth behind the spot. There’s also a hidden message from the Fire PR department, which chose to feature a relatively under-the-radar player in a nationally promoted ad.
“We’re all about helping Austin get Rookie of the Year,” said Segares, who partners Berry on the left side of Chicago’s defense. “But he’s done well enough to be a contender regardless. We’re all hoping he gets the award. He deserves it.”
The commercial came out at the perfect time for Berry, the ninth pick in the 2012 SuperDraft and a Rookie of the Year frontrunner with two games remaining in the regular season. The exposure is nice for the Fire as well, as the club celebrated its 15th anniversary on Monday, days after a playoff-clinching 2-0 win in New York. It marks the Fire’s first playoff appearance since 2009 and revives the club’s hope of ending an MLS Cup drought dating back to their inaugural season in 1998.
WATCH: Berry strikes in the air
The new hire has been sensational in the center of the Fire defense since filling in for injured veteran Cory Gibbs in May. A threat in the air and on set-pieces, the 24-year-old Louisville grad has played every minute of Chicago’s last 26 regular-season games — accumulating more goals (three) than yellow cards (two) — and is the only rookie to log more than 2,000 minutes of action this season.
“Austin has been excellent, his performance this weekend [in New York] said it all,” Segares said. “Facing guys like Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper, he managed really well. He’s matured throughout the season and is only getting better. They ask a lot of you in this league and he’s a right-footed guy playing on the left, which can be really tough. He works hard day in and day out in practice. He’s done great stepping in for Cory.”
Arne Friedrich who, prior to this season, spent his entire career in the German Bundesliga, is the linchpin of the tight-knit unit (and was originally slated as the office manager in the commercial before a personal conflict came up) and the two-time World Cup veteran has taken Berry under his wing.
“Arne is a great guy,” Berry said of his road roommate of the better part of the past two months. “He’s helpful every step of the way. Always giving me pointers. Always talking. Always friendly. The biggest thing to me is that he’s shown confidence in me. That helps the most.”
But Berry, who grew up near Cincinnati, has never been short on confidence. Scouted out of high school as a midfielder, his intensity and determination interested Louisville head coach Ken Lolla. Berry’s foot skills noticeably lagged, but he was a high-energy player who was unbeatable in the air. Lolla knew Berry had the intangibles.
WATCH: Berry finds redemption
The rest they’d figure out as they went.
“The soccer in him, quite honestly, was raw at best,” Lolla said. “But you could see his desire, his will to win. The more we found out about him as a person, the more intrigued we got. He’s very disciplined and committed. With the work ethic he has, we felt that in the right environment he would end up being very good player.”
Berry began his collegiate career in the midfield as a ball-winning enforcer. Similarly to this year, he was a soldier of fortune, and after an injury to an upperclassman, he slid into central defense. By graduation four years later, he was first team All-Big East and an NSCAA All-American.
History repeated itself a month into this season when Gibbs went down with a meniscus tear to his right knee.
Enter Berry, who showed the league his character in that first start at Chivas USA. Early in the game, he dragged down Alejandro Moreno in the box, which resulted in a penalty and the game’s opening goal. Two minutes later, before his mistake had even sunk in, Berry scored the equalizer (above right), sparking his team to a 2-1 victory.
“That type of situation is so typical of Austin’s character,” Lolla said. “He has an extraordinary ability to deal with failure, a fight to make it only temporary. He doesn’t let adversity get him down, he uses it as an opportunity for growth.
“A lot of people, when struggle comes, they find it tough to pull themselves out because it shakes their confidence,” Lolla added. “Not Austin.”