Anibaba excels for Fire after switch to central defense

Jalil Anibaba, Chicago Fire

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BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Fire rookie defender Jalil Anibaba is feeling right at home in the middle of Chicago’s defense.

The University of North Carolina product began the season as Chicago’s starting right back, playing 16 of the Fire’s first 20 games on the right side of the defense. He performed reasonably well on the flank, but it’s easy to see that he’s far more comfortable at center back, where he’s started Chicago’s last three games.

The 22-year-old, who played center back throughout his four-year college career, says the reason he’s better in the middle than on the right is simple: more reps.

“I think it’s just because of the fact that I’ve had more games there,” Anibaba said on Tuesday. “It’s just a matter of me having more games under my belt at center back and I think I’ve been able to transfer my experience from college at center back to this level.”

The first-round pick didn’t get his first look in the middle until August 3, coming on for the injured Cory Gibbs early in the Fire’s 1-1 draw against Philadelphia.

He took advantage of the opportunity to play in his more familiar role, looking comfortable, distributing efficiently and defending well against the Union. He’s started at center back for all but one of the Fire’s four games since the Philly match, impressing Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas with his composed performances.

“I like him better as a center back,” Klopas said after the Fire’s 2-0 win over Toronto last Sunday. “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.”

Sunday’s game was the first time Anibaba partnered in the middle with the 31-year-old Gibbs. The two have developed a close relationship off the field this season, with the veteran Gibbs showing the younger Anibaba some of the ropes.

“He’s taken me under [his wing],” Anibaba said of Gibbs. “I’ve just tried to soak up as much information and as much knowledge as possible from him.”

Both players spoke highly of how they played together on Sunday, saying that they have a good understanding of each other despite not having partnered in the middle before.

“It’s nice because the cohesion is there and the understanding is there,” Anibaba said. “That’s good and since day one, since preseason opened up, I’ve just learned a lot from him.”

Though he looks more comfortable in the middle, Anibaba — who could find himself in contention for rookie of the year at the end of the season thanks to 20 solid appearances under his belt — said he doesn’t mind where he plays.

“I’m happy to be on the field,” he said. “That’s just the mindset one has to always take on. Whether it’s center back, whether it’s right back, wherever the staff sees me fit in that’s where I need to try to apply myself. I just want to come in with an open mind, a willingness to learn and improve. I feel like that’s the most important thing I can do as a young player.”

Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at sam.h.stejskal@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @samstejskal.