The reigning MLS Rookie of the Year has avoided a sophomore slump while playing every minute of every match for the Chicago Fire.Austin Berry caught himself midsentence. The Chicago Fire center back realized he was echoing his own words. Again. Yet this facet of his professional perspective was worth emphasizing. So he acknowledged the repetition and continued.
"Like I mentioned," he said, "I'm just doing the little things."
Yes, those little things. They're a constant source of focus for Berry. How does he maintain form and fitness? The little things. What has he learned from Chicago's veterans? The little things. What will propel the Fire into the playoffs? Little things.
He's a bit of a broken record. But the self-micromanagement is serving Berry well.
"He learns from game to game," said Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko. "Looking at him this year, it's been fun to watch. He's improved a lot."
That's an impressive encore for the reigning Rookie of the Year. Entering Chicago's season finale Sunday at the New York Red Bulls, the 25-year-old hasn't missed a minute of his second MLS campaign. The Fire have trotted out for 33 league matches, and on 33 occasions Berry has turned in a 90-minute performance.
Berry's growth has allowed him to keep his spot locked down and dodge that "sophomore slump" endured by many a second-year pro. His skill on the ball, for example, needed work after his rookie year. Still does. So he's concentrated on cleaning up his distribution — not just having smoother touches, but also making smarter decisions. As he points out, that's one of the little things.
Also developing by necessity? His leadership. In 2012, Berry had the luxury of partnering with German defender Arne Friedrich. The World Cup veteran's injury-hastened retirement snatched away that safety blanket, even if midseason acquisition Bakary Soumare has been a reliable replacement.
"It was easy last year," Berry said. "When I got tired, I could always just rely on Arne to communicate and do things right. So it was good for me to see from that perspective. But this year I've had to step up a little bit more and be more of a voice back there."
But Berry knows there's more to becoming a lineup fixture than earning the coach's trust. An injured player is of little help, and staying healthy is something Berry has done without fail since making his first MLS start May 4, 2012.
Strength and conditioning coach Tony Jouaux, who monitored Berry from the same post at Louisville, guides the defender through the necessary muscle exercises before and after training. Berry has made changes to his nutrition and sleeping patterns as well. It also doesn't hurt that his ability to read the game and position himself properly helps him evade suspension for yellow card accumulation.
"I take a lot of pride in it," Berry said. "I try to do, like I said, the little things off the field: eating right, sleeping right, doing the stuff in the training room to make sure I'm available to be on the field and that I'm 100 percent when I'm out there."
The ever-dependable Berry is, not shockingly, a creature of habit. For the past decade, every game-day breakfast has been the same: eggs, toast and bacon. It's a sizable meal, after which he hardly eats the rest of the day. He just hydrates and snacks. (Berry does enjoy a healthy pregame serving of "Call of Duty," though.)
Once the match is over, Nyarko noted his teammate keeps a level head no matter the outcome. It's the "same old Austin Berry," win, lose or draw.
"He's never rattled," Nyarko added. "He always has the same demeanor, making jokes no matter how good or bad a game he has. That's important at this level. You always look forward to the next one, not think about the ones you've had before."
For Berry and the Fire, the next one is crucial. With a win Sunday at New York, Chicago will be back for another postseason appearance. After last year's playoff stint lasted precisely one game, Berry craves a deeper run this time around.
Looking forward, the U.S. national team also lurks on Berry's radar. Solid young center backs are a valuable commodity, and Berry on his current trajectory seems poised for a look during the next World Cup cycle. Even a call-up this January is within reason.
And how Berry approaches his long-term ambition comes as no surprise.
"It should be a goal of any young American soccer player to one day make that jump," Berry said. "I've got to control the things I can control. I'm doing — like I keep saying — the little things."
It bears repeating.
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