The Chicago Fire selected North Carolina defender Jalil Anibaba with the ninth overall pick at the 2011 MLS SuperDraft on Thursday at the Baltimore Convention Center.
Chicago also chose forward and Elmhurst native Jason Herrick (Maryland, 45th overall) and forward Davis Paul (California, 51st overall) in the third round. The Fire traded their 49th overall pick to Toronto FC in exchange for goalkeeper Jon Conway.
Anibaba joins a vastly changed Fire defense, so the opportunity is there for the 22-year-old native of Davis, Calif., to step up into an immediate role on the back line. During the offseason, Chicago acquired Cory Gibbs in the re-entry draft and signed Josip Mikulic earlier in the week as the Fire try to overcome the losses of C.J. Brown to retirement and Wilman Conde who signed with Atlas.
"Ultimately, that's the coach's decision," Anibaba said of whether he would get the opportunity to start right away. "I'm going in with an open mind and will contribute in any way possible. I hope I can fit in well. That's the hope for all players. I'm just excited to get started, and if I have the opportunity to step in, it will be an honor."
"He can play center back, right back ... he's a good athlete, a good technical player," Fire technical director Frank Klopas said. "He's got a lot of upside. I think he can have an impact right away. We expect him to be able to compete for a starting spot."
Anibaba started in 84 of 85 games during his collegiate career at North Carolina and previously at Santa Clara. Anibaba contributed three goals and five assists. In 2010, Anibaba was named NSCAA Second Team All-America, NSCAA First Team All-Region, First Team All-ACC and ACC All-Tournament Team.
In addition to his collegiate accolades, the central defender impressed at this year's MLS Combine and was awarded the 2011 Tom Fitzgerald MVP.
"I definitely took a bit of confidence out of the combine. It went well," Anibaba said. "But it's not something I was stressing about after the fact. It's one of those things where it's just the combine. It's just another step to being a professional. By no means was it playing professional soccer, playing in professional matches. You have to come down from cloud nine and realize it's the combine. It's time for the big-time."
Anibaba briefly played in the midfield when he first joined Santa Clara, but he has been on the defensive side of the ball ever since.
"Growing up I was an attacking player and rarely ever played defense," Anibaba said. "I'm a full-fledged defender now. But as far as other positions, I'm open to anything."
Herrick, 23, played club soccer with the Chicago Sockers and helped them to four Illinois State Cup titles. At Maryland, Herrick started in 80 of 81 games, scored 29 goals and contributed 13 assists. He was named to the 2009 and 2010 First Team All-ACC.
"We needed someone who's around the box and a good player," Klopas said of Herrick. "He has very good feet, he's smart, intelligent with the line he makes. We were surprised that he fell that low, but that was good for us. We had him pretty high."
Paul, 22, a native of Upland, Calif., started in 54 of 78 games for California, posting 21 assists and 15 goals. In 2010, Paul was an NSCAA Third-Team All-American, NSCAA First Team Far West Region and First Team All-Pac-10.
Thursday's draft started with a surprise selection for most analysts as the Vancouver Whitecaps chose 17-year-old Omar Salgado (U.S. U-20s) with the top pick. The projected top selections, Akron forward/midfielder Darlington Nagbe and Akron midfielder Perry Kitchen, went to the Portland Timbers and D.C. United with the respective second and third picks. Five Akron players were selected among the draft's first eight picks.
Also during the draft, former Fire forward Chad Barrett was traded from Toronto FC to the Los Angeles Galaxy for future considerations.
2011 MLS SuperDraft first-round selections
1. Vancouver Whitecaps: Omar Salgado, F (U.S. U-20s)
2. Portland Timbers: Darlington Nagbe, F/M (Akron)
3. D.C. United: Perry Kitchen, M (Akron)
4. Chivas USA: Zarek Valentin, D (Akron)
5. Philadelphia Union: Zac MacMath, GK (Maryland)
6. New England Revolution: A.J. Soares, D (California)
7. Houston Dynamo: Kofi Sarkodie, D (Akron)
8. Vancouver Whitecaps (from Toronto FC): Michael Nanchoff, M (Akron)
9. Chicago Fire: Jalil Anibaba, D (North Carolina)
10. Sporting Kansas City: C.J. Sapong, F (James Madison)
11. Houston Dynamo (from Portland Timbers, from Seattle Sounders FC): Will Bruin, F (Indiana)
12. Columbus Crew: Rich Balchan, D (Indiana)
13. New York Red Bulls: Corey Hertzog, F (Penn State)
14. Chivas USA (from Real Salt Lake): Victor Estupinan, F (LDU Quito, Ecuador)
15. Columbus Crew (from San Jose Earthquakes): Justin Meram, F (Michigan)
16. Los Angeles Galaxy: Paolo Cardozo, M (Quilmes, Argentina)
17. FC Dallas: Bobby Warshaw, D (Stanford)
18. Colorado Rapids: Eddie Ababio, D (North Carolina)
Chicago Fire's other selections
45. Jason Herrick, F (Maryland)
51. Davis Paul, F (California)
Analysis: From a talent standpoint, it appears that the Fire maximized as best as they could without having a second-round selection. Some folks were touting Anibaba as a top-five pick, so to get some added depth and strength in the back always is a plus.
The Fire also added some much-needed front-line players in Herrick and Paul. But clearly Chicago is lacking proven forwards up front. That will happen when you lose a U.S. soccer legend in Brian McBride to retirement.
Anyone who thought the draft would be the remedy for Chicago's roster gaps is sorely mistaken. Even if the Fire passed up on Anibaba and went with a Will Bruin or Corey Hertzog, Chicago still would have this dilemma.
The Fire's priority between now and preseason is getting some proven leadership in the midfield and up front. They have some strong creative talent with the likes of Patrick Nyarko and Marco Pappa, and the defensive side will look stable once Gonzalo Segares' fitness level returns. But Chicago has a long way to go -- obviously this is not the team from a couple seasons ago.