Jalil Anibaba - Ave Maria

Anibaba knows Fire will lean on him in 2012

Jalil Anibaba never felt uncomfortable during his rookie year with the Chicago Fire.

It didn’t bother him that he started at right back for most of last season, a position that he hadn’t played during four years of college. It didn’t worry him that he found the bench during a game in early August, or that he had to compete with three other center backs before he finally gained a starting nod at his natural position.

The fact that the Fire are counting on the second-year pro to man the middle of the defense alongside Cory Gibbs in 2012 certainly doesn’t faze him, either.

“There’s a lot expected of me,” the 23-year-old Anibaba told MLSsoccer.com by phone this past week from preseason camp in Ave Maria, Fla. “A lot of that comes from my own standards. I’m just excited to get started.”

If it hadn’t been for a peculiar set of circumstances last season, Chicago head coach Frank Klopas might not be so comfortable handing him the reins.

Anibaba was supplanted in the starting lineup during the Fire’s game against Philadelphia on Aug. 3 by newly acquired right back Dan Gargan.

Five minutes into the game, Gibbs pulled up with a groin injury. As starter Yamith Cuesta was serving a one-game suspension, Klopas called upon Anibaba to replace the veteran center back.

Klopas liked what he saw, and Anibaba started the final 12 games of the season in central defense, during which the Fire went 7-2-3.

“I like him better as a center back,” Klopas said late last season. “He reads the game better there. For me, I think he can play both but I see him as a better center back than on the right.”

As the offseason went along, Anibaba’s experience looked more and more valuable. Josip Mikulic returned home to his native Croatia due to family issues, and the Fire haven’t been able to re-sign Cuesta. The duo, who combined to start 30 games at center back last season, probably won’t be back in 2012.

The Fire drafted Austin Berry from Louisville to help fill the void at the position, and third-year defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe is with the team after spending most of last season on loan with FC Tampa Bay of the NASL.

But Anibaba and Gibbs are the only experienced central defenders the Fire have left.

“If Jalil didn’t have that experience, coach is left making the decision of calling in, like, five or six center backs, trying to see what’s going to happen for next year,” Gibbs told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Florida. “But he has that experience now and coach has confidence in him, knowing he can fulfill the role and it’s not a big void that we need to fill.”

Gibbs’ and Anibaba’s relationship goes back further than their time holding down the center of the Fire’s defense. During training camp last year, the veteran took the rookie under his wing. Gibbs constantly advised and critiqued the youngster, just like Eddie Pope and Tony Sanneh did when he was a young player on the national team.

“I respected that when I was a younger player,” Gibbs said. “I always wanted to show younger players my experiences. The kid wants to learn. He grasps it and doesn’t take anything personally. When you have a player like that, that’s eager to learn more and more, what more do you want?”

Klopas said he’s open to the possibility of pushing Anibaba to the outside in a pinch and talked glowingly about Berry’s work ethic and potential.

But after of Anibaba’s performance at the end of last season, he doesn’t have to wait on potential.

“Jalil got his opportunity and took advantage of it,” Klopas said. “It was definitely good that Jalil got minutes last year. He had the right mentality and attitude. He worked and he learned from his mistakes. I like him in the middle.”