April 6, 2006

Real Salt Lake Pins Hopes On Ballouchy

April 6, 2006

By Michael C. Lewis
The Salt Lake Tribune

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - Mehdi Ballouchy could hardly be more well-rounded. He speaks three languages, studied finance in college, enjoys reading poetry and grew up playing soccer in the streets and parks of exotic Casablanca.

Predictably, his game is just as intriguing.

Armed with a taste for creative playmaking born in the pickup games packed with ball tricks and nutmegs, the 22-year-old midfielder from Morocco ranks as the most promising prospect for Real Salt Lake as it prepared to open its second season at Chivas USA, after the team made him the No. 2 pick of the Major League Soccer draft three months ago.

"He doesn't look to me like he just came out of college," veteran midfielder Andy Williams said. "He's going to be a big plus for us."

RSL could use it.

The team used the No. 1 draft pick a year ago on defensive midfielder Nik Besagno, a 16-year-old whom it hopes will develop into a star player over the years.

But while Besagno works on his game as a reserve on the developmental roster - general manager Steve Pastorino said it "may be several more years" before Besagno is ready to play a major role - Ballouchy is being counted on to provide immediate help for a team desperate for a fleet and dynamic passer who can create opportunities for lethal strikers Jason Kreis and Jeff Cunningham.

"We felt that he was the best player in the draft," coach John Ellinger said. "He loves to pass."

Clearly, RSL envisions Ballouchy as its choreographer of the future - its John Stockton, if you will.

For the moment, though, he will start at left midfielder while Williams plays the attacking midfield role that Ballouchy handled so well in college at Santa Clara. Ballouchy could move into the attacking role at times if Williams goes up top or to the left side, but insisted he doesn't care where Ellinger uses him.

"The main thing is just to contribute and help the team do better," he said. "We have a great team and a good group of guys, and I think if we work hard and as a group, as a team, we'll do something good this year."

Some have questioned Ballouchy's toughness at the pro level, but certainly not his skill.

Raised in the city of Fedala just outside Casablanca, Ballouchy took to soccer without any help from his accountant parents.

Although his father had played for Lille in the French second division, he did not have a good professional experience and Ballouchy said he never spoke with him about soccer. Both of his parents encouraged him to play tennis, instead, he said - in part because they worried about the "bad influence" of the soccer-playing kids from poorer backgrounds.

But Ballouchy could not be stopped. He played soccer at every opportunity, learning to focus on ball-handling and passing above all else.

"Every single day, we just played, played, played," he recalled. He joined a club team when he was 13, and eventually wound up playing for the Moroccan national youth teams. When he was 17, he moved to the United States, settling in Denver to live with his older brother, who already had graduated from the University of Colorado.

The move also allowed Ballouchy to continue pursuing his education alongside soccer.

"My thing really was always to stay in school," he said.

Still, he bounced around quite a bit.

After a year at South High School in Denver, Ballouchy moved in order to play for a better club team in Palo Alto, Calif. He graduated from Gunn High School there - occasionally, he trained with the San Jose Earthquakes - and started his college career at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.

Ballouchy was a freshman All-American and led the Bluejays to the national semifinals in his first year. But he missed his friends and the warm weather in California and transferred to Santa Clara, ultimately becoming a two-time All-American for the Broncos and leaving school after his junior season to set the stage for his blossoming professional career.