August 31, 2005

Ballouchy Seeks Degree Of Success

Aug. 31, 2005

By Dylan Hernandez
San Jose Mercury News

He is one of the best collegiate soccer players in the country, maybe the best. He is a preseason player of the year candidate, and Earthquakes Coach Dominic Kinnear says he could be a first-round pick in the next Major League Soccer draft.

But Mehdi Ballouchy, a junior midfielder at Santa Clara University, doesn't want to be paid to play anytime soon. He wants his degree.

``You can't play soccer for life,'' said Ballouchy, 22.

Ballouchy, a finance major, said he knows his college scholarship could be worth more than an MLS contract. Consequently, the Broncos head into their season opener Friday against UCLA with a uniquely gifted player on their side -- a player Earthquakes defender Ryan Cochrane said might be the trickiest he has ever faced, amateur or pro.

``If he's not, he's definitely up there,'' Cochrane said.

During Cochrane's final season at Santa Clara, in 2003, he trained daily alongside Ballouchy, who was sitting out as a transfer from Creighton.

``Some things he does, I've never seen before,'' Cochrane said.





``Some things he does, I've never seen before."
Ryan Cochrane, former Bronco and current San Jose Earthquake


Ballouchy's skill is a rarity anywhere, but especially in collegiate soccer, where players tend to be more physical than they are technical.

The origins of Ballouchy's trickery can be traced to his native Morocco. The son of a former French second division player, Ballouchy learned to play soccer among friends on dirt fields. In the absence of grass, the ball would skip and hop, forcing him to develop his touch.

In that environment, Ballouchy said, ``It was all about what kind of moves you did.''

Ballouchy was introduced to the tactical side of the game when, at 13, he joined the youth program of the local professional team, Raja Casablanca. Eventually, he would be chosen to play for Morocco's under-16 and 17 national teams.

The plan seemed simple: continue to climb up the youth ranks and eventually turn professional.

But Ballouchy had other ideas.

His older brother, Eddy, had come to the United States, graduated from the University of Colorado and opened a nightclub in Denver. Mehdi, wanting to follow his brother's lead, moved in with Eddy.

By the next school year, Ballouchy was living with a host family and attending Gunn High in Palo Alto, lured to the area by a club team that he thought would be his ticket to a scholarship.

He was right. Ballouchy led Creighton to the 2002 College Cup, soccer's equivalent of the Final Four. But feeling homesick in Nebraska and out of place on the team, he left after a semester.

That was the only time Ballouchy (5-foot-11, 165 pounds) was tempted to turn professional. While taking classes that winter at West Valley College, he trained for a few weeks with the Earthquakes and more than held his own.

``The guys got used to him,'' Kinnear said.

But another door opened -- one to Santa Clara.

After sitting out a year, Ballouchy made his much-anticipated debut for SCU last season. He led the Broncos with 15 points on three goals and nine assists, helped them earn a place in the NCAA tournament and earned All-America honors.

He begins this season as one of 25 players on the Missouri Athletic Club Hermann Trophy watch list and a Soccer America preseason first-team All-American. Along with Eric Irvine, Ballouchy is one of the Broncos' co-captains.

While Ballouchy acknowledges he has some concerns about how his game will develop at the collegiate level, Broncos Coach Cameron Rast says the environment could even be a plus for him.

``It gives him an opportunity to be creative,'' Rast said. ``At the next level, he would be more in a role.''