UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. — Right before last year’s trade deadline, the Red Bulls shipped promising yet enigmatic forward Macoumba Kandji to the Colorado Rapids in exchange for promising yet enigmatic Mehdi Ballouchy.
It was the Moroccan-born midfielder who, in the words of head coach Hans Backe, was supposed to be the “missing link” in the New York attack. Ballouchy, a creative type who consistently wows teammates with his skills on the ball, is as talented as any central midfielder in the league. However, he has never consistently put together a complete season in MLS without nagging injuries or drops in form.
Often lined up as a withdrawn forward behind Thierry Henry, Ballouchy scored just once last year for the Red Bulls. This year, though, it looks like Ballouchy will return to a playmaker role at the top of a diamond formation, where he can feed balls to the strikers up top.
Road Trip to First Kick
Starting March 6, join MLSsoccer.com’s Jackie Pickering and Nick Firchau as they travel from LA to Vancouver, checking in on all the West Coast teams, meeting with fans, and stopping into adidas HQ in Portland to pick up the game ball for First Kick on March 15 at Qwest Field.
Unable to go to Mexico for the first leg of preseason training due to visa issues, Ballouchy joined his New York teammates last week for their time in Florida and friendly matches against the Chicago Fire and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
“He was good," Backe said. "He played higher up on the pitch. He always asks for the ball. He played well.”
While his teammates were in Mexico, Ballouchy stayed in New Jersey and trained on his own. Backe praised the player’s fitness, a credit to the midfielder’s work ethic even when his teammates and the coaching staff were miles away. But despite staying in good shape during his time away from the team, Ballouchy still feels behind his teammates in terms of chemistry.
"The biggest part is missing the games, just tactically and stuff,” Ballouchy said. “I'm trying to catch up as quick as I [can] – get in the games and click with everybody.”
And he might need to do that very soon. With players like Teemu Tainio, Joel Lindpere and Jan Gunnar Solli all capable of playing in a central role – not to mention Tony Tchani, Carl Robinson and even Rafa Márquez – this is arguably the deepest team New York have ever had.
If Ballouchy wants to earn a starting spot on the team, not only does he have to be fit, he also has to be sharp. It’s a challenge he welcomes.
“I’ve always had to fight for my position,” Ballouchy said. “I do think this team is way more competitive than other I’ve been on. We have competition at every single spot. I expect to compete.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer