ABOUT 45 minutes before kickoff Wednesday night in Chester, Austin Berry emerged from the PPL Park tunnel and joined a circle of nine Union players kicking around a soccer ball near the sideline.
When the game started, Berry found himself seated on the bench between midfielder Danny Cruz and forward Aaron Wheeler. A couple hours later, when the final whistle cemented a pivotal, 3-1 Union win, Cruz and Wheeler were on the pitch. Berry, meanwhile, once again went into the official books as an unused sub.
This season has been a strange one for Berry, the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year acquired in the preseason to stabilize Philadelphia's central defense. The 25-year-old performed effectively at the start of the season, but one fluky injury after another coupled with the performances of his position mates have limited the opening-day starter to action in only six of the Union's 20 games.
Finally back to full health, Berry now awaits his opportunity to rejoin the backline for the first time in 2 months. This has been his first week at full strength in training in quite a while, but on Wednesday natural midfielder Maurice Edu and Ethan White proved an effective center back duo for all 90 minutes against the Red Bulls' stars, Thierry Henry and Bradley Wright-Phillips.
Berry's mindset, he said, is to "keep my head down and keep working hard."
"It's been hard to get into a rhythm with the team," he said earlier this week, reflecting on his first 4 1/2 months with the Union. "I mean, the guys are great, but it's one thing to get along with them in the locker room, it's another thing to know how they're playing on the field. Every time I get back it seems like I'm out again, and I kind of lose some steps. So it's been disappointing from that standpoint."
Home games against the New England Revolution have emerged as an Achilles' heel for Berry. After playing well in the March 8 season opener at Portland and for 54 minutes the following week in the home opener against the Revs, a hamstring injury sustained in that game sidelined him the succeeding three games.
Upon his return, Berry struggled in an April 12 draw with Real Salt Lake. Then-manager John Hackworth opted to start Wheeler the next week and a couple revelatory performances by the converted forward kept Berry on the bench. Wheeler has since moved back to forward.
Berry regained his starting job for the May 10 loss to D.C. United and also started the following two games. But in the latter, on May 17, once again against New England at PPL Park, he came out of the 5-3 loss with a high ankle sprain. That injury masked an even greater one, which after a couple more hits was revealed by an MRI to be a fractured rib.
Upon his recovery from the rib injury came another impediment, a bout with the stomach flu that set him back another week.
"If you talk to a good number of people who have been in the league, stuff happens like this," Berry said. "Sometimes you just have one year where everything you seem to do gets an injury or you get sick or there's something like that."
In his two seasons with the Chicago Fire, Berry was a model of durability. Two years ago, when he earned top honors among rookies, he started each of the 28 games he played. He started all 34 games in 2013.
"Sometimes in your career you go through these peaks and valleys and some of the breaks haven't gone his way this year," Union interim manager Jim Curtin said. "Even in selection early on, there were games he could've maybe been thrown into and then somebody has a good performance and then he's held out. Usually it evens itself out in the course of a long season. In a 34-game year, the guys that usually deserve to be on the field are on the field. I'm a big believer the team picks itself."
Berry said he had one season at the University of Louisville in which he sustained "weird random injuries that kept me out the whole year" but otherwise had played the last 3 or 4 years basically injury-free. While his season hasn't exactly gone as planned, Berry credits his teammates for their support. If the team didn't have such a good locker room, he said, this season would thus far have been "absolutely miserable" for him individually.
Ray Gaddis, the lone Philadelphia defender to play every minute of every game this season, said Berry trains hard every day and has never complained despite his tough-luck season.
"Everything that's happened so far to him," Gaddis said, "he's always been positive and kept going and playing hard for us."
As he was Wednesday, Berry likely will be available for selection tomorrow night when the sixth-place Union (5-8-7) visits eighth-place Chicago (3-4-10). He would enjoy getting the chance to play against his former team, but it remains to be seen whether this is the weekend he returns to the pitch.
"I'd really like to play against them, so hopefully that's the opportunity," Berry said. "But we'll just have to see."
Despite its struggles to score goals earlier in the season, the Union enters the weekend leading the Eastern Conference with 32 goals. Of course, the Union also have played more games than any other of the conference's nine teams . . . The Union and Fire played to a 2-2 draw in their first meeting on April 5 in Chicago.
Union (5-8-7) at Chicago Fire (3-4-10)
When: Tomorrow, 8:30 p.m.
Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.