BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- When the Chicago Fire sought out new pieces in building their 2011 squad, they brought in a group that had a combination of athleticism, youth and experience.
That might not be the easiest combination to find, but a fitting example is the addition of center defensive back Josip Mikulic. The 24-year-old Mikulic, a native of Ljubuski, Bosnia and Herzegovina, spent his previous five years with Croatian side NK Zagreb, and his game has stood out in the early going.
While Uruguayan forwards Diego Chaves and Gaston Puerari will grab the spotlight if they produce a regular scoring punch, it will be Mikulic's role in the back that turns out to be just as important.
Chicago has started its season with a 1-0-1 mark, and the Fire defense held most teams at bay during the preseason. The solid start has been anchored by a brand-new back line of Mikulic at center back, rookie Jalil Anibaba at right back and Cory Gibbs on the left when the Fire go with their 3-5-2 system.
"I played five years in Europe, and in my country, when you switch one guy, it's a problem," Mikulic said. "[The Fire] switched the whole defense, and it's been very good."
Fire coach Carlos de los Cobos accompanied technical director Frank Klopas in scouting Mikulic this offseason, and De los Cobos has been impressed with what Mikulic has brought to the table.
"He has a strong personality and he's very strong on the field," De los Cobos said. "He's playing very well together with Cory and Jalil. The most important thing is he's very honest on the field. I think we are lucky to have this guy with us."
The Fire defense gave up goals during critical stages of their matches last year. Former center back and 2009 and 2010 MLS All-Star Wilman Conde coughed up the ball at several key moments last season. Retired center back C.J. Brown (now an assistant coach at Real Salt Lake) noticeably lost a step and took a physical beating near the end of an illustrious 13-year Fire career. And the Fire spent all of 2010 rotating a large group of players at left back.
Through only two games, it still is too early to pinpoint how well this year's back line will anchor the team. Both of Kansas City's goals during Saturday's 3-2 Fire win were the result of major defensive lapses. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson should have held onto the ball in the first instance that led to Matt Besler's goal, and Gonzalo Segares' bad touch led to Mikulic trying to chase down Teal Bunbury.
Other than Bunbury's goal, where Mikulic could have done a better job despite Segares' error, the center back had a steady game against Sporting Kansas City. In the first half, Mikulic marked up against rookie forward C.J. Sapong, the 10th overall selection of this year's draft who scored the fastest rookie goal in MLS history with his second-minute tally against Chivas USA.
Mikulic had some composed 50-50 breakups against Sapong in the fourth and 29th minutes, back-to-back clearances in the 24th minute when Sporting K.C. was attacking from the left side and his most crucial play was in the 78th minute, when he disrupted a potential game-tying Kansas City attack from the left. On that play, Mikulic flicked the ball just enough to put it out of harm's way.
"He's a beast. He's solid," Gibbs said. "He's a big body in the central defense who can read the game well. His distribution is simple, and it's effective. What more do you want from a center back? I think Mikulic is going to be a mainstay in terms of holding this position."
Mikulic rotates between center back for the three-man defense and right-center for the Fire's four-man back line. Mikulic played in a three-man back line when former Croatia national team head coach Miro Blazevic was heading Zagreb. But in Mikulic's eyes, the formation shape is not a large priority.
"Three on the line, four on the line ... that's only tactical before a match," Mikulic said. "When you go on the field, no tactics my friend. Everybody plays. Every player plays defense. You must talk with Cory and Jalil and when you're switching. It's easy."
Gibbs will be the source of experience that most Fire players turn toward this season. But with Mikulic consistently playing in the middle of the Fire's back line, he will have to handle much of the dirty work in the heart of Chicago's defense.
"Josip is young, but you wouldn't know it," Anibaba said. "He's very mature and very knowledgeable about the game. He's been helping me, to pass that knowledge on to me. So I've been grateful to play next to him."