BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – When Jalil Anibaba looks back at tapes of his first two years in MLS, he sees a player who was full of potential, yet unrefined in the ways of the right back position.
Having moved from center midfield to center back just two games into his college career at Santa Clara University and continuing in that role throughout three years at Santa Clara and one at the University of North Carolina, Anibaba lacked the instinctual knowledge of when to charge forward and when to drop back. His decisiveness when trapped by the sideline or when facing a speedy midfielder was not as quick as it could have been.
But nearing the end of a third season of learning on the job, the last two concentrated on right back, the little things have come together for the ninth pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft.
“I've grown a lot,” Anibaba told MLSsoccer.com. “To watch my games and my touches from my first year and even the beginning of last year, I'm a completely different player when it comes to playing right back, and I think that's because of the time I put in and the dedication I've put in.”
After Anibaba split time between center back and right back in his rookie season of 2011, Fire head coach Frank Klopas pushed Anibaba ahead of the more experienced Dan Gargan to make 32 starts last season as the club's every-day right back. His play was far from perfect, but he grew increasingly comfortable as the season went along, connecting on more and more crosses and learning the nuances of the position.
“From a tactical standpoint, having the understanding, reading the game better is important, and he got that with experience,” Klopas told MLSsoccer.com. “He's a guy that's played two, three years and you expect that: to gain experience every game.”
This season, Anibaba has been one of the Fire's most consistent players. Anibaba and Fire center back Austin Berry are two of only three MLS field players (New England's Jose Goncalves is the other) to play every minute this season. On Saturday, Anibaba curled a shot from outside the penalty area into the upper corner to net what league-leading goalscorer Mike Magee called “one of the biggest goals we've scored,” and Anibaba has also notched three assists.
More importantly than any individual play, his tactical understanding of his right-back position has grown with every minute.
“Little by little, you can definitely see how he's better and smarter with the ball at his feet,” veteran left back Gonzalo Segares told MLSsoccer.com. “The way he reads the game, just changing from being a center back to a right back, it's not that simple. He's been adjusting well over there; he can read the game better as well. His positioning has been very good. I've seen it through the year how much better he's played that position as well.”
Despite having spent all of last year at right back, Anibaba still had to prove himself. In preseason, Logan Pause started a few games at right back after the club brought in Jeff Larentowicz in the midfield, but Anibaba earned his starting spot and has not let go.
That competition brought out Anibaba's drive to continually improve at a position not so new to him anymore.
“I have a better understanding of when to get myself into dangerous spots, advanced positions, and I provide much better service going forward,” Anibaba said. “Also from a defensive stance, I have a better understanding of where I need to be when the other team is in dangerous spots as well. It's a consistent learning process, and there's never a perfect game to be played. … Even though I've played every single game of the season thus far, I still have to prove myself this week of training to earn a spot to play this weekend.”