Gibbs injury could lead to Friedrich debut, test rebuilt backline depth

Veteran’s absence softened by Friedrich’s emergence, young blood in defense

Tuesday’s news that veteran Fire defender Cory Gibbs would be out an estimated four-to-six months after successful surgery to repair his right meniscus wasn’t welcome for anyone.

The injury occurred late in last Wednesday’s training session when a tackle from the side tweaked his knee. Not liking to miss training, the veteran defender gritted through the injury during Thursday’s practice.

“I was in a lot of pain the rest of the day,” said Gibbs. “That night I called [Fire head athletic trainer] Bo Leonard and told him I needed an MRI.”

Twice before, the former U.S. international has experienced similar devastating setbacks.

A knee injury suffered during a U.S. friendly vs. England in 2005 at Soldier Field derailed most of his club campaign with Feyenoord that season. Having fought back to health, Gibbs was loaned to Dutch side ADO Den Haag early on in 2006 and proved fit enough to be

named by Bruce Arena to the 2006 U.S. World Cup roster.  

In the team’s first of three pre-World Cup friendlies, Gibbs played 90 minutes in a 1-0 loss to Morocco on May 23 in Nashville, Tenn.

Despite playing the full game, Gibbs experienced swelling following the match. Unable to practice, he was diagnosed with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, effectively ending his World Cup dream at the last hurdle.

“The first couple days after hearing about the injury was basically another low point in my life,” Gibbs said in a statement posted to Chicago-Fire.com Tuesday.  “With all the support from my wife, family, teammates and with prayer, I definitely have a more positive outlook today. I’ve dealt with injuries in the past and have come back to perform at a high level. I hate missing training and contributing in games so from the first day after the operation, I’m going to do everything I can to get back as soon as possible.”

The lurking question of Gibbs’ health has hung around his career ever since the first knee injury in 2005. Of late though, the veteran defender has appeared in a minimum of 20 matches over the course of his past three MLS seasons. Just over a year into his time with the Fire, he’s already appeared more for the club (29 times) than any of his previous MLS sides.

Depth in the Back

The hard facts after Tuesday’s operation are that the club’s 2011 Defender of the Year will be out an estimated four-to-six months, which makes the emergence of German international Arne Friedrich far more timely. 

Having made his debut playing 88 minutes in last Saturday’s friendly victory over the University of Louisville, Fire head coach Frank Klopas has stated Sunday’s match vs. Houston as the likely target date for a competitive bow since first signing Friedrich on March 7.

If there was any doubt that would happen, Tuesday’s news likely sealed it. 

Ever since it was announced that both Josip Mikulic and Yamith Cuesta wouldn’t return early in preseason, depth at center back became a pressing concern. At one point this offseason Klopas and his staff only had three center backs on the books with Gibbs, second-year defender Jalil Anibaba and Kwame Watson-Siriboe returning from a 2011 loan spell at FC Tampa Bay.

In anticipation that Mikulic and Cuesta might not return, the club picked center back Austin Berry with their first round selection in January’s MLS SuperDraft. They also sprung for a left back capable of playing in the center with the second round selection of Hunter Jumper.

After bolstering the youth in the back, the Fire surprised some with Friedrich’s signing just over a month ago. Despite a successful end-of 2011 partnership with Gibbs, it was expected that the much experienced German center back would force Anibaba to the bench once his fitness improved. 

Given both Gibbs’ and Friedrich’s more recent injury past, there was a decent likelihood that Anibaba would still collect a great amount of playing time. On Sunday, and for a large chunk of the season, it appears that the second-year defender will pair with the German international in central defense.

After tying Chris Rolfe for the club record for rookie appearances last season, the experience earned by Anibaba in his initial MLS campaign will prove even more valuable as he forms a new partnership.

Questions of Friedrich’s fitness level are fair as the former Hertha Berlin and Wolfsburg defender hasn’t seen action since a Euro 2012 qualifier last June against Austria but the much experienced German international was vocal in directing the backline while showing great mobility in Saturday’s friendly win.

Losing your reigning Defender of the Year three matches into the league campaign isn’t ideal but being able to replace him with a veteran of two World Cups and two European Championships should keep most heart rates low while the youngsters add depth in the back.