Columbus Crew defender Jalil Anibaba joined the Black & Gold in the offseason as a free agent signing. The Crew is Anibaba’s sixth team in his 11th season in Major League Soccer and he’s brought that experience-driven leadership to Columbus. When it comes to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, he only scores bangers.
On March 30, 2011, Anibaba was a rookie center back for the Chicago Fire. Also that day, his Fire played the Colorado Rapids in a play-in match for the chance to enter the full tournament.
Entering halftime, the Fire were level at 1-1 after a 45th minute goal by Chicago forward Gaston Puerari. Less than a minute into the second half though, Rapids forward Andre Akpan added a goal of his own. Enter Anibaba.
The young defender received a lateral pass at midfield and dribbled into the attacking half and then sent a shot flying. From 45 yards out, Anibaba put the fire up 2-1 with a goal that won him the Fire’s 2011 Goal of the Year. Although Anibaba’s Fire lost in the Open Cup Final that season, he went on to win the trophy twice, once with the Seattle Sounders and again with Sporting Kansas City in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Fast forward to 2022, and it's his leadership that the Crew will likely lean on Tuesday night as Columbus enters the competition for the first time since it was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a tournament that some downplay but still holds a spot in the world of domestic soccer in the United States.
“It’s a trophy, it’s a title that’s just as important as all the other ones,” said Anibaba on Monday, one day before the Crew head north to face Detroit City FC in the third round of the Open Cup. “Obviously it’s a different beast because it comes at the midst of the season, during everything else, but it’s definitely a trophy that’s very important.”
While Anibaba did admit that some teams take it more seriously in later rounds of the tournament, the Open Cup still holds weight within a team as a trophy worth pursuing. Tuesday’s match in Hamtramck, Michigan holds more importance than the first step on a journey toward silverware. It comes at a time when the Black & Gold need positive
At the final whistle of Saturday’s 2-0 home defeat to Orlando City SC, the usual confidence of head coach Caleb Porter and Crew players looked shaken. Instead of relying on statistics and strong moments of play as signs of a brighter performance in the next match, Porter talked about the current team psychology and lacking confidence.
A U.S. Open Cup result could help change things.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to turn the on this kind of rough patch we’ve been,” said Porter. “In a lot of ways, the turning point comes in one goal and one result and just getting your confidence back and that winning feeling. We’ve got two games this week where we feel like we can kind of use them as a turning point starting with this cup game tomorrow.”
That Open Cup game is likely to feature a completely different group of Crew players than supporters have seen over this season. Outside of one start for both forward Gyasi Zardes and winger Luis Diaz, Porter’s started the same lineup for every MLS regular season match in 2022.
There’s something that’s certain with whoever’s included in the starting 11 – the motivation is high. Players like winger Alexandru Matan, midfielder Aidan Morris or forward Erik Hurtado, who was a bright spot for Crew 2 on Friday against Orlando City B, all have an opportunity to challenge for spots on a senior team that’s struggling to capitalize and needing a jolt. There’s no better way to do that than come out on Tuesday and have players lower on the depth chart putting in strong performances.
A victory builds confidence, which is in short supply during the recent string of three straight losses. Tuesday gives Columbus the chance to add some positivity to the locker room. Win this match and the Black & Gold move forward in the Open Cup, but more importantly get reacquainted with that winning feeling.
“There will be a good hunger I think in this group tomorrow,” said Porter. “So that’s our focus right now we’ve prepared a group to play Detroit.”