VANCOUVER, BC – Coming back from a torn ACL can be a feat in itself.
It can take anywhere between six months to over a year. Many describe it as one of the hardest things they’ve had to do – physically, and perhaps even more so, mentally.
Now imagine having to do it twice – in the span of a year, no less.
Then, imagine suddenly losing your father to lung cancer during that same timeframe.
And there you have the last year and a half of Mehdi Ballouchy’s life.
“Just seeing my father go through that whole thing and how he went through it just makes everything else easy in life,” Ballouchy told whitecapsfc.com. “That’s how you start appreciating everything else. For me, at this time of my rehab or even my life, it’s about enjoying every day and being grateful for what we have.”
Ballouchy, who Whitecaps FC selected in stage two of the 2013 MLS Re-Entry Draft, first tore his left ACL in October 2012 as a member of San Jose Earthquakes. Just a few months after returning, he tore the same one again in August 2013. Since then, he’s been working tirelessly to get back onto the pitch.
And he did that for the first time in an official match on Friday – the 31-year-old midfielder came on as a sub and played 23 minutes with Whitecaps FC’s U-23 side in a 5-4 loss to Victoria Highlanders FC.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," said Ballouchy, adding that the knee felt strong. "To have gone through what I've gone through ... and to finally be back playing soccer again. I still can't put it into words."
Ballouchy’s road to recovery hasn’t been an easy one.
Before even getting into the rehabilitation process, Ballouchy said one of the hardest things was trying to deal with the void that not playing soccer left in his life.
For years, soccer was a fixture in his daily routine.
It was a fixture when he was a young boy playing on the streets and beaches of Casablanca, Morocco. Back then, Ballouchy said he’d play for hours every single day after school and/or at lunchtime.
It was fixture when he played collegiately in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Ballouchy helped lead the Creighton Bluejays to the semifinal of the 2002 College Cup before transferring to Santa Clara University, where he was a two-time All-American selection.
WATCH: Highlights from Ballouchy's eight seasons in MLS
And it was a fixture ever since he joined Major League Soccer in 2006. After going second overall in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft, Ballouchy has appeared in 185 MLS regular season matches between Real Salt Lake, Colorado Rapids, New York Red Bulls, and San Jose Earthquakes.
And then, all of a sudden, it was taken away.
“For me, and probably a lot of other soccer players, it’s through soccer that I got all my joy and emotions,” he said. “For it to be taken away from injury is one of the hardest things because you didn’t have any control over it. It just feels like there’s something missing from your everyday life.”
The mental battle was a challenge in itself. It wasn’t a walk in the park physically, either. In fact, Ballouchy wasn’t able to walk at all in the first six weeks after undergoing surgery.
“Coming out of surgery, you can’t even get any reaction from your quad,” Ballouchy said. “Going from crutches, to being able to walk, to being able to run, to being able to play is just a long process.”
It’s a process that continued when Ballouchy made the move to Vancouver at the end of January.
Before every training session, Ballouchy would spend about two hours doing prep work with Rick Celebrini, the club’s head of sports medicine and science, and/or Graeme Poole, their head physiotherapist.
Ballouchy said the work of Whitecaps FC’s medical staff was more detailed than he’s ever seen.
“It’s actually a lot different … there’s a lot more focus on mechanics and movement instead of just strengthening,” he said. “Obviously, the experience and what they have here is not something you can just find at any club. They are the best in MLS and there’s a reason for that.”
As of a few months ago, Ballouchy began some light training with the first team. After every training session, he’d be back in the medical room for a strengthening session, which could take another hour.
“There’s a big misconception when you’re injured,” Ballouchy said. “A lot of people think you‘re not working as hard. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Ballouchy has been training in full with the first team for about three weeks now. He said he hasn’t felt this good in nearly two years. The last hurdle is getting back to match fitness.
Judging from his fitness testing results, he’s not far off. The first team did the Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test (Level 2) early this week and Ballouchy finished second only to Russell Teibert.
“When you pass all these tests with flying colours, you start believing,” Ballouchy said. “And that’s kind of where I’m at right now.”
“I feel great,” he added. “There hasn’t been any pain or anything. I’m getting my groove back on.”
Whitecaps FC head coach Carl Robinson has seen Ballouchy’s groove first-hand. They were teammates back in 2011 with New York Red Bulls. And clearly, Ballouchy left a good impression.
"I think you can see that he’s a very technical player," Robinson told whitecapsfc.com. "Someone who likes to pass and move all the time. He keeps the ball on the floor and keeps the ball moving. More importantly, his understanding and tactical awareness of the game is fantastic."
Robinson said Ballouchy probably needs about three or four weeks of "competitiveness within games" before the club re-evaluates his availability for first-team action. In the meantime, Ballouchy said he'll do whatever he can to help the team.
"For me, what to focus on is being as competitive as I can to push the guys that are actually starting," he said. "By doing that, it will give me the best chance and it will also push the guys that are playing to be better."
In an interview with The Province last month, Ballouchy described the last year and a half as a “dark place.” Now, as he inches closer to an MLS return, Ballouchy said that dark place has turned into a happy one.
“I can’t even put it into words … you go through so much,” he said. “All these little steps test you and make you a tougher person. You do all that to just to be able to play again. It makes me enjoy it that much more. It makes me more grateful for the past eight years that I’ve been playing this game. It’s just a happy place to be.”
It’s not too late to participate in the best sporting experience in Vancouver. Whitecaps FC offer a flexible range of ticket products, including half-season tickets ($244), 5-packs ($149), student season tickets, and a youth soccer half-season ticket. Single-match tickets start at $22, subject to applicable fees. For more information on all Whitecaps FC ticket options, call 604.669.9283 ext. 2 or visit whitecapsfc.com/tickets.