Two years ago, Molham Babouli thought he was done as a soccer player.
Two weeks ago, he scored against Brazil in his competitive debut for Canada.
It’s been a wild couple of years for the 22-year-old Toronto-born striker, currently a member of TFCII in the USL. His quick rise has come down to hard work, good timing and a fortuitous encounter with the right coach.
In 2013, Babouli was attending school at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario after a couple of years at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta. He was playing at Sheridan, as well as for Dixie Soccer Club, based in Mississauga, Ontario, but began to think that he might have to shelve his dreams of playing at the highest level.
“It was at a point where I was about 20, I had some schooling done, some in the States, some here,” Babouli told MLSsoccer.com. “I figured I’d get that done and get it out of the way. Obviously [I’d] never leave soccer completely, just not play competitive.”
But Babouli got his big break that year in a game between Dixie and the Toronto FC Academy. Babouli spoke to Academy coach Anthony Capotosto, who also manages at the University of Toronto.
“It was good that I got in touch with Coach Caps; I went from there, and everything started opening up,” said Babouli. “He told me to come to the open tryout, just to see where I stand. I did well, and he kept me around.”
The following year, the senior TFC Academy entered a team in the inaugural season of League1 Ontario, a new high-performance league meant to serve as a key element of the Canadian Soccer Association’s player development plan.
The TFC Academy went on to win the first-ever L1O championship. And Babouli wasn’t just a member of the team, he was its star, scoring 26 goals in all competitions to win the league’s Golden Boot.
That performance earned him a contract with Toronto FC II for the 2015 season, and he got things off to a sparkling start, scoring a goal in their first-ever game, a 3-2 loss to the Charleston Battery on March 21.
That goal-scoring prowess put Babouli on the radar of Canadian national team head coach Benito Floro. With Babouli having no prior experience in the national team setup at any level, Floro called him in for an unofficial training session earlier this year, for a first-hand look at what the player could offer.
“We had spoken, and they wanted to give me a shot,” said Babouli.
That shot came with the U-23s at the Pan American Games earlier this month where, once again, Babouli found himself with a new team in a new environment. But just as he’d done numerous times before, he made a strong first impression.
The Canadian team was, predictably, the underdog coming into their tournament opener against Brazil on July 12. But if Babouli was afraid, he didn’t show it. Just 22 minutes into his Canada debut, he had a golden opportunity to score his first goal for his country, but saw his shot ring off the goal post.
That first goal would come, however, in the 56th minute, when a great through ball from FC Edmonton midfielder Hanson Boakai gave Babouli a one-on-one with Brazilian ’keeper Andrey Da Silva. And Babouli, as he’d done so many times in the previous two years, calmly buried it in the back of the net.
Mixed feelings on last nights game vs Brazil. Blessed to have scored my first goal in my first game for #Canada!! Hopefully the first of many. Not the result we wanted but lots of positives for the team. Thank you for the 20k+ that came out to support us. On to the next game vs Panama. #Panam #CanU23 #FirstGoal
“It was incredible,” said Babouli. “I got my goal, which was pretty exciting. We did what we had to do, even if we didn’t get the score lines.”
Indeed, that goal – in a 4-1 loss to the South Americans – would stand up as Canada’s only one in three games at the competition. But Babouli enjoyed playing alongside fellow Canadian youngsters, including many of his TFCII teammates, and already has his eyes set on the 2016 Olympic qualifying tournament in October.
“Any time there’s a tournament that involves international duty, you definitely want to be there,” said Babouli.
The Pan Ams haven’t been his only international experience this summer; Babouli also pulled on the TFC senior team kit for the first time in last week’s friendly against Sunderland.
“I definitely didn’t [ever] see myself doing that,” Babouli said of lining up against an English Premier League team. “In some ways it was a reality check, playing against these players.
“It was good, it was humbling, it was a great experience, and I enjoyed every minute of it.”
He’ll get another taste of international experience on Tuesday night, when TFCII go up against AS Roma Primavera in a friendly.
“You wanna go out there, you wanna enjoy it as much as you can,” he said. “It’s definitely exciting, another chance to play against a European club and see where we stand.”
It’s remarkable to consider where Babouli stands these days, considering where he stood just a few short years ago. And even though, at 22, he’s rising up the ranks a bit later than some other players, he is still hungry to make the most of whatever new opportunities are presented to him.
“I always want to play and I always want to score,” said Babouli. “Whatever team I’m on, I always want to be the one to put the ball in the back of the net or help put the ball in the back of the net. Whether it’s the national team, TFCII or TFC, that’s all I look forward to.”