CARSON, Calif. -- Through the first seven games of the season, the MVP of the Red Bulls didn’t come from an expected spot.
It wasn’t Thierry Henry or Rafa Marquez, the UEFA Champions League winners with perfect pedigrees. It wasn’t Tim Ream or Juan Agudelo, the young Yanks with the world seemingly at their feet. And it wasn’t 2010 team MVP Joel Lindpere, the Estonian midfielder who captivated the metro-area crowd last season and inspired banners, flags, chants and cheers.
No, through seven games, the New York MVP was the unassuming, understated defensive midfielder Teemu Tainio. Acquired to play right back, the Finn won himself a spot as the pivot with a flawless preseason and an equally flawless start to the year.
“Those are big shoes to fill.”
Those were the words of Mehdi Ballouchy who, in game eight, went 90 minutes in Tainio’s boots and at the end of the night, saw his team pick up a 1-1 draw against the LA Galaxy at The Home Depot Center for their efforts.
Watch: Full Match Highlights
Ballouchy, an attacking midfielder and five-year veteran of MLS, was thrust into Tainio’s role when the former Tottenham man picked up a knock against Sporting KC last weekend and the preferred replacement, veteran Carl Robinson, found himself at less than 100 percent with niggling injuries of his own.
“Mehdi’s such a smart player, such a gifted technical player, it’s impossible not to see the talent that he has,” Robinson said. “We worked this week with him -- and he worked himself, of course -- and he’s really able to hold onto the ball and spray passes around, and that’s what we saw [Saturday night].
"Obviously I taught him well," Robinson said with a smile.
Ballouchy, acquired in the middle of 2010 to play an attacking role, had increasingly found himself on the outside looking in over the past month following the acquisition of Dwayne DeRosario. But with Tainio and Robinson both unable to go, the d-mid spot was thrust upon him.
He didn’t disappoint.
“The guy had what? Four days?” asked Red Bulls assistant coach Mike Petke. “You can’t ask for much more than what he gave us [Saturday]. He’s a pro. He works hard and he knows what he’s capable of, and a performance like what he did out there shows it. He’ll get more chances to do that throughout the year.”
For Ballouchy, it was not just about working hard. It was about developing a new level of situational awareness, and curbing attacking instincts developed over 27 years.
“You know, we all want to be on the ball, we have guys who are good at passing the ball and I’m good at passing the ball, too,” Ballouchy said. “The difference is, usually I pass the ball and I go. But tonight, I had to think, ‘I pass the ball, then I’ll stay.’ Being there, able to make sure there is no space in front of the defense, that is what was important.”
It’s a space that became increasingly important in the second half as the Galaxy pushed numbers forward to try and produce a turnover. David Beckham was tasked -- by happenstance, as LA coach Bruce Arena put it; by design as the New York players saw it -- with harassing Ballouchy and trying to fluster the Moroccan into cheap giveaways.
“I think Beckham was much higher in the second half, and that is something I had to deal with,” Ballouchy explained. “But to be honest, with [Ream] and [Marquez], I always had help, I always had an outlet to go to when they were pressing.”
Finding those outlets quickly is what prevented the turnovers upon which the Galaxy thrive. It’s a skill that Tainio has honed to a science. (He leads the league in pass completion percentage for all players with more than 250 attempted passes, clocking in at just over 85 percent.)
Ballouchy did a good impression on Saturday. He led the Red Bulls with 58 total passes, completing 84.5 percent. It wasn’t flawless, but it was very, very good for a first bow at d-mid. And it speaks to depth and potential for the future.
“Mehdi’s a great player, and fun to play with,” explained DeRosario, who partnered Ballouchy in central midfield. “And with the way things are, I know we’re going to get a chance to do this again. And after tonight, we know that we’re all on the same page, and we’ll all be OK.”