Former teammates now front-runners for honor

They shared their final two years of college soccer at Louisville and nearly won a national championship. They shared a room at the Major League Soccer college combine last winter, getting a taste of the talent around them also making the leap to the professional level.

Having emerged as the best of that crop after being selected seventh and ninth overall, respectively, in the MLS draft, D.C. United midfielder Nick DeLeon and Chicago defender Austin Berry are now sharing front-runner status for MLS rookie of the year.

The final chance for each to strengthen his case could come at the expense of the other. The third-place Fire (17-11-5, 56 points) host second-place United (17-10-6, 57?points) in Saturday's regular-season finale.

Up next
D.C. United at Fire
When » Saturday, 4 p.m.
Where » Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.
TV » NBC Sports Network

D.C. United needs a tie to retain its place and clinch the second playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. But both teams already are headed for the postseason, leaving Berry and DeLeon to embrace lighthearted roles in their respective club's campaigns for the rookie award.

Capitalizing on its primary sponsor, Quaker Oats, the Fire put Berry's picture on the box of Life cereal. D.C. United then used the box as a prop in a video in which DeLeon says, "I eat defenders for breakfast."

"I called him immediately after, and I was dying laughing," Berry said. "He was afraid that I was going to take it personally."

Whether it's the outgoing Berry or reserved DeLeon, that would be out of character for both. The MLS rookie of the year award isn't just about talent but recognition of a player's mental aptitude for the grind of a 10- or 11-month season. DeLeon admitted earlier in the fall that he actively has had to block out the potential distraction of the rookie honor. His goal in United's 3-2 win over Columbus last weekend -- his sixth of the year to break United's rookie record -- solidified his spot in the race after a midseason lull.

"In the final third, I would like to see [DeLeon] be a little more aggressive at times in terms of taking a guy on," United assistant Chad Ashton said. "He's had opportunities where he can do that and is still looking for the pass more often than not. He's got to find a good balance between the two."

The Chicago defense had its worst outing of the year at RFK Stadium in August, the only time it has given up four goals. Partnered with veteran German center back Arne Friedrich, the 6-foot-2 Berry (three goals) is fifth in minutes played for the Fire. Ashton said that despite his inexperience Berry is technically advanced, understanding when to challenge and when to drop off.

"He's a dominant force in the air," said DeLeon, whose own team has struggled at times defending set pieces. "I think people realize that."

In an attempt to get the final word in the rookie race, a wig-wearing Berry mocked DeLeon's cereal eating and formerly long, curly hair in another video. But determination and respect between the former Cardinals remains mutual.

"I really like Nick," Berry said. "He's a good kid, and he's a great soccer player. I always knew he'd be up for big things."