Photo courtesy of Jeff Camarati/UNC Athletic Communications
By JOHN BOSCHINI
Life has gotten pretty surreal for former North Carolina defender Jalil Anibaba. Signing an agent, inking a contract with the Major League Soccer and a receiving an invitation to the MLS Combine are all indications that his dream of a professional career is finally transitioning into a reality.
"Now I'm talking to family members and I'm like, 'I have to call my agent' or 'My agent said this,'" Anibaba said. "It's really weird to say considering just a little while ago I was in college, but it's reassuring to know I'm close to being a professional."
Anibaba spent three years at Santa Clara University, a mere two hours away from his hometown of Davis, Calif., but the 6-foot central defender transfered for his senior season to play at North Carolina under the direction of Elmar Bolowich.
"We didn't have any issues with Jalil when he came in," Bolowich said. "He was a quick study, he played with a chip on his shoulder and I give him a lot of credit for his play this season."
After arriving at Chapel Hill, Anibaba led the Tar Heel defense to an Atlantic Coast Conference-best 0.65 goals allowed per game. While not remarkably tall, Anibaba developed his aerial abilities and earned a reputation for clearing crosses with ease.
North Carolina reached its third-consecutive College Cup on the back of three-straight penalty kick shootouts, with Anibaba slotting home the final spot kick in the quarterfinals against Southern Methodist. But his college career came to an inauspicious end when Louisville's Aaron Horton scored in the final minute to end North Carolina's title dreams.
"It's heartbreaking to lose in general, and to lose so late in the game was tough," Anibaba said. "But after that feeling faded I was just happy to play in front of my family and to be on the team I was on."
With college in the rear-view mirror, the next step for Anibaba is the MLS Combine in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where he will join now-former teammates Michael Farfan and Stephen McCarthy. Barring a disastrous few days down south, Anibaba is projected to be a first-round pick in the MLS draft (he's currently 16th on SBI's Big Board, second-highest among central defenders).
Anibaba is too cautious to make predictions or show a preference as to who selects him in mid-January.
"It's a draft, and that means I could end up anywhere and as a professional I can't be concerned as to where I end up," Anibaba said. "It's just an honor and a dream come true to be embarking on my pro career."
Bolowich said that Anibaba is as good as any to come out of a North Carolina program that has produced the likes of Eric Lichaj and Eddie Pope.
"If I were an MLS coach I'd pick him right away," Bolowich said. "He's very consistent, and he's very strong and he can only get better in the right environment. He hasn't reached the pinnacle of his talent yet."
Despite the constant pressure and heart-wrenching disappointment that can sometimes be synonymous with soccer at a high level, Anibaba never seems to stop smiling. It's a cheery demeanor and love of the game that was instilled into Anibaba from when he was very young, playing soccer with his father and his three brothers in Davis.
"My family and my parents told me to never stop smiling," he said.
For right now, anyway, there doesn't seem to be any reason to.