PURCHASE, N.Y. – Mehdi Ballouchy is back.
The Moroccan midfielder is enjoying his best form in years with New York City FC, scoring more goals, starting more games and playing more minutes than he has in three years.
But more than anything, Ballouchy is enjoying playing again, with the 32-year-old resurrecting a career that looked all but over.
Ballouchy is back from what he calls a “dark place.” The game he loves was taken away from him – twice – because of a pair of devastating ACL injuries, and his father Driss, who played second division soccer in France, died from cancer.
“When those things happen you rely on something you do that you have fun in to get you through it, and that wasn’t there either,” Ballouchy said. “It was rough.”
Ballouchy’s first ACL injury occurred on Sept. 30, 2012, with the midfielder tearing up his left knee shortly after being traded to the San Jose Earthquakes from the New York Red Bulls.
What followed was 10 difficult months of rehabilitation only for Ballouchy to again tear ligaments in the same knee in August 2013.
“One was a jump and land and I felt a pop,” Ballouchy said. “The second was a stop and a twist.”
Facing the prospect of nearly another year of grueling rehab, Ballouchy walked away from soccer for the first time.
“I had to take a break,” Ballouchy said. “Going from 10 months of rehab to another 10 months of rehab probably would have been a bad idea. I took a couple of weeks where I stepped away, stayed away from the game and the locker room just to think about it for a while.”
Ballouchy came back, fueled by a desire to prove to himself that he was capable of returning to the game and wanting to leave the sport on his own terms.
“Having belief and faith gets you through that, faith that I was hungry enough to come back and do all that work and [get] it right,” Ballouchy said. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could come back and I could play. I love the game too much to just leave on that note. I never wanted to leave on an injury. I wanted to leave the way I wanted to leave.”
A break came when the Vancouver Whitecaps selected Ballouchy in the second stage of the 2013 MLS Re-Entry Draft.
“Getting picked up by Vancouver and working with the staff there was probably the best thing that could have happened to my rehab because they have the best people there,” Ballouchy said. “It was a breath of fresh air for me.”
After playing in just nine games with the Whitecaps in 2014, Ballouchy was again on the move, this time selected by New York City FC as its sixth selection of the 2014 MLS Expansion Draft.
It reunited Ballouchy with Jason Kreis, who played with and briefly coached Ballouchy at Real Salt Lake before trading the midfielder to Colorado for Kyle Beckerman in July 2007.
“I understand the business. That’s the way it is sometimes. You look forward and try to move on as quickly as possible,” Ballouchy said. “I’ve always had a respect for Jason, even playing with him. The way he goes about his business every day, whether as a player or coach, is probably second to none as far as hard work and intensity goes. I try to emulate that as far as my every day life.”
Ballouchy has been a bright spot for NYCFC this year, leading by example and placing second on the team with three goals in 10 appearances, nine of which have been starts.
After three years on the mend, Ballouch is finally back – and he's loving every moment of his second soccer life.
“There’s a greater appreciation for it,” Ballouchy said. “All these kids coming in now, they don’t know the game can be taken away in a quick second. A turn or a twist and it can be taken away from you for a year. I understand that and I’m grateful for being able to do it and being healthy again.”