MONTREAL — If there are younger players ready to earn playing time on the veteran Montreal Impact squad, it would be teenage midfielders Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla and David Choiniere.
Asked about the pair this week, coach Mauro Biello said: "I don’t think we’ve seen talent like that in Quebec in the last 30 years."
The 17-year-old Ballou, as he is called, and 19-year-old Choiniere are seen as key players for the future of the Major League Soccer club. Ballou wants that to start this season.
"It depends on me, how I do," he said this week.
Asked what it will take to impress Biello, Ballou said: "By scoring goals and making combinations. The coach likes it when you’ve got the ball on your foot and you’re shooting and scoring.
"I’m not afraid. I’m confident."
The five-foot-nine Ballou signed a contract for the upcoming MLS season last November. He starred for the club’s academy teams and for their defunct USL team FC Montreal, with whom he scored five goals and added five assists in 2016.
He often trained with the MLS team last season alongside since-departed fellow Ivory Coast native Didier Drogba.
But his biggest moments came in a 2-1 win over England with Canada’s under-20 team last March that reportedly drew interest from top Premier League clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City, and strong play in a friendly match against AS Roma before a sellout crowd at Saputo Stadium in August.
Ballou, whose family moved to Montreal when he was a child, was named Canada’s under-17 player of the year in 2014 when he was 15. He was Canada’s under-20 player of the year in 2016.
He is sometimes compared to Alphonso Davies of the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Liberian-born forward who at 15 became the second youngest to play in an MLS game after Freddy Adu with D.C. United in 2004. Davies played 15 times in all competitions, including eight MLS games last season.
"We can see he’s talented, for sure," Biello said of Ballou. "You have to understand that he’s 17.
"We have to bring him along the right way, but you can see his quality in practice. We saw it against Roma right away because what he did there is not easy against a team like that, showing his maturity and confidence in his abilities. There are flashes. In training, you saw certain things he’s capable of doing with ease. Those are things you want to continue to develop. We hope one day he becomes that important player we think he can be."
Impact management has stated a long-term goal of having a core of homegrown players in the starting 11, as the club had when Biello was the star midfielder in other leagues before joining MLS in 2012.
Currently, the only local starter is 37-year-old Patrice Bernier of Brossard, Que. French-born defender Wandrille Lefevre, an Impact academy product, is the first backup in the central defence.
There are a handful of other graduates from the team’s academy on the roster, including occasionally used forward Anthony Jackson-Hamel. Others only see meaningful action in Voyageurs Cup matches or friendlies.
The Impact hope Ballou and Choiniere, of St. Jean Sur Richelieu, Que., are the next ones to break through.
Choiniere signed with the MLS squad on June 28 and played his first MLS game in October against New England. He also impressed against AS Roma, taking a shot that went off a post.
"David did well last year," said Biello. "They need to accumulate experience.
"You can’t go too fast. They will make some mistakes, learn and get better. Not get too high or too low. It’s part of their development."