The Chicago Fire defense went through a complete makeover following last season, with a new scheme and a new cast of characters.
Veteran Cory Gibbs, Josip Mikulic and rookie Jalil Anibaba are the projected defensive starters from left to right within this year's new three-back system. And considering the lack of goals Chicago allowed during the preseason (the Fire allowed only one goal in three games at the recent Carolina Challenge Cup), it appears that things have meshed quickly within the back line.
"No one would have expected, the way it's been so far," Gibbs said. "But then again, this is preseason. The numbers that have happened aren't going to count for anything, and we just have to translate into the regular season."
Last year's rookie class eventually played some important roles for the Fire on the defensive side, with Sean Johnson earning the No. 1 goalkeeper spot and defender Steven Kinney establishing himself at right back.
But as Kinney recovers from an Achilles injury he suffered at the end of last season, 2011 first-round selection and University of North Carolina product Anibaba is quickly cementing his presence in the lineup.
"You never know what you're going to expect when a rookie comes in," Gibbs said. "College is a completely different game. But Jalil is an exception. He's a talented athlete, a talented figure on the field. And what makes him exceptionally great is that he wants to learn. Day-by-day he's progressing and he'll shoot right in. It's not something with him that's going to take time. It seems natural."
Anibaba has had some useful tests in preseason to get ready for Saturday's first regular-season match at FC Dallas, particularly having to mark the New York Red Bulls' Thierry Henry in one game.
"That's what you expect as a rookie coming in," Anibaba said. "You're playing against guys you've had on your walls in the past as far as idols. It's just a dream come true and an honor to play against people like that."
Gibbs has taken Anibaba under his wing from the get-go, helping the right back adjust to the professional ranks.
"It's been just a natural thing," Anibaba said. "Sometimes you just feel comfortable taking serious advice from certain people. Cory's one of them. He's been in my ear since day one. He's provided the minor details that you don't really think about that go a long way in games. Cory's really caught my attention to that, and I think those details will really help us, especially in the last minutes."
Now the challenge is putting everything in place within a 3-5-2 system that isn't the most typical among MLS squads.
"The whole premise behind the formation is order," Anibaba said. "Coach [Carlos de los Cobos] preaches order to us all the time. It's just more about everyone being on the same page. The midfielders really have to be on the same page with us backs, and I think they have been. It's a very demanding position as far as the amount of work they have to do defensively and offensively. We require a lot from them, and they've been doing a phenomenal job."
"It's a formation that's going to make [opponents] think twice in terms of when we're attacking, because we have so many numbers," Gibbs said. "And defensively for us, we're confident knowing that we're solid enough in the back. We're not overly cocky at all, but we know we have the personnel to work for that three-back system. It's just about organizing everything at the same time to make it work."
Fire defender Dasan Robinson, who is coming back from a hip flexor injury earlier in the preseason, said the three-back approach fits with the character of this team's collection of midfielders. It also is a scheme that Robinson is familiar with.
"I've played it before in my first two years with [former Fire head coaches Dave] Sarachan and Juan Carlos Osorio, so I'm fairly used to it," Robinson said. "It's a little bit more organization and communication than normal. It's a good format, and I think you have to play to your personnel, the type of players you have. I think it complements us pretty well."