CINCINNATI -- Austin Berry tries not to think about what his professional soccer career might have been like had he not been set back by injuries at the Major League Soccer level.
Five years after an MLS Rookie of the Year campaign, the Summit Country Day graduate is getting a small taste of his past while captaining FC Cincinnati to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinals.
FC Cincinnati hosts its third MLS team in the tournament Tuesday, this time welcoming New York Red Bulls as the first lower division club to make the final four since 2011. The winner plays at Sporting Kansas City in the final Sept. 20.
“It feels a little more like it (MLS days) just because these are the harder games,” said Berry, a 6-foot-2 defender for FC Cincinnati. “This is a big game. It would be for any club that's not in MLS and makes it this far in the Open Cup. You see it around the world -- everyone loves to cheer for the underdog -- so it’s a lot of fun for us. We want to have that Cup glory.”
The 28-year-old is one of a handful of players on the team with MLS experience, but Berry is the lone one whose roots began in Cincinnati. His potential for a promising career dates back even before his Division III Player of the Year honors in high school and peaked almost as soon as he reached MLS.
After the Chicago Fire selected him ninth overall in the 2012 draft coming out of the University of Louisville, he made an immediate impact, scoring in his debut. He started and played 62 consecutive full games – just shy of the MLS record – but his good fortune ran out soon after he was traded to the Philadelphia Union ahead of the 2014 season.
That year, Berry suffered a rash of injuries -- including a hamstring injury the second game -- that kept him rotating in and out of the lineup. He appeared in just six matches and was sent to South Korea on loan with FC Anyang the next season.
A chance to come home with an ambitious new United Soccer League club ultimately led Berry to becoming FC Cincinnati’s first player in December 2015.
“I've always talked and thought about coming back,” Berry said when the first signing class was announced. “I didn't think it would be playing. I thought I would be coaching or doing something like that down the line, so it's funny kind of how things work. I'm so happy this started.”
With FC Cincinnati, Berry has seen plenty of opportunity to grow as a player and said he has no regrets about the path he’s taken.
The club’s centerback last season missed 12 games because of a quad injury but was a key cog in the defense and helped Cincinnati to a third-place finish in the USL Eastern Division. He’s remained healthy this year, despite coming off with a seemingly minor injury Saturday at Louisville City, and leads all field players with 1,799 minutes through 21 league starts.
Berry is third on the team with 54 interceptions and 103 duels won.
“One of the best pieces of advice I ever received is you have to live in the moment,” Berry said. “You can't look back. There are plenty of people that can look back and say, 'What if I did that?' or 'What if I signed with that team?' but the best thing you can do is just use what you can to make your decision and then just improve every single day. That's how I view it. I use every game to get better and do what I can to help FC Cincinnati.”
After sitting out the second-round Cup game against AFC Cleveland, along with several other top players, Berry hasn’t missed a minute of tournament action, and it’s no coincidence FC Cincinnati hasn’t been scored on yet.
He played all 90 minutes of the matches against Louisville City, Columbus Crew and Miami FC -- all 1-0 wins in regulation -- and helped the defense sustain a barrage of attacks through 120 minutes of play against Chicago Fire SC in the Round of 16 before FC Cincinnati went on to beat his first professional club 3-1 in penalty kicks.
“Austin provides great leadership,” FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said. “He's got a great IQ and is able to adapt to different situations. He reads the game well and his 1-v-1 defending is fantastic. The way he sees things and his ability to distribute the ball, to organize the defense and be a leader back there, he’s an important piece for sure.”
FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt would agree.
He was especially complimentary of the defense ahead of him in the marathon match against the Fire, and noted that one probably had special meaning for Berry, being against an old club.
“I think it was a special moment for him, coming from Chicago,” Hildebrandt said. “We’ve got a lot of MLS players on our club, so these games don’t seem any different for me, but for guys like Austin, it’s probably a little different to be playing at that level again.”
Berry still has MLS ambitions, but then again, that’s why he chose to play for FC Cincinnati.
Taking the pitch in front of 20,000-plus crowds on a regular basis at Nippert Stadium has made the wait worthwhile, though.
“A lot of the games even in USL, it still feels like we're there (in MLS), especially when we get to play at home because we have some very good crowds,” Berry said. “In MLS there are a lot of midweek games or in certain cities where we wouldn't have the crowds we get to play in front of here on a weekly basis.”
Koch said this historic Cup run has been significant for everyone involved with the second-year club, but even more so for Berry as a Cincinnati native. Every game he plays in an Orange and Blue jersey is extra special for him.
In a way, FC Cincinnati was built around Berry, as the first player and captain, but he would downplay that idea. He just wants the attention to remain on the club and the community that helped make this all possible, as Cincinnati heads into its sold-out match with New York.