Jan. 29, 2006
"Round up the usual suspects!"
Not only is that a signature line from the movie "Casablanca," but it also describes the annual winter rite that is the MLS SuperDraft. Every year the best collegiate talent assembles, waiting to be sent to an MLS team. And every year the group is mostly comprised of players long on athleticism but short on imagination. It's more than a bit ironic, then, that a player who hails from the real Casablanca, Santa Clara's Mehdi Ballouchy, was perhaps the most unusual of suspects selected in Friday's draft.
Mehdi Ballouchy has all sorts of talent but critics wonder if he is physical enough.Unusual because Ballouchy not only possesses a creative streak that is often lacking in the college game but also has the skill to bring his inventiveness to life. These traits should serve him well in MLS and resulted in Real Salt Lake picking Ballouchy second overall.
For Real Salt Lake head coach John Ellinger, it was a dream selection. Desperate to add some dynamism to his attack, Ellinger had watched Ballouchy "six or seven times" over the course of his senior season, and was blown away by his skill on the ball.
"Our goal was to get the best soccer player available, and we got that in [Ballouchy]," said Ellinger. "He just brings a technical ability and vision that we really lacked last year. Ballouchy puts players in positions where they can score. He just loves to pass."
It wasn't always so for the collegiate All-American. Back in his native Morocco, Ballouchy grew up playing on the beaches and streets of Casablanca, where the games were nonstop, and the emphasis was more on nutmegs than goals. And it didn't matter where you found a game.
"You may not have played on an organized team, but everyone played," said Ballouchy. "As kids we played before school, after school, during lunch; we just played a lot."
As a 13-year-old, his skills drew the attention of his hometown club, Raja Casablanca, and it was there that Ballouchy underwent his transformation from solo artist to conductor of the orchestra. Rather than do ball tricks for their own sake, Ballouchy learned that the team could be better served by delivering a killer pass. Now, he wouldn't have it any other way.
"If I had the chance, I'd play one-touch [passes] the whole game," said the Hermann Trophy semifinalist. "I would enjoy it just as much."
Ballouchy's ability eventually saw him named to the Moroccan U-17 national team, and a professional career seemed the next logical step, especially given the fact that his father, Driss, had played in the French second division with Lille. But a career in professional soccer was something that Ballouchy's parents never pushed on their son. In fact, Ballouchy's father did very little to encourage him, mostly because of his own exposure to the less glamorous aspects of the game.
"He didn't really have a good experience," said Ballouchy of his father. "There were a lot of things that didn't go right for him, on the field and off. He got some injuries and things just didn't work out. He wouldn't even play with me. He just left me alone."
Instead of soccer, education was what was emphasized, and with his brother Eddy having already graduated from the University of Colorado, 16-year-old Mehdi opted to move to Denver and live with his older brother. There, the soccer system was more conducive to pursuing both academic and sporting pursuits.
"I always wanted to go to school and play at the same time," said Ballouchy. "I never wanted to give either one of them up."
Ballouchy then embarked on a soccer and educational journey that would make a gypsy look stable by comparison. Ballouchy had a brief tryout with the Colorado Rapids, but he was "too young and too skinny for them."
Eager to place himself squarely in the eye of college recruiters, Ballouchy moved to Palo Alto, Calif. where his club team, the Palo Alto Pumas, won the prestigious Dallas Cup, allowing him plenty of exposure to college coaches. Creighton University eventually won the race for his services, but despite helping the Bluejays to the semifinals of the College Cup in 2002, Ballouchy left after a single semester, as homesickness, cold weather and "a bunch of little things" saw him return to northern California.
Ballouchy spent the following semester at West Valley Junior College and trained with the San Jose Earthquakes when time allowed. He then transferred to Santa Clara, where he was forced to sit out a year before playing the last two seasons for the Broncos. It was there that his touch and vision made him an instant hit, earning him All-America honors both years.
Since he had a year of eligibility remaining, entering this year's draft was something that wasn't in Ballouchy's initial plans. It was only after sitting down with Santa Clara head coach Cam Rast during a postseason meeting that Ballouchy even gave it more than a passing thought.
"In my mind it was always, 'I have to finish school,'" said Ballouchy. "But [Rast] thought it was a good time for me to move on, not that he was pushing me to go. But he said I could go really high, and that made me think about it a lot. And when I heard that [MLS] would pay for my last year of school, that made it an ideal position to be in."
Following last week's festivities, Ballouchy is now set to begin his pro career. But amidst all his success, there have been whispers that his work rate is suspect, leading some to peg him as a luxury player who won't be able to hack the physical play that is an MLS staple. It's a label that is undeserved, according to both Ellinger and Ballouchy.
"Anyone who watched [Ballouchy] play at the combine saw those questions put to rest," said Ellinger. "Over the two games that he played, he worked hard. And in this day and age, you can't have a player who just plays one side of the ball. You have to play both."
"I think there are other things that people could criticize," added Ballouchy. "I'm not the best in the air. That would be a huge one, but it's something I've been working on."
In addition to concerns about his grit, there's also the fact that Ballouchy is aiming to become one of the first attacking midfielders drafted out of college to be handed the keys to a team's offense. With Andy Williams already on the Real Salt Lake roster, and with the recent acquisition of Chris Klein, there's no guarantee that Ballouchy will start right away. But Ellinger does expect Ballouchy to get plenty of playing time and expressed no concerns about him running the attack.
"I'm not worried about that risk," said Ellinger of handing that responsibility to a rookie. "[Ballouchy] is an excellent player who is more than capable of adapting to the speed of play."
Just how much of an impact Real's top pick will have this season remains to be seen. But just like Rick Blaine and Captain Renault in "Casablanca," Ballouchy and Real Salt Lake are hoping that it's the start of a beautiful friendship.