Nigel Brooks

From Mali to MLS: Oumar Ballo's journey to the Houston Dynamo

When Oumar Ballo emigrated to the United States and found he stood out from his classmates, he made it his life’s mission to become outstanding.

The Dynamo defender arrived in Baltimore from Mali as a nine-year-old and was bullied at school because he was different. But those tough times instilled a determination to succeed that helped the 23-year-old pursue his dream of a professional soccer career. That ambition was realized in January when the Dynamo made him a a second-round pick in this year’s MLS SuperDraft.

Sitting in the lobby of the team hotel in Charleston, where the Dynamo wrap up their Carolina Challenge Cup games against Orlando City on Saturday, there’s steel behind Ballo’s smiles as he recalls his school days.

“When I got here the adjustment was a little hard because of the language barrier,” he told HoustonDynamo.com. Born in Bamako, the capital of the west African country, he spoke the local Bambara language and had limited English.

“You don’t know the language and on top of that you’re from somewhere where the culture is completely different, everything you know is different from what they know,” he said. And so he was taunted verbally: “I didn’t fit in with any of the groups, so you get bullied. It’s kind of like you’re taking it from all sides.”

He put in plenty of effort to adapt to his new surroundings and made speaking English like a local a priority, even though the more American he became, the further he seemed to travel from his native land and his previous life. He has not been back to Mali.

“It saddens me a little bit because I lost my accent but I worked as hard as I could to perfect my English and enunciate every word as perfectly as possible. It saddens me just because I lost a part of me that I wish was still there. But I still have my cultural influence and my mindset is still different from everyone else’s,” he said.

Rather than shrink in the face of the abuse, Ballo grew stronger and in the next years channeled his energy into making his lanky body more muscular. “If I’d looked at it differently I wouldn’t have gotten as much motivation as I did. But I looked at it as: ‘OK, you can make fun of me all you want but you’re not in my shoes. I’m better than you, I’m going to make myself better than you.' I’m going to strive to be better than everyone who’s ever talked down to me, who’s ever looked down on me.

“I took it that way, so working out became my number one priority. I started lifting, doing push-ups, sit-ups at night; it was up to a point where I couldn’t lift my arms or if I moved my stomach my stomach would hurt.”

He watched former D.C. United prodigy Freddy Adu and the rest of the team and told himself: why can’t I be as good as them? If they achieved their goal, why can’t I?

Ballo had lived with his grandmother in Mali after his parents split up and his father moved to America. “I wasn’t really doing well in school and everything like that back home, I was just focusing on soccer and just playing all the time, going outside and playing with friends and going to play pickups. And my dad didn’t like that, he wanted me to focus more on school so he wanted me here to move closer to him,” he said.

So Ballo moved 4,500 miles from home. At first he concentrated on his work, but his love of soccer soon bubbled to the surface. “I started doing better in school, was more focused, but soccer was still a big part and and I started to nag [my dad] about playing and finding a team,” he said.

Strong and quick, at school Ballo played soccer and basketball, ran track, did the triple jump and even tried out wrestling for a couple of months. Not that he’s found it useful in a sport where only the goalkeeper uses his hands. “Not at all, it’s a completely different situation. It takes different muscles to do each. In wrestling you’ve got to physically put your opponent to the ground, in soccer when you’re tacking you’re trying to find positions, you’re not going all-out to out-strength somebody, it’s not the same mindset. So I wouldn’t say I’m using wrestling moves on gameday!” he grinned.

The powerful 6-foot-2 center back went to college at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and in 2014 was named Eastern College Athletic Conference defender of the year en route to the school's first College Cup appearance. He is proud of his willingness to battle hard and on occasion play through pain. “Every minute I sit out I see as me not getting better or as someone else getting better,” he said.

This week the Dynamo confirmed his signing along with fellow draft picks Taylor Hunter and Rob Lovejoy. While Ballo knows he has a long road ahead to establish himself in Owen Coyle’s first team, he is thrilled to join the Dynamo and realize a vision he had long ago as a little kid on a faraway continent.

“When I got drafted I was speechless. They called me and I didn’t know what to say on the phone, I was with my friend standing there for like 30 seconds, I didn’t know what was going on!” Ballo said.

“It’s amazing, I don’t think I could have gone anywhere better. Coming into this atmosphere and being around all the guys, all the staff has been an amazing experience. Every single person here has taken that extra step to make everyone comfortable here. From the staff to the players the whole experience is amazing and it’s an unbelievable feeling to be here.”

Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.