Ballouchy's curious role in New York's offense

Is he a striker? Midfielder? Coach and player aren't really sure

UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. – Mehdi Ballouchy was acquired by the Red Bulls two weeks ago in a trade with Colorado that sent Macoumba Kandji to the Rapids. He has been called the “missing link” to igniting the offense and the man of the match against the LA Galaxy by head coach Hans Backe.

He’s been called a forward. He’s been called a withdrawn striker. He’s been called a creative midfielder.

But what position does he actually play?

Since his arrival, Ballouchy has been playing up top for New York. In his debut two weeks ago, he partnered with Thierry Henry to good effect, netting a goal in his Red Bulls debut against FC Dallas. Then last Friday against LA, he played with Juan Pablo Angel in a high position.

It would seem that he’s a striker or a withdrawn forward, but judging from how deep he drops back and his tendency to go wide to collect the ball, he also plays like a fifth midfielder.

And Backe doesn’t help matters much with his take on the formation.

“I don’t really, in a way, agree to call it a 4-5-1,” Backe said. “It’s very, very close to a 4-4-2.”

Very, very close, but not quite. It is clear that Backe doesn’t view Ballouchy as a striker, but more like a pure attacker. While not a traditional box-to-box midfielder, Ballouchy has the green light to attack along with Ángel or Henry.

Backe didn’t rule out playing Ballouchy centrally as a midfielder, where he enjoyed great success with Colorado, but it sounds like Ballouchy could supplant one of the two players up top for New York.

“The coach feels comfortable to let me find myself in the game,” Ballouchy said. “Basically just trying to get on the ball as much as possible and get the ball at my feet.”

Ballochy succinctly phrases his role on the team as someone who is “kind of making it difficult on other teams.” With free reign within the offense, Ballouchy has the ability to create and push forward when need arises as well as dropping back deep to collect the ball and provide support for the midfield. Defensively, his only responsibility is to pressure the centerbacks on the other team.

But perhaps the genius of this hybrid role for Ballocuhy – part midfielder and part forward – is that if Ballouchy doesn’t know what position he is and Backe doesn’t know exactly what to call him, how can the other team know and prepare for this role?

“Mehdi, well, he kind of has the freedom to roam around a bit,” defender Chris Albright told MLSsoccer.com. “He’s sort of like [the Crew’s Guillermo Barros] Schelotto in that you don’t know where he’s going to be or play.

"That kind of movement can create confusion in a backline because they see the movement, but they don’t know who is supposed to be on that player.”

Kristian R. Dyer can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012