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Q&A: Nashville SC Defender Jalil Anibaba

Note: NorCal Premier Soccer regularly sits down with an influential figure in the youth soccer landscape to pick their brain about a variety of different topics that are relevant in the current soccer environment in the United States. For this edition we spoke with Nashville SC defender Jalil Anibaba. After a standout college career with Santa Clara and North Carolina, the Davis native and Davis Legacy alum was drafted No. 9 overall by the Chicago Fire in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft. Since then, Anibaba has made over 200 appearances for six different clubs in the league, winning a Supporters’ Shield and a pair of U.S. Open Cups.

NorCal: What was it like for you as a youth player growing up in Northern California?

Anibaba: For me it was interesting because Davis is a soccer city so most of the kids around town played so that helped to build a culture of a decently high level of the game just within the city. Most of the best athletes in town, if they didn’t play soccer as their primary sport, they at least played it at one point in time in their childhood, which was different than some other areas. When I was very, very young the competitive teams in the area weren’t nearly as established, even Davis Legacy wasn’t very established until I was around 13 so a lot of us were playing AYSO when we were five, six, seven.

NorCal: You’ve been around MLS teams for years now and have seen what’s going on with youth development in MLS markets as well as through the camps you run. How has youth development changed since you were growing up and has it changed for the better or worse?

Anibaba: In the environment that I played in in my formative years, what really helped me was playing up, playing with kids that were older than me, faster than me, stronger than me, and more developed. That helped me to be able to process the game at a higher level and higher speeds than my age mates. That was a built-in mechanism that my family used to keep me always humble, first and foremost, but looking for ways to improve because my family never kept me in soccer environments where I was just completely dominant because if you’re just dominating, beasting, scoring four or five goals, then you really aren’t learning. For anyone in an environment where things are too easy for them, they don’t grow, they don’t learn, and they don’t develop properly. The same is true if things are way too difficult, they don’t grow or develop either. Playing up for me gave me an environment where I could always push myself to shed bed habits out of my game because my family didn’t really value how many tournaments that I was involved in winning and how many games I won, they just wanted me to learn something in a pure form and at the highest level. Moving into the second question as far as what do I think about the current stage of soccer development, it’s without a question better now. It’s not even a question. The game has just continued to grow. I think what is happening at the professional level as far as MLS is concerned as far as the national team is concerned, soccer is just being pushed toward an overall upward trend of growth and it’s being more embedded into the culture overall. In Davis we have always had a soccer culture because it’s a soccer city, but we were probably ahead of the curve in that sense. Most places that isn’t necessarily true. Seeing soccer become more embedded in the culture — it’s still not where we want it to be — but it’s moving in that direction. You see younger kids now being exposed to a higher level of play and being given more challenging opportunities that can grow them into better players at a younger age than when I was growing up. Overall it’s improving, again, it’s not where we want it to be, but to say that it isn’t improving would just be incorrect.

NorCal: You were a four-year player for Davis High, which used to draw huge crowds in the community for its soccer games. Nowadays, high school soccer doesn’t matter nearly as much as it did back then and many kids choose to eschew the opportunity to play and just play club instead. Do you think we’ve lost something because of this or is it a good thing that the top player are electing to just play club?

Anibaba: Overall, to grow the game toward the direction that it needs to go, for soccer to overall continue to be pushed, no I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think it’s just what has to happen. I think that overall, the best kids in any given area should be funneled toward opportunities that lead them toward the professional track. It’s a completely different conversation if that’s the type of experience they’re pursuing or not, that’s a completely different issue, but in order for the game to continue to grow, there has to be more of a connection with the grassroots kids playing whatever it is, pickup on the intramural fields, and you scale that all across the country, there has to be and end point to that. Otherwise it stays in the realm of just being a game that people play. For example, now we have Sacramento Republic in our area. The Earthquakes aren’t far from us either. If the best player in Davis, Elk Grove, Sacramento, Winters, Woodland, Fairfield, if they don’t have the opportunity to even be looked at by the professional clubs or the clubs that are at the next level, it keeps the overall seriousness of the sport at large at a low ceiling. Like I said, I just think it’s a price that soccer junkies, in a way, have to pay and it’s an unfortunate one because I grew up in the time where I was fortunate enough to play varsity for four years and play in those big games every single year and the community is fully engaged as far as what is happening. But at the same time, I can also speak firsthand on how much the city rallies around a local kid who is able to make it to the next level as well.

NorCal: In that same vein, if you were growing up now, do you think you still would have gone and played college soccer?

Anibaba: It would depend on the options that were in front of me. My family and I have always valued education. It’s a very tough idea for someone like myself and my family to wrap our minds around completely forgoing college and bettering yourself from an academic standpoint. However, it’s still possible to obtain your degree while forgoing your college eligibility as far as playing is concerned. I didn’t finish my entire degree off of campus, but I finished a portion of it so I definitely think that if a player has the opportunity to play at the next level coming out of high school and they truly are dedicated to academics, they can still do both because that’s what we’re doing on campus anyway. To say what I would have done had I grown up now is impossible to speak on, but I definitely know that the college game, at least on the men’s side, is much different than it was when I was playing both at Santa Clara and Chapel Hill. I personally think, though, because the development is better now and kids are coming out, from purely soccer standpoint, more advanced than I was, so if a kid have been exposed to much higher levels of development and are more advanced and playing at the college level is too low of a level and they have an opportunity to play at the highest level (they should do it). Sports in general are all about competing and pushing yourself to obtain success at the highest level. If I were presented with the opportunity, a legitimate opportunity that would overall enhance my life, to play at the next level coming out of high school, that would be something I would seriously have to look at. The way things are going now, more soccer players are being faced with that decision than when I was coming out. Being somebody who values education, this may sound a little bit off, but those opportunities being regularly available for kids coming out of high school means that the game is improving.

NorCal: Speaking of that next level, you’re going on 10 years in Major League Soccer. What do you think it is about you that’s allowed you to stick around the league for this long?

Anibaba: Overall, I’ve been blessed, it’s a blessing to be able to do what you love for a decade and counting at the professional level. It’s a blessing to be able to still enjoy it every single day, I think that’s a major aspect of my career that I’m very, very happy about, that I’ve enjoyed it from my rookie year until now. I know a lot of guys who get burned out, they get sick of it or they become jaded along the way. To be fair, a lot of those things, I’ve been able to guard myself against mainly because of my support system — my family, my friends. My overall support system has always come in the clutch for me and never let me down. Also, my innate personality has helped me out in the sense that there are certain aspects of this lifestyle that don’t rub too violently against me. For example, overall change doesn’t bother me too much, so playing for six different clubs in 10 years and living in six different cities doesn’t bother me. I know a lot of people who it does in their innate personality. It doesn’t mean that they’re a better or worse person or I’m a better or worse person, it’s just fortunate that my personality has allowed me to transition into new circumstances on the fly. It’s a combination of all of those things but I’m just blessed because so much of it is out of my control.

NorCal: What are you doing right now to make sure that when the MLS season starts back up you’re ready?

Anibaba: Generally speaking, I’m guarding my happiness and my sanity, which is very important. What we’re dealing with as far as the overall COVID-19 situation is a situation that none of us have had to deal with before. From a mental and psychological standpoint, just keeping yourself in a space where you’re happy and you’re fresh and you’re energized is very important. The way I’ve been able to do that is to take this time to do some of the things that I never get to do, which is just living at a little bit of a slower pace, just kind of take it a little bit easy, not worry about what’s on the news or what isn’t on the news and mow my lawn twice a week and ride my bike around my neighborhood. Those are things that I legitimately haven’t had the time to do since I left my parents’ house in high school, just taking the time to make sure that I keep myself refreshed. One thing that I knew going into this was that this was going to be a long haul type of situation where whether it ended up lasting three weeks or a month or two months or three months or six months, I knew going through this was going to feel long regardless. So what I didn’t want was I didn’t want to completely burn myself out as far as going out and running 10 miles every single day because I didn’t want to get to a point where the league and the local and federal governments say it’s now safe to play, MLS will start in two weeks and I’m going into a new season mentally burnt out. That would be the worst. That’s my overall outlook and perspective. What I’ve actually been doing every day is just different types of workouts. I’ll go on runs, I will just go in my back yard and juggle for two hours, I have a stationary bike upstairs in my room, I’ll ride that, I’ll go on long hikes. I just mix it up in ways that, like I said, guard my overall happiness and sanity while keeping my fitness at a respectable level so that when we start back up I’m not risking injury or falling behind in any way, shape, or form.

NorCal: So then given that no one can train normally right now, even you, what advice would you have for a youth player who is trying to make it to the highest level?

Anibaba: We’re assuming that the essentials are not in danger, we’re assuming that you and your family are safe and healthy because if that is not the case, that is of the utmost importance. But if we’re talking about a situation where you’re healthy, you’re safe, your family is healthy and safe and you’re trying to figure out what to do as a young soccer player, I would say to find fun and engaging new ways to improve on aspects of your game that you haven’t had the chance or opportunity to improve on yet. For me, I’ve been working on certain technical aspects of my game that I simply haven’t had the chance or opportunity or time or energy to work on during what would normally be season time and I’m working on them in a fun way where I’m engaged, I’m not bringing myself toward burning out. There are so many things that kids can be doing that can serve as supplements to their overall game because clearly they can’t go out and play, they can’t go out and train. For a lot of people that’s what’s frustrating, but I see this situation, once again if health and safety and sanity are all intact, it’s a chance and opportunity for all of us to take a pause. And with the opportunity to pause, you have the opportunity to reflect. And successful reflection leads to what you can improve on and then those who actually act on that end up improving and come out on the better side of something like this, having grown. That’s what I’ve tried to do and I would challenge younger players to figure out ways to grow their game. It’s not easy, but I’ve always been one that says, “if you’re enjoying what you do, you’re always going to want to continue doing it but also find new ways and new information about that given endeavor.” And all these things aren’t pigeonholed to the life of a soccer player, it’s all of us.