Just a week ago there was a doubt that Jalil Anibaba would even be in the Fires starting 11 for Sundays home match against the Houston Dynamo. And, if he did play, there was a question of where hed fit in.
Cory Gibbs knee surgery on Tuesday answered both questions. Gibbs will be out four-six months as his torn meniscus heals, and second-year man Anibaba will be slotted into a central defenders role. Unfortunately, it happened because of Gibbs misfortune.
"Its devastating anytime you hear a teammate has to undergo surgery," said Anibaba. "Cory was definitely my mentor last season, and that continued into this one as well. We were under the impression that he wouldnt be out too long. Hes an irreplaceable to me and to the club."
Gibbs and Anibaba played together in the middle during the Fires first three matches of the Major League Soccer season. Newly-acquired German defender Arne Friedrich, however, improved his fitness as the Fire trained through a two-week break in league games. A veteran of 82 games for the powerful German national team, Friedrich figured to move into the lineup against Houston with Anibaba the likely man out in the middle.
Coach Frank Klopas, however, used Anibaba on the right side in last Saturdays friendly against the University of Louisville while Dan Gargan was nursing a sprained toe. If Gargan wasnt ready for Sunday, Anibaba could have be inserted in his spot.
Klopas used Anibaba on the right side at the start of his rookie season, but he prefers to play him in the middle of the four-man back line. Anibaba likes it better there, too.
"Ive just had more games there, more experience there," said Anibaba. "Thats where I played in college, but it comes down to where I can help the team the most."
Though Klopas prefers not to discuss lineup possibilities, there seems little doubt that Anibaba will play with Friedrich in the middle against the Dynamo -- Gargan seems likely to return on the right. Anibaba isnt worried about adjusting to Friedrich, a vocal leader, after spending so much time with Gibbs, who played 19 times for the U.S. national team and also had playing time with European clubs.
"Both are easy to play with," said Anibaba. "Theyve been with elite clubs and their experiences are very comparable, though their styles are a little different."
The Fire (1-1-1) didnt play well in its last game with Gibbs and Anibaba together (a 2-0 loss at Colorado on April 1). Anibaba says a bounce-back is vital, no matter whos in the lineup.
"We dont have an option but to bounce back," he said. "The seasons not going to stop."
Elsewhere in the lineup, theres some doubt about the starting goalkeeper. Sean Johnson figures to make his first MLS appearance of the season after Paolo Tornaghi started the first three. Klopas wanted Johnson to get some game time after he basically just trained with Everton of the English Premier League and the U.S. under-23 squad since last season ended.
Johnson played in two reserve matches and was in for the first 45 minutes of the Louisville friendly since the Fires loss at Colorado, so he got some game action. The Fire, however, lost both of those reserve matches -- not a good omen going into the second home game of the season.
"Well be excited playing at home," said Anibaba. "Houstons a good side, plays well together and is very dangerous on set pieces. Itll be a battle for 90 minutes."