“Success comes to teams when they find stability in the back four.”- Dos Santos
For the Swope Park Rangers, part of the process this year has been finding the right spots for their players and giving each time to show what they can do. For both Oumar Ballo and Amer Didic it took a little while but as a center back pair they have been one of the keys to the success of the Rangers.
In the regular season the duo paired up 12 times and the Rangers went 10-0-2 in those matches, giving up only six goals. Add another victory and another shutout in the playoffs and it is pretty clear the pair have been a successful center back partnership.
Taking a look at the roster before the season and neither player would have been penciled in to be the preferred starters at center back. The Rangers had signed Tommy Meyer, a center back with MLS experience and Jacob VanCompernolle had played in the league with Oklahoma City last season.
Didic and Ballo have become a good pair for the Rangers but they took different paths to the starting lineup of Swope Park.
Ballo was drafted to play in MLS, he came to the Rangers after not catching on with Houston. The Dynamo drafted him out of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County in the 2015 MLS Superdraft in the 2nd round with the 30th overall pick. The pick Houston used on Ballo came from Sporting Kansas City in exchange for Servando Carrasco.
The Dynamo gave him a shot in preseason but then loaned him to the Charleston Battery. Unfortunately he was released before getting his shot in a game. It took another year before Ballo got his chance to start.
Sporting KC brought Oumar in to train for a bit after his release but waited to sign him with their new expansion USL team.
Didic was mostly overlooked seemingly coming out of nowhere. He had thought about taking a year off after high school but when Baker University coach Nate Houser gave him a call he quickly decided to make the trip from Edmonton to the little town of Baldwin, Kansas. Didic was invited to try out and the Rangers quickly decided to giveto take a chance.
Beginning of a partnership
Both Ballo and Didic looked good in preseason but it took some time for each to get a good chance once the season started.
Rangers head coach Mark Dos Santos knew Ballo had the ability but knew it would take some work. “He’s a fast player, very strong, good athleticism and good in the air. We saw a lack of details technically but I think the way we train and the ball is so much at our feet he got better and better and better and better relationship with the ball.”
“He continued to add to his physical abilities,” Dos Santos added. “Nikola (Popovic) did incredible work with him I think. Every time he took the back four, we do that once a week and he trains that line. Nikola was able to really help him understand his relationship with the other three defenders and he has just grown.”
“At the beginning the line wasn’t like we wanted because there was so much rotation and change,” Dos Santos noted. “But then we started to find Meyer, Didic, Ballo and Alvarado or even Pasher or for some time Amadou Dia. We found we started to have a certain pattern and certain things happening and that is when we started to grow and Nikola deserves big credit for that.”
Didic required some time as well. “Didic needed experience and needed to grow as a player,” Dos Santos described. “When he started to maximize all the potential in the tools that he has he gives us size, defending, possession, height in offensive and defensive set pieces.”
“Ballo gives us what Didic doesn’t have. He is a very explosive center back, he is a very fast player, very dynamic and physical in his play, not that Didic isn’t but they are a different type of player,” Dos Santos added.
“Good center backs pair up because of their differences, one complement the other and that is what we have with Didic and Ballo.” – Dos Santos
The red card
Early in May Dos Santos gave Oumar Ballo his first start in a game that mattered. The Rangers traveled across the state to face Saint Louis FC. While there was no history between the two teams, the fans definitely wanted this matchup to grow in importance and become a real rivalry and the game was intense.
In the 17th minute Ballo received a yellow and then disaster just before the half, a second yellow and the red that goes along with it. Red carded in his first start Ballo left the game just halfway through. “I don’t know about that red card,” Ballo laughs weeks later. “I’m not going to comment on that card but honestly it shouldn’t have happened. You get an opportunity and you take them or you lose them and that was one of my chances and at that moment I lost it. I had to work to get the chance back again.”
Ballo did not let that missed opportunity define him. “I tried to make up for it honestly, he (Dos Santos) gave me a chance and I let him down, that is how I saw it so coming into training I said I had to make up for it. Every day I came in and worked twice as hard, stayed twice as long, worked as hard as I could so he would know I appreciated the chance he gave me and was going to keep going to earn another chance.”
Dos Santos had watched Ballo’s growth through the season and saw it would not be his last chance. “He is a player that is very patient,” Dos Santos explained. “He did not have a chance to play professionally, drafted by Houston, loaned to Charleston, didn’t play then released. We got Ballo, in a moment in his career that maybe he was weak. He did not start the first games and the first opportunity we give him we say this is your first shot and now is your chance to take it. After 45 minutes he gets sent off in St. Louis. Everything was going against him. Then we felt that the next chance that he would get we would see the real Ballo, the Ballo that is under pressure, the Ballo that wants the chance, the Ballo that will show everything he has.”
“You have to feel for him, first chance to start and then just try to play and get a red card, that was just unlucky,” Didic sympathized. “I knew there was nothing to worry about with Ballo, I knew he would come back and obviously he did.”
Didic was being brought along slowly in the season, giving him bits of time to adapt to the level of play but when Ballo was red carded Dos Santos was forced to sub in Didic. “That was my first full half,” Amer noted. “Sometimes it’s just things you can’t control that help you out the most.”
Didic came on and played well and despite the fact the Rangers were shorthanded and under pressure, they only gave up one more goal. Amer grabbed his chance and ran with it, he started the next game and from that point forward did not let go.
It took a few more games before he got another start but in June Ballo started next to his partner and the pair have been on a great run since. The only times they have not been paired since that point was when Sporting KC loaned players down or called Didic up forcing changes.
Dos Santos found his pair
“Didic has shown he is comfortable with different people in a lot of games,” Dos Santos explained. “He was comfortable with Ellis, with Jacob, with so many players but he found a pairing with Ballo that they are very different. Didic is more of a technical player, positional. Then you have Ballo that is harder in the marking. They found a pairing that is very good and then how you create a relationship is by playing with each other, a lot. Now they smell each other, as soon as one goes, the other tucks in. They relate to each other very, very well.”
Didic points back to preseason when they played together as the start. “We had a couple game in preseason together and we discussed back then how much we enjoyed playing together but didn’t get another chance for the first part of the season. Once we did get a chance we decided it’s our position now, let’s keep it, together,” Didic stated.
“We have a belief in each other. In the beginning everybody was coming in and we did not know what to expect but as we built that chemistry playing with each other for a while. We’ve gotten used to each other, what each one is going to do and how to help each other. We believe in each other now,” Ballo added.
Both players are quick to point to their team mates as reason for success, their keepers, the outside backs, the midfielders and at the same time their team mates quickly point to how well they have played.
No player succeeds by themselves but it is clear that this a partnership that is working well and still growing for the Swope Park Rangers.