Rookie Rundown: Anibaba, Balchan regulars

Jalil Anibaba, Chicago Fire

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Few rookies this season have been as integral to their clubs as Chicago Fire defender Jalil Anibaba.

Last week, the University of North Carolina graduate played all 180 minutes in losses to Portland and the LA Galaxy and has now gone the distance in each of the Fire’s first five games. The Davis, Calif., native was selected with the ninth pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft.

However, the individual achievements — Anibaba assisted on Dominic Oduro’s 89th-minute consolation in Chicago’s 2-1 loss against LA on Sunday— have been bittersweet, since the Fire have won only once this season and lost their last three.

"I think we’re playing well,” said Anibaba, whose clearance on a 50-50 ball from the Fire’s defensive third sprung Oduro behind the Galaxy back line. “There are minute errors that we need to correct, but we just need to stay together as a unit. Times like these show character, and we have to figure out what our character is and we’ll be fine.”

In last week’s 4-2 defeat at Portland’s home opener, Chicago (1-3-1) fell into a three-goal hole after goalkeeper Sean Johnson spilled a free kick that left Jorge Peralza a tap-in. But the Fire roared back under the influence of substitute Oduro, making it a one-goal game in the 80th minute before Portland added an insurance goal.

“We have to key in on our mistakes and correct them,” Anibaba said. “And we have to just stay calm. It’s still early, we still have to keep a good attitude and stay positive.”

On the other hand, Columbus rookie defender Rich Balchan has been both playing and winning in his five starts for the Crew (2-1-2). This past Saturday, Columbus recorded their fourth successive shutout in a narrow 1-0 win against Sporting KC despite a lineup reshuffle by coach Robert Warzycha. Balchan kept his starting spot at left fullback.

On the flip side of the 1-0 result was Sporting rookie forward C.J. Sapong, a James Madison University graduate from Manassas, Va., who has started all four Kansas City matches in MLS regular-season games, and came off the bench to provide the lone goal in SKC’s 1-0 win over Houston in the US Open Cup.

Though he already has a goal and an assist for his new club in MLS play, the 6-foot-1 Sapong was held to just one shot on Saturday.

On Sunday, Chicago coach Carlos de los Cobos handed a debut to 22-year-old forward Davis Paul, who was subbed at halftime in favor of Patrick Nyarko.

Portland attacker Darlington Nagbe – last year’s Herman Trophy winner who left Akron after his junior year – was a late substitute in both of Portland’s matches last week, entering in the 82nd minute against Chicago and then for the final 25 minutes of the Timbers’ 3-2 win against Dallas over the weekend.

Vancouver defender Michael Boxall has played every minute of the Whitecaps’ six games and was rewarded with the club’s first-ever MLS shutout in Saturday’s draw against Chivas USA.

Other Vancouver rookies in action were Jeb Brovsky, who earned his second consecutive start in midfield, and first overall pick Omar Salgado, an 83rd-minute substitute who almost grabbed a dramatic victory with his late header off a corner. Both Boxall and Brovsky picked up their first career yellow cards in the match.

Zarek Valentin, a US Under-20 international defender, came on as a second-half substitute for Chivas USA against Vancouver.

D.C. United defenders Chris Korb and Ethan White have been essential to the club’s three-game unbeaten streak in all competitions. On Saturday, in a 3-0 thrashing of Toronto, the duo played side-by-side for the second straight game, though Kolb was substituted late. Forward Blake Brettschneider was an unused substitute after consecutive appearances.

Highly touted rookie midfielders Matt Kassel of the New York Red Bulls and Anthony Ampaipitakwong of San Jose were both unused substitutes in New York’s rain-soaked 3-0 win Saturday night.

New England rookie defender A.J. Soares returned from his one-game suspension after a red card for a tackle on Vancouver’s Atiba Harris on April 6. Despite a solid defensive effort at Houston on Sunday night, the Revs lost 1-0 in the waning moments and are now winless in four and losers of two in a row.

New England midfielder Stephen McCarthy, who spent four years at Santa Clara before transferring to UNC, started his sixth successive game for the club in the loss.

Houston forward Will Bruin, who scored his first MLS goal last week, again featured in attack next to Cam Weaver. He was dangerous until substituted two minutes from time, generating three shots on goal before Houston snatched its late winner against the Revs’ on an 86th-minute corner.