Fire

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.

USL expansion team with proposed 20,000-seat stadium on North Side could be significant for soccer in Chicago

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USL expansion team with proposed 20,000-seat stadium on North Side could be significant for soccer in Chicago

Stadium talk is always circling around Major League Soccer and that goes double for the Chicago Fire, which has been criticized for playing in suburban Bridgeview since Toyota Park opened in 2006.

That's why the Chicago Tribune's story about a United Soccer League expansion team playing at a proposed 20,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof in Chicago is such a big deal. According to the report and confirmed by a USL spokesperson, real estate developer Sterling Bay has purchased the rights to a USL expansion team. The stated goal is to begin play in 2020.

The details of the stadium are not finalized so the features and capacity could still change.

The proposed location of the stadium is along the North Branch of the Chicago River between the Lincoln Park neighborhood and the Kennedy Expressway. The stadium was previously mentioned as part of Sterling Bay's bid to bring Amazon's second headquarters to Chicago. A spokesperson for Sterling Bay confirmed that the stadium being built is not contingent on Amazon coming to Chicago, it will happen regardless.

Further information from Sterling Bay said that "announcements on ownership and team structure will come at a later date." The team does not yet have a name, but fans will be included in the naming process.

A 20,000-seat stadium and a retractable roof will make for a fancy and impressive, but also expensive venue and a USL team as a primary tenant may prove difficult to justify the cost. The location itself would be an easier sell to draw in fans than Toyota Park out in Bridgeview. However, minor league soccer may not excite local residents in large number.

The USL had 30 teams in 2017 with eight more teams planned to join by 2019. This past season, only two USL teams averaged above 10,000 in attendance: FC Cincinnati and Sacramento Republic FC. Both of those are prime MLS expansion candidates and Cincinnati beat the Fire in the U.S. Open Cup in front of 32,287 fans in June.

Many USL clubs are either owned/operated by MLS teams or are affiliated with an MLS team. The Fire switched from Saint Louis FC to the Tulsa Roughnecks as its affiliated club in 2017, sending players to Tulsa to gain playing time as opposed to sitting on the bench with the Fire.

According to the Tribune's story, the stadium would also try to attract other events such as international soccer matches, college football, college basketball and concerts. Rugby and lacrosse were also named in documentation sent by Sterling Bay. Sterling Bay has also yet to present formal plans and still needs to gain zoning approval.

At the Fire's end of the season media availability on Nov. 7, general manager Nelson Rodriguez was asked about the proposed stadium and if he or MLS had been contacted about it.

“I can’t speak about MLS," Rodriguez said. "I don’t know if they have or have not. I have not. I haven’t spoken, been approached by anyone. I’m not sure I would be the person they approach or speak to, but I’m not aware of any conversations.”

The Fire moving to this stadium could be an ideal solution for both parties. An MLS team with an existing fan base would have an easier time drawing big crowds. Boosted by the arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger and a team that made the playoffs for the first time since 2012, the Fire drew crowds of 20,000 or more six times in 2017. The regular season average of 17,383 was the highest since moving to Toyota Park and highest since the club's inaugural, championship-winning season in 1998.

However, things aren't that simple. The Fire are locked into a 30-year lease with Bridgeview and Toyota Park, which the Fire have played in since 2006. Getting out of that would require a significant buyout or a breach of contract.

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

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USA TODAY

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

The wait to find out which players have their options picked up or declined by the Fire might still be a couple weeks, but the first news of a player move in the Fire's offseason came via Twitter.

Defender Joao Meira announced he won't be returning to the club in 2018.

Meira signed with the Fire just before the start of the 2016 preseason after being out of contract in Europe. The Portuguese center back signed a one-year deal with a club option for the second year.

After he played 28 matches with 26 starts in 2016, the Fire picked up his option. He became even more of a fixture at center back in 2017, beating out Jonathan Campbell for the other starting spot alongside Johan Kappelhof. Meira played in 30 regular season matches and made 27 starts, finishing fourth on the team in minutes played (2,412).

That Meira won't be back isn't a major surprise for a few reasons. First, he was out of contract. He was one of two players, along with Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the Fire's roster that the team had no control over for 2018. On top of that, the 30-year-old had made it clear that he wanted to be closer to his home and family in Portugal.

Meira's departure leaves a gap at the center back position for the Fire. Kappelhof, who enters the third year of a three-year guaranteed deal in 2018, and Campbell, who will likely have his club option picked up, enter as the only healthy center backs in 2018. Christian Dean was added in August via trade, but is coming off a broken foot, an injury that has plagued him before. His status for the start of the 2018 season is unclear.

Grant Lillard, a potential homegrown signing and a senior at Indiana, could compete for time at center back next season. He is one of the top rated players in the country for the Hoosiers, which are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While Lillard could step in from a numbers perspective and would add size to the Fire's back line (Lillard is 6-foot-4), he wouldn't be able to replace Meira's ability on the ball. Meira wasn't as effective of a defender as Kappelhof, but was arguably the best passer among the Fire's center backs and helped alleviate pressure at times.

This also opens up an international spot on the Fire's roster. The Fire went over the alloted total last season, but were able to put John Goossens and Jorge Bava on the disabled list to clear room. Meira's exit gives a bit more flexibility in that department.