Stadiums packed with screaming fans? A city expecting to end a 12-year championship drought?
It’s fair to say Jalil Anibaba handles pressure differently than the rest of us. The Chicago Fire rookie right back, who has started each of his team’s first seven games and played all but 14 minutes this season, should be feeling the heat two months into his professional career.
But he isn’t.
“I never came into this experience thinking there was any situation I couldn’t handle,” Anibaba told MLSsoccer.com. “What really is pressure? It’s performing in front of large crowds. It’s aspiring to have a good season. I don’t really see that as pressure. Life brings situations with immense pressure. This isn’t one of them.”
Anibaba, a University of North Carolina graduate taken with the ninth pick of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, played his way into the starting lineup during preseason while learning a new position.
“It’s part of being a young pro,” said Anibaba, who has featured for the US at the U-18 and U-20 levels. “I’d never played right back before, but you have to learn quickly. I played center back in college, so it’s a very different look in terms of passing angles and defending angles. That threw me for a loop, but it’s a fun position.”
Mike Levitt's Rookie of the Year Rankings
1. Will Bruin Houston Dynamo
|The forward from Indiana has lived up to his billing as a goalmouth godsend, netting the first MLS hat trick this season in a 4-1 thrashing of DC United.|
2. Jalil Anibaba
|Anibaba’s 616 minutes are tops for rookies in MLS this season. The right back also has one assist for Chicago.|
3. Rich Balchan
|Balchan started at left back during the Crew’s 416-minute shutout streak in April. He was a late scratch in Saturday’s 2-1 win against Vancouver due to illness.|
His maturity and ability to learn on the fly were the first things Anibaba’s new teammates noticed about him. According to Fire captain Logan Pause, Anibaba has progressed as fast as any rookie the nine-year veteran has seen.
“Never once has the excuse that he’s a first-year player been used to let him off the hook,” Pause said. “One of the great things about Jalil is he already accepts that’s part of the job. He has the confidence in himself and knows the amount of work that needs to be done.”
“Factor that in with his physical attributes, his quickness and speed,” Pause added, “and he’s ahead of the curve.”
Pause has seen his share of rookies during a career spent exclusively with the Fire. The 2002 UNC grad helped Anibaba’s pro transition as Chicago tiptoed through an April rut — losing three in a row before consecutive draws in recent weeks.
“We talk about the mental side,” Pause said. “For a lot of rookies that aspect of the game is a challenge. Most of these kids were the best on their college teams, then go into a position where they are fighting to be in the lineup. There’s a lot being thrown at him, but Jalil has earned that right [to start]. He comes to training every day wanting to improve.”
Before transferring to UNC his senior season, Anibaba spent three years at Santa Clara University, two hours from his hometown of Davis, Calif. Just as he does today as a professional, Anibaba immediately showed leadership and superior understanding of the game in college, starting 22 games for the Broncos as a freshman.
“It was never a question of if — but when — Jalil would make the jump to the next level,” said Santa Clara head coach Cam Rast. “He played a couple of positions for us — sometimes we played him in midfield where he could score some goals — because he came to us as such a complete player. Any time he’s transitioned to higher levels, it has been obvious he’s capable of competing right away.”
Anibaba attributes his success to his father, Jammal, and the influence of his older brother and a group of close cousins. Jammal, a Nigerian immigrant and youngest of 10 children, was his son’s coach and biggest supporter.
“He’s living with smiles right now,” Anibaba said about his father. “My whole family loves soccer, and you can imagine how many cousins and uncles I have. My dad taught me pretty much everything I know about the game, and he continues teaching me.”
Anibaba takes his genealogy and lineage seriously, studying Yoruba (West African) culture in his spare time. “It’s something very few people know about me and is true to my heart,” Anibaba said.
Though the Fire (1-3-3) are still searching for a regular lineup heading into Saturday’s home match against Vancouver, Anibaba has been the constant every week and on April 17, picked up his first MLS assist in a 2-1 loss to LA.
Chicago may currently be second from the bottom in the Eastern Conference, but Anibaba believes the familial atmosphere in the Fire locker room will result in movement up the standings.
“I’m a firm believer that times like these show character both individually and collectively,” Anibaba said. “That’s when you really learn about a group of individuals. But the locker room is tight knit, exciting and jovial. We are showing character to turn things around.”