For the first time this season when Sigi Schmid drew up his lineup on Saturday, DeAndre Yedlin wasn't available at right back.
Not many teams could look down their bench and feel comfortable when filling in for an All-Star defender and World Cup hopeful, but Schmid had plenty of confidence in Jalil Anibaba. That faith paid off in a 1-0 win over San Jose, holding the Earthquakes to just one shot on goal.
"It was a good team effort. We wanted to shore up the defensive end and I think, collectively, we did that," Anibaba said.
Schmid had plenty of reason to believe in Anibaba. A first round pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft for the Chicago Fire, he was a regular from the first match of his rookie season and played every minute of every match at right back in 2013. After coming to Seattle in a trade in January, he was embroiled in a battle for playing time on a deep Sounders FC defense.
Known for his work rate in Chicago, he knew he would have to work even harder in Seattle because of an established defensive core that added Chad Marshall a few weeks earlier and a competitive nature that saw him take the field in all but six matches in his three seasons with the Fire.
"Coming into a new environment, you want to prove yourself day in and day out and earn the respect of the teammates, the staff and the fans," he said. "That's what I'm about. That's what the guys here are about. And that's refreshing."
He started one match at center back, picking up an assist in a 4-4 comeback draw against the Portland Timbers on April 5, then made two substitute appearances before getting his next start on Saturday.
It didn't take much time for him to find his rhythm and once he did, it was almost as though he had been starting there all along.
"I thought Jalil got better as the game went on. I thought his second half was better than his first half – getting more confidence on the ball and more comfortable on the field again," Schmid said, noting the difference with Anibaba on the field as opposed to Yedlin. "He's not going to go storming forward in the same way that DeAndre does, but that's not the role we expect of him. Defensively, I think we're a little more solid, but it also means that the guy in front of him has to take more on his shoulder offensively."
For his part, Anibaba wasn't trying to replace Yedlin on the field while the 20-year-old defender is away with the U.S. National Team training at Stanford University in preparations for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Instead, his focus was on playing his own game and mixing as well as he could with the players on the field. With experienced veterans in his midst, he has learned plenty in his first four months with Seattle and can continue to keep utilizing his own personality on the field to make an impact for the team while also learning along the way.
"It's good to be surrounded by these type of guys and this environment. We've got a lot of goals in mind and we're just pushing toward those goals," Anibaba said. "I just need to keep playing, not think too much and just enjoy football. The attitude around the locker room is the exact same and that's why we've been successful."