Jalil Anibaba: Past, Present, and Future
On The Fire’s contributing writer Rob Thompson recently sat down with Jalil Anibaba to discuss the young defender’s development, his training stint with Atlético Madrid, and the upcoming 2013 season.
The first thing you notice when talking to Jalil Anibaba is the sincere and positive attitude he projects. Anibaba is a “team first” type of player who focuses his energy not on himself, but rather on what he can do to fill various roles depending on his team’s needs. Jalil’s versatility and adaptability allowed him to lock down the starting job at right back for Chicago Fire during the 2012 season. Yet before the 2012 season began, most expected Anibaba to start at center back.
With the signing of German World Cup veteran Arne Friedrich near the start of the 2012 season, many thought minutes would be hard to come by for Chicago’s 2011 first-round MLS Super Draft pick. But to the contrary, Jalil wound up leading Chicago Fire in minutes played during 2012 with 2868. Excluding extra time, this equates to Jalil having played 47.5 hours out of the maximum 51 hours of regulation time during the MLS regular season. Also, let’s not forget that in 2011 Anibaba was the number two leader on minutes played for the season behind his fullback amigo Gonzalo Segares.
Becoming a Pro
Jalil’s development into a versatile, hard-working player dates back to his youth league days in Davis, California. He began his soccer career at the young age of four and played for his father’s various teams throughout his youth. It was Jammal Anibaba who had the wisdom to play his son Jalil at every position on the pitch to make sure he developed into a well-rounded team player. Jalil played from front (center foward) to back (goalkeeper), and in all spaces between at the youth level, but as a teenager, he achieved the most success playing the central attacking midfielder (CAM) role. Scouts took notice of Anibaba’s prowess at the CAM position, and he subsequently advanced to the collegiate level at Santa Clara University. However, three years later, Jalil transferred to the University of North Carolina and starred at center back for the Tar Heels. His experience anchoring the back line for UNC, he believes, allowed him to see the game from an entirely different perspective.
Jalil believes that the soccer knowledge and maturity he gained while plying his trade at center back during his senior collegiate season made all the difference as he advanced to the professional ranks of Major League Soccer. To be sure, Anibaba has technical talent and comprehensive soccer knowledge. But the young defender’s trademark is his “team first” attitude that helps him adjust to and embrace different roles and responsibilities as a member of the Chicago Fire. Opportunity and adaptability are two words that epitomize the young man’s life as a professional American soccer player. Moreover, Jalil never forgets to praise his father for teaching him how to be a gentlemanly, compassionate human being.
Trabajo con Atlético
After Chicago Fire got knocked out of the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs by eventual Eastern Conference Cup finalists Houston Dynamo, the Men in Red still had a few training sessions left on their docket before they packed it in for the winter. The mood during those sessions was understandably low-spirited due to the squad’s quick exit from the playoffs. Nevertheless, it was during this time that Jalil learned he had been selected by the front office to take part in a two-week training session with famed Spanish side Club Atlético de Madrid.
Certainly, a training stint with one of the largest clubs in Spain was an opportunity that Anibaba could not pass up. As a result, Chicago’s young defender delayed his off-season plans to return to his family and friends in California and embarked upon a two-week “working vacation” to the vibrant capital city of Madrid, Spain.
Jalil Anibaba’s opportunity to train with Atlético Madrid is a result of Chicago Fire’s participation in the “A Team For The World” alliance that promotes both the growth of soccer and greater relationships among its nine member clubs. Think of it as the soccer version of that cultural exchange program you had in high school, but bigger. When Jalil booked his trip to Spain, he knew two years of hard work at the professional level had paid off. Chicago’s young fullback would now train with an elite European club.
Atlético Madrid has done exceptionally well for itself of late. The Spanish capital’s “second” club lifted the UEFA Europa League trophy during the 2009/10 & 2011/12 campaigns, and is in the hunt for a third tournament championship 2013. What’s more, Los Rojiblancos now sit firmly on second place in the La Liga table behind super club FC Barcelona and feature Radamel Falcao, one of the best and most sought after strikers in the world.
Atlético Madrid’s training facility is located in the Madrid suburb of Majadahona. While there, Jalil spent most of his time training hard and living at the academy. The training sessions he participated in were about the same in duration as MLS sessions. However, he did notice a difference in the speed of the game, superior technique from the players, and an overall fluidity to the game when compared to MLS. Unsurprisingly, Jalil felt a little overwhelmed on his first day, but by the end of the training stint he was thoroughly enjoying his experience.
During training, most of the games played were tight, small-sided, and possession based. But a few large-sided training sessions afforded Jalil a chance to truly play the center back and fullback positions. While he trained mostly with Atlético’s “B” squad, Anibaba trained with the “A” squad, and participated in a couple of sessions designed specifically for defenders as well.
Jalil worked very hard during his two-week stint with Atletico, but he also found time to get to know the club’s players and staff a bit – including the sensational Falcao, and manager Diego Simeone. Simeone is a legend in his own right and was once the most capped player on the Argentina national team (If you need a primer on Simeone, ask an England fan. I’m sure you’ll get an ear full on the 1998 World Cup).
While Jalil wasn’t able to do much sightseeing in and around the Spanish capital, he did attend two choice matches with teammate and training partner Austin Berry that any soccer fan would revel in. First, Chicago’s young defending duo saw their new training mates beat Sevilla at Atlético’s Estadio Vicente Calderón. Then, in what was perhaps the highlight of their trip, Jalil & Austin attended the Madrid Derby at Real’s famed Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Anibaba saw the essence of footballing Madrid during those matches – an experience of a lifetime gained during his “working vacation.”
One thing was evident during our discussion of the upcoming 2013 MLS season: Jalil Anibaba recognizes he must transition from sophomore status to seasoned veteran. “There is no hiding my character now,” he said. Jalil acknowledges that expectations surrounding him have risen, and feels that 2013 will be a very telling time in his soccer career. To be sure, the young defender is determined to surpass those expectations and continue to grow as a member of the Chicago Fire.
Specifically, Anibaba will focus on improving the offensive elements of his game at the fullback position. He will work on making more efficient runs up the flank to create space for other attacking players, attempt to cross the ball into the box more accurately, and initiate more one-on-one dribbles both near and within the penalty area to help generate scoring opportunities and manufacture goals.
Jalil is committed to the Chicago Fire and will do whatever it takes to improve the team. Ultimately, his highest goal is winning a second MLS Cup for Chicago Fire Nation. Jalil Anibaba’s versatility and character will afford him a long career in Major League Soccer, and I hope I get to experience it all from my seat at Toyota Park.
– follow contributing writer Rob Thompson @roblthom66