SAN JOSE, Calif. – On Saturday night, Mehdi Ballouchy made his first start for the San Jose Earthquakes in his new team’s 2-0 win against Chivas USA. And it looks as though it might not be the Moroccan’s last appearance in Frank Yallop’s starting lineup.
With Marvin Chávez expected to miss at least one more game due to a hamstring strain picked up on international duty last week and Yallop reiterating his unwillingness to risk the also-recovering Shea Salinas, it looks as though San Jose’s right wing is Ballouchy’s to patrol for the immediate future.
The 29-year-old, acquired on July 31 from New York Red Bulls, put in an impressive performance against Chivas, melding seamlessly into the Quakes’ attack and providing a critical near-post run and dummy as part of the build-up to Alan Gordon’s clincher in the 49th minute.
GOAL: Gordon slots it home
“I thought his work rate was good,” Yallop said of Ballouchy after San Jose’s training session on Monday. “It gives us a different look from normal wide players. I’m pleased with the game plan, and pleased with Mehdi’s contribution, for sure.”
With Ballouchy and Simon Dawkins working the wings, as was the case against Chivas, San Jose presents a different look for defenses used to seeing Chávez and Salinas beat their markers and deliver high, lofted crosses in the direction of Gordon, Steven Lenhart or Chris Wondolowski.
The tendency of Ballouchy and Dawkins to tuck inside towards the center of the pitch leaves open space – which can be ably filled by San Jose outside backs Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow.
The Quakes took advantage of that situation to set up Gordon’s goal. Morrow was loosed down the left wing by Dawkins’ quick combination work from a more central location. Ballouchy prepared to pounce on Morrow’s skidding pass until he heard Wondolowski tell him to leave it, allowing the league’s leading scorer to play provider for Gordon to slot home from 16 yards.
“It works out perfect,” Ballouchy said. “I think us coming in helps [Beitashour and Morrow] get wide and high. That’s what they like do and they can get off more crosses that way. ... When we start in the middle, combining [passes], it brings the opposition tight in the middle, which opens up the wide spots. And then we go back to our crossing game.”
Yallop was counting on that tightening effect being heightened Saturday because Chivas have been using Nick LaBrocca – a central midfielder for the last few years – out on the right wing to make room for recently acquired Shalrie Joseph.
The Ballouchy-Dawkins pairing might not be as well-suited for facing Portland on Wednesday or traveling to Seattle on Saturday, but there’s less flexibility than normal in those spots for the Quakes to use. While Yallop said Chávez could still possibly face the Sounders, it seems unlikely given that the 28-year-old didn’t suit up for training at all on Monday.
As for Salinas, who did work out Monday after aggravating his injury in Thursday’s practice, Yallop preached caution, keeping an eye on San Jose’s already-guaranteed playoff spot.
“I think it’d be very, very silly, at this point of the season, to risk anybody,” Yallop said.
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.