Yesterday, Steve Goff reported that D.C. United's training session featured an unfamiliar face: Former UMBC center back Oumar Ballo. Ballo was released just under two weeks ago by the Houston Dynamo after having previously been loaned to their USL affiliate, the Charleston Battery. It was a curious move, as the Dynamo orchestrated a draft day trade (with the MLS rights to Servando Carrasco going to Sporting KC in exchange) to be able to select Ballo at 30th overall.
Ballo, 24, rose to prominence late last fall, as his UMBC Retrievers stunned the college soccer world by going all the way to College Cup (NCAA soccer's equivalent to the Final Four). Ballo was the key player for the Retrievers, but he couldn't help UMBC overcome Virginia, who went on to win the title by parking the bus, car, yacht, bicycle, and all other vehicles that have ever been. For his stellar season, Ballo was named UMBC's Male Athlete of the Year:
A native of Mali, Ballo moved to the Baltimore area as a kid and is known for being an extraordinary athlete. In high school, Ballo supplemented his time on the soccer field with letters in both wrestling and track. The question on draft day came down to his positioning and decision-making, but most seemed to see him as a player that could develop into a contributor in MLS if given time to hone his skills. Ballo would count as an international if United were to sign him.
B&RU: How did Ballo do in the preseason and/or during his brief time with the Battery?
DT: Ballo showed what he was expected to show in preseason matches in Houston and for Charleston. He is a supremely athletic, physical defender with great ball skills in the air. Unfortunately, he had an own goal in a preseason friendly for Charleston, where he tried to head the ball back to the keeper but was too close and the ball went over the keeper into the goal. The Battery won the match comfortably, but that mistake seemed to put Charleston's trust in Ballo in question and even worse, put Oumar's confidence at risk.
B&RU: What do you feel is Houston's rationale in releasing a 2nd round pick this early in the year?
DT: The logic given by the Dynamo was a roster regulation change or something of the sort. So I feel that combined with deep backline depth in Houston and on the Battery made him expendable.
Carson added this as well, in case you're wondering how Ballo was thought of in Space City:
Oumar was an absolute pleasure to talk to. He was always engaging and very respectful. I have no doubt in my mind he will be a great defender at the MLS level someday.
With United, Ballo is going to have to show very well to get himself a contract. Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum are the preferred starting pair, while Kofi Opare has done very well deputizing for Birnbaum in the last few weeks. On top of that, Markus Halsti spent most of his career at center back before transitioning into central midfield in the past 2-3 years, and Ben Olsen tried him at center back once during the preseason. It's also worth noting that Homegrown player Jalen Robinson has been playing center back for the Richmond Kickers this season.
However, Ballo's raw athleticism is not the kind of thing you see every day. I would hazard a guess that he would be United's fastest true center back (Robinson might be a shade faster, but he figures to be a right back down the road). In the air, he has the kind of hops we associate with Birnbaum. United is known for scouting locally - it's nice to be in a region that sent 6 teams to the NCAA tournament - so they surely know all this already, and likely want to investigate his positioning and mentality.