Stage left, right or center, Jalil Anibaba can make some serious moves.
Filling in for injured or otherwise absent Sounders teammates, Anibaba has played all three positions across the back line this season. He’s appeared in nine matches this year and started seven, including the last four MLS competitions.
His versatility has helped the Sounders through a stretch beset by injuries. When DeAndre Yedlin was at the World Cup in Brazil, and Brad Evans was hurt, Anibaba helped out on the right side. Then Leo Gonzalez and Dylan Remick went down with injuries, so Anibaba was there at left. And center back is still his most natural position.
“He’s just one of those guys that I feel very fortunate to have on the team because I know when I call on Jalil, I’m going to get everything he has and he’s going to be ready,” said Sounders coach Sigi Schmid.
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That readiness on Anibaba’s part stems from a childhood filled with sports that taught him how to compete, no matter the playing surface. He played catcher for youth baseball teams for nearly 10 years and was the point guard on his high-school basketball team.
But it was soccer that Anibaba fell in love with, especially after he figured out he could play from any part of the field. It was something his father, Jammal, who doubled as his coach, recognized as well. Jammal put Anibaba “essentially everywhere” on the field, and that flexibility stuck.
“I think from an early age, he realized I had the ability to use both legs, and kind of just took it upon himself to develop that,” Anibaba said.
His father’s opinion was one Anibaba cherished, in sports and otherwise. Jammal grew up playing soccer on Nigerian streets, and moved to the United States when he was in his mid-20s. Although a talented player, Jammal never had the chance to play soccer at a high level.
It’s something that still inspires his son.
“He didn’t necessarily have the opportunities that my brother and I had playing, so he took it upon himself to make sure that we had opportunities to play,” Anibaba said of his father. “He definitely came from nothing and was a self-made man, and that’s definitely a motivating factor in my life.”
It’s led Anibaba to new heights. He set career bests last season with the Chicago Fire, playing 3,060 minutes in 34 appearances and nailing three assists.
After the Sounders signed him in January of this year, the 2014 season began slowly for Anibaba. In Seattle’s first 11 matches, he started once and came on as a sub twice.
Since then, Anibaba has started six of the Sounders’ last eight MLS matches, logging 540 minutes and playing a part in three Sounders shutouts during that stretch.
He’s taken his opportunities and run with them, from one side of the field to the other. But that’s been a theme throughout Anibaba’s life.
“Throughout different sports I learned how to never be complacent,” he said. “I learned how to better myself at a young age, and I think those are lessons I’ve been able to translate into my professional career.”
That is all obvious to Anibaba’s coach – Schmid praises the work ethic, versatility and attitude that have made Anibaba an integral part of the Sounders’ 12-4-2 season thus far.
“Jalil is another guy who’s just a good egg, a good character that fits in with the team,” he said. “He’s a student of the game. He wants to get better every time he steps on to practice.”