For years, Montreal Impact fans waited for a Homegrown player to emerge as a regular starter for the first-team. Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla, who scored his first MLS goal in Chicago on April 1, the day after his 18th birthday, looks like he might be the player to break through.
A regular with Montreal's USL team in 2016, Tabla burst onto the scene with Impact fans last summer, when he needed only 25 minutes to shine in a friendly against AS Roma. A few months later, he signed a two-year MLS contract last October, becoming the youngest player in the Impact's MLS era.
Ballou Tabla, as he prefers to be called (or Ballou, if you're on a nickname basis), didn’t need much time to convince Montreal head coach Mauro Biello of his quality. By the end of the preseason, it was already clear that he was pushing for time in the starting XI, only narrowly behind the first-teamers who led Montreal on their impressive 2016 playoff run.
Used as a sub in the club's opening three games, he got his first start on April 1 at Chicago in relief of the injured Ignacio Piatti. He took full advantage, scoring a late goal to briefly put Montreal ahead in their 2-2 draw at Toyota Park. If Tabla was back on the bench when Piatti returned, fans debated if he should be a regular starter alongside the Argentine star. That happened on April 29 against Vancouver, and both players have been together on the field from kickoff for three consecutive games.
“There’s no age in soccer,” Tabla insisted before the start of this season, when asked if he was ready to play regularly with the first-team.
Emerging on the national stage in 2014 at the tender age of 15, when he was voted U-17 Canadian Player of the Year, by 2015 Tabla had already linked with big English clubs. ESPN FC reported last year that Tabla was being followed by Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea, among others.
Born on March 31, 1999, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Tabla arrived in Quebec as an eight-year-old. Before immigrating, he played in the streets of Abidjan. Of course, every kid there pretended to be one of the national team stars, members of a golden generation led by Didier Drogba.
Most of those kids dreamed of meeting their idol. Tabla, of course, became his teammate, regularly training alongside the legend before he departed Montreal after last season.
“The first time I saw him at a training session, I started to cry. He’s someone important to me since I was born,” Tabla told the media last year.
The two quickly forged a good bond. Like other Impact veterans, Drogba was generous to Tabla. And those ties remain strong -- when back at the hotel after scoring against Chicago, the first call of congratulations he received was from Drogba.
What defines Tabla's game? Describing himself as clean technically, he can play on both wings, with a preference for the left side. Tabla has also been used as a playmaker, but he explained to TVA Sports that he prefers the freedom available on the flanks.
And if no teammate is close to him and he sees that the defender stepping back, Tabla won’t waste time to use his favorite weapon: dribbling.
One issue many young players who are talented dribblers face is an inability to know when to run at defenders, and when to pull up and find a teammate. Tabla discussed his maturation process in deploying the dribble in games.
“When I was in Ivory Coast, I was dribbling again and again. I really was selfish on the field. Alone against three opponents? That wasn’t a problem. If I could skip past them, I did it,” he said.
Coaches and teammates alike have been quick to offer the teenager advice on the field. Every player wants to help him realize the vast potential they see on the training field every day.
“When I was 17, I would have loved to be able to do what he does,” forward Dominic Oduro said earlier this season.
Veterans aren’t afraid to provide advice. In the game against Chicago, midfield veterans Patrice Bernier and Marco Donadel told him to shoot more often. At the end of the game, Tabla saw a space and, instead of trying to run and dribble, fired a shot into the back of the net.
But with the building hype around Tabla comes a desire by his teammates to protect him.
“He has plenty of qualities for his age and his future is bright, but calm down with him. He’s young, let’s avoid putting too much pressure on him. We have to let him develop, and protect him,” defender Laurent Ciman told TVA Sports in February.
Given the bright start to his MLS career, Tabla has a possible dilemma ahead of him on the international stage. If he receives interest from both Canada and Ivory Coast at the senior level, which country will he choose? He's shined on the youth stage for Canada but has the history and emotional ties to Ivory Coast, too, to say nothing of the cost-benefit analysis of which country could offer him the most opportunities and best chance at success on the world stage.
New Canadian national team head coach Octavio Zambrano is well aware of Tabla's situation, and wants to convince him as soon as possible to play for Canada.
“Tabla is a kid that we need to bring into the national team immediately," Zambrano said when interviewed by RDS podcast Loin de s’en foot. "There’s no more time to wait. This is the country that has given this player the opportunity to shine and really succeed. Obviously, he’s Ivorian by birth and has ties you can’t ignore. I don’t want to pressure him. He has a golden opportunity in this country, that may not present itself in another country: in my view, for his future, playing for the Canadian national team would be much more advantageous.”
But before making his debut for the country of his choice, Tabla must continue to perform with the Impact. The next opportunity -- and, perhaps, the next start -- comes Saturday at home against Portland (3 pm ET | TVA Sports in Canada, MLS LIVE in US).