The Austin Berry Trade: A Necessary Sacrifice

First cheesesteak is on me, Austin.

First cheesesteak is on me, Austin.

OTF’s new contributor James Vlahakis provides Fire Nation a reality check…

 I had a nagging suspicion that Mark O’Rourke’s excellent salary cap article in December of 2013 over at Hot Time in Old Town would come back to haunt the Chicago Fire amid the team’s final stages leading up to the 2014 season. I hate being right when it comes to negative premonitions.

Under the 2014 MLS salary cap, each team has approximately $3.05 million that can be exceeded with the inclusion of three designated players (DPs) on the roster and the use of an undisclosed amount of Allocation Money to make a franchise cap compliant. As Mark predicted, the cap led the Fire to part with some players, notably, failed DP Federico Puppo (last weekend) and fan favorite Daniel Paladini (last December). Yesterday, to the dismay of many fans, the Fire traded center back Austin Berry to the Philadelphia Union for Allocation Money.

Austin won rookie of the year in 2012, and it is indisputable that his great play was enhanced by veteran Arne Friedrich. Although it may not be accurate to say Austin suffered from a “sophomore slump” in 2013, he seemed mentally sharper in 2012. While some have laid the blame for 2013’s defensive miscues on Bakary Soumare, that approach may not be justified.

Austin played every minute last year, and as a result, he looked tired at times. Tired legs led to positional mistakes, and positional mistakes led to goals. While Berry was a fan favorite, the Fire conceded the third highest amount of goals in the league in 2013.

Moreover, Sean Johnson was a goalie put under pressure by a weakened back line that pulled him out of position all too often, which led to too many unnecessary goals that cost Chicago a playoff spot. Who is to blame for that? Many took Frank Klopas to task last season for failing to play young players, and at the same time accused the former head coach of running Berry on fumes.

Given the high number of goals conceded in 2013, the technical staff and Coach Yallop had to come up with a solution before the start of 2014. This led to the acquisition of veteran defenders Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni from the Seattle Sounders, and utility man Lovel Palmer from Real Salt Lake.

Given the full back line, the Berry trade should not have taken anyone by surprise. With many fans still clamoring for “Keane like money,” the “Twitterati” flamed the Fire front office and technical staff yesterday for trading Berry. That said, the flames may soon die out as they did when Jalil Anibaba, another fan favorite, was traded for the aforementioned Seattle defenders back in January.

As a Fire fan and armchair analyst, I understand the rationale behind the Berry trade. Fire fans have been complaining high and low for a solid back line, and the technical staff appears to have put its trust in veteran defenders. Given C.J. Brown’s history with the Fire as a player, and his rise to success as an assistant coach in Real Salt Lake, it is not unreasonable to presume he helped make this decision for coach Yallop.

Man on a mission, and a budget.

Man on a mission, and a budget.

The Berry trade reminds me of people who complained about Michael Bradley being acquired by Toronto. Many complained the latter deal proved Bradley didn’t “make it” in Europe. That’s clearly not the case. Roma had excess midfielders and sold Bradley at a huge profit.

It’s very possible the Fire have done the same thing here – trading Berry for more than his current salary. That’s a smart financial move and should be applauded by people who have criticized the Fire for not spending enough money to acquire quality players. Again, you can’t spend money without having cap space. And let’s not forget, cap space is required to get the MLS MVP, Mike Magee, back into camp, and acquire the promising young Grant Ward from Tottenham Hotspur.

Let’s face facts. The salary cap requires certain players to be sold or bought out. Soccer is a business, driven by winning. Here, with Berry, the Fire appears to have looked at the options and concluded that it could free up the most cap space by trading him over another defender.

The technical staff appears to believe that Bakary Soumare will be a reliable anchor in the current defensive line, so we must give them the benefit of the doubt. And while Berry will be missed, the Fire are clearly working in the present to ensure a playoff spot this year and a run at both the US Open Cup and the MLS Cup. The technical staff had to make a decision for the future of the team. Given missed playoff chances during three of the past four seasons, the future is now.

Owner Andrew Hauptman charted a new course during the off-season. He restructured the organizational chart on the soccer side of things, hired a new technical staff led by proven MLS veterans, and brought back fan favorite C.J. Brown. Although the club has not yet spent “Keane-like money,” the new technical staff has made some wise acquisitions with young players, both local and foreign.

And let’s not forget the genius trade for Robbie Rogers’s MLS rights, which led to the acquisition of Mike Magee. While LA fans and Bruce Arena continue to bemoan the trade, it was one heck of a shrewd move that paid dividends immediately. Of course, with the underpaid Magee now come rumors of a hold out. But even without this development, the Fire still needed to free up cap space by March 1st — especially if they want to be in the market for an acquisition during the summer transfer window.

As history shows with Kansas City and D.C. United, a team need not spend “Keane-like money” to win either of the Cups or the Supporters’ Shield. Rather, a team needs to have a solid, unified back line. And for the immediate future, that back line will be comprised of true veteran defenders.

With Frank Yallop’s prior success, Fire fans must give him a full season before they start complaining about his efforts to deal with the cap issue he inherited. Misplaced rage won’t change the fact that Soumare will get as many minutes as he can muster on the back line. Given CJ Brown’s role as first assistant coach, one that Fire fans are elated about, we should put our trust in CJ’s presumed role in this trade – and thus, “In CJ We Trust.”

James Vlahakis is a Fire Season Ticket Holder, outside legal counsel for the Fire and a ‘keeper with Stare Byki FC. His legal work for the Fire does not involve player contracts. Accordingly, his comments are his own. Follow James on Twitter @jvlaha

4 thoughts on “The Austin Berry Trade: A Necessary Sacrifice

  1. Hard to argue the logic of the team being better off with Magee/Ward in the fold. However, I don’t know enough about Hurtado, Ianni, Palmer and Franco to be fully confident in that back line, so, not easy to evaluate this trade completely at the moment.

  2. Ben is correct about that. Ianni is not worth that much, we have a bad habit of inheriting overpriced Sounders after Seattle overpays to make a splash up north (Ljungberg, Fernandez, Hurtado, Ianni….)

  3. Soumare – 28 Hurtado- 29 Ianni – 28 Palmer – 29 You say veteran; I say old. Talking about tired legs? With so much of MLS playing run and gun, route one with target center forwards, I can’t help but feel they are going to get burnt over and over again. They may have to just get rough and physical. We saw some of that with Baky last year. That’s fine if it is strategy; not if it comes from a place of emotion or frustration at not having the physical chops anymore. To me part of being solid and unified is being able to play a high line and get back on cover at the same time. It will be very interesting to see if this pushing 30 back line can do that in late August. I’m betting this is going to be tough going from the start and a problem all year.

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