It's not called silly season for nothing. The Twitter-verse was abuzz Friday night when Steven Goff of the Washington Post (@soccerinsider) tweeted that free agent Jalil Anibaba is set to sign with the Houston Dynamo.
After finishing with the worst defense in the Western Conference, the defense was clearly an area of need. Head coach Owen Coyle and technical director Matt Jordan had a lot of decisions to make about who would be on the backline, as left back DaMarcus Beasley was on a team option while right back Sheanon Williams was out of contract. Meanwhile, decisions had to be made about often-injured center back Jermaine Taylor (out of contract) and young center back A.J. Cochrane (team option). Kofi Sarkodie, at one point one of the US's most promising young right backs, fell out of favor early in the season and found his contract expired. That meant the only players guaranteed for 2016 were starters Raul Rodriguez and David Horst.
With such a collective poor performance, one might assume that Dynamo leadership would clean house and rebuild the backline. Instead they opted to keep Beasley and sign Williams to a new deal. Rookie defender Taylor Hunter also found his option picked up after spending some time out on loan in the USL last year, along with a few cameo appearances. The rest of the defense from last year, though, has been let go. To help fill the void, ex-Academy defender Bradley Bourgeois was signed out of Tulsa (where he was a standout). That still leaves a fourth center back needed: enter free agent Jalil Anibaba.
The Sporting KC defender had his option declined after the 2015 season and wasn't picked up in the Re-Entry Draft in December. Anibaba was selected by the Chicago Fire ninth overall in the SuperDraft in 2011, and made 96 appearances in three seasons for the team before moving on to the Seattle Sounders via trade ahead of the 2014 season. He later went to Sporting after that season where he was good for both sides, though only managed to rack up 16 appearances for each team.
A classic MLS defender, he's fully capable of using his physique to dominate the middle of the field, though he does have some pace to keep up with many of the athletic strikers in the league. Injuries dogged him the past couple of seasons but nothing that should worry fans in Houston, should he sign for the Dynamo. If he does sign, it's expected that he'll compete with Horst to lineup alongside Raul Rodriguez. Without a backup for Williams on the right (at the moment), Rodriguez will be looking to fill that void if need be, giving the pair a chance to hold down the middle as well.
For an extremely talented Bourgeois having three veteran players to learn from, all with their own unique skills and experiences to pass on, it would help his development immeasurably. However, before fans get too excited, it should be noted that Jordan has been keen on signing a foreign defender for months now, with various rumors pointing at players from his usual stomping grounds. Given the current roster set up, the team would likely sign one or the other while looking to address the hole at defensive midfield, as the team doesn't have a natural backup for Ricardo Clark (newly signed after briefly being a free agent).
With these moves, it looks like management has faith in the backline for 2016, a belief that is sound as a keen eye on the previous campaign would find that the midfield was the biggest problem for the Dynamo. Too many times players would give the ball up cheaply in poor positions in the middle of the field, catching the defense unbalanced. Coyle, like many modern managers, uses his fullbacks to provide width and service into the box. This meant that when the midfield turned the ball over, those fullbacks were where they needed to be offensively but couldn't cover on the back end, exposing Rodriguez and Horst.
With too much ground to cover, they were easy pickings for top end offenses.
After bringing in Andrew Wenger and Christian Maidana, a formation shift seems to be in the cards, providing much needed balance and cover in midfield that should expose the defense less. The recent trade of Brad Davis, hard as it is for fans to see a beloved figure let go (coincidentally traded to Sporting), frees up a roster spot on the left as well as a huge amount of cap space (and allocation funds) to add one more key piece to the puzzle, either before the season or (more likely) during the summer window.
With training camp just a couple short weeks away, with the SuperDraft just ahead of it, more moves are in the cards for the Dynamo as they look to rebound from back-to-back disappointing seasons.