As I watched the first play-in game of the 2013 MLS Cup playoffs, there was a lot I admired about both the Sounders and the Rapids. Although constructed differently – Seattle primarily through their wallets, Colorado through exceptional amateur and foreign scouting – both squads contain absolute gems. What is often overlooked in the big shadows of Dempsey, Johnson, Harris and Brown, is the quality of the back four of both teams. Key in closer, and you’ll notice each side has a right back for the future. DeAndre Yedlin and Shane O’Neill respectively, are both home grown products who have cemented their place as starting right backs. Shift focus onto our Chicago Fire, and Jalil Anibaba. He played in the center of defense and on the right this season – often, though not always, effectively.
I hate bringing up the miserable start to the season, but I must. Anibaba started the first game of the year at RB alongside Steve Kinney against a vastly superior LA Galaxy. The Fire allowed four goals. Kinney would switch places with Anibaba the following week against more equal opposition in the New England revolution. With left sided mainstays Austin Berry (who would move to the right after the Soumare trade) and Gonzalo Segares, the Fire only conceded one goal that day. A clean sheet at Sporting Kansas City would follow. Immediate reaction: well the team should keep Anibaba in the center of defense.
The next seven games would indeed see him remain in the center, while Wells Thompson and Logan Pause carried the burden at RB. The results over those seven games? 2-5 with twelve goals conceded. The results don’t all fall on the shoulders of the defense or strictly Anibaba of course. Offensively the club was inept at best and went through a trial period of testing out Patrick Nyarko at the very top of the formation, something that until then was only welcome in a shroom hallucination.
Towards the end of May, the Fire acquired Bakary Soumare from the same Philadelphia Union team that had defeated them 1-0 in successive matches. This move would see number six slide to right back for the rest of the season. In the ten games referenced above where Anibaba primarily played CB, the defense allowed a minimum of two goals in four of them, or 40%. The following 24 games would see the defense allow a minimum of two goals in eleven of them, or roughly 46%.
After a permanent switch to right back, Anibaba was more involved in pushing forward and setting up the offense. His crosses, often quality ones, were usually cleared away due to the lack of overall height of the Fire attackers. He was responsible for three assists on the season at RB and an absolutely stunning strike of a goal against FC Dallas.
The downside to Anibaba’s offensive involvement was the numerous times he failed to trail back and cover in defense, allowing the opposition to go on the counter attack. The percentages show that goals conceded weren’t just one man’s fault. Whether they would care to admit it or not, Fire defenders fell victim to fatigue. Poor squad rotation and conditioning were an obvious source of mental and physical lapses that allowed opposing goals – 52 to be exact – to pour in.
Perhaps the inconsistencies of Anibaba - and to be fair - the entire back line would have been lessened had Arne Friedrich not retired due to injury. That begs the ultimate question: Is Jalil Anibaba the right back of the future for the Chicago Fire? As of right now, the team has three, possibly four potential like-minded center backs. Austin Berry, Bakary Soumare, Jalil Anibaba and even Hunter Jumper all have a propensity to move forward and be involved in the offense. Berry might be the closest thing to a stay-at-home defender on the roster.
Replacing the awareness, maturity, leadership and tactical nous along the back four that Friedrich provided is a MUST in order to compete for the MLS Cup. Only then can Austin Berry play to his full potential at CB, and Jalil Anibaba the same at RB. Anibaba doesn’t have the skillset or the mindset to be an every game central defender. His footwork, crossing, and speed are better tailored for the RB position. Juan Luis Anangono with a full season ahead next year, could become a consistent target in the box for an Anibaba cross. Hopefully Frank Yallop will work on better conditioning number six.
I’d like to think that five years from now, the 2011 first round draft pick will have fully panned out. He’ll no longer be the right back of the future, but simply our right back.