Richard Ballard certainly didn’t look like a rookie last Saturday.
The DuPont Manual High School and Indiana University graduate impressed fans, teammates and coaching staff alike during his professional debut, playing the full 90 minutes in Louisville City’s season-opening 0-0 draw with Saint Louis FC.
From the opening whistle, Ballard used his speed as a right-sided attacking midfielder to latch on to long balls down the wings and his trickery in one-on-one situations to get past his defender, often Saint Louis left back Matt Sheldon. Ballard had one shot hit the near-side netting in the first half and nearly connected on a scissor kick off a back-heel in the box from forward Cameron Lancaster that would have likely been a goal-of-the season candidate.
“I thought he played really well,” Louisville City head coach James O’Connor said of Ballard. “I thought he caused them a lot of problems with his pace. On another day he would have scored. I thought he was unfortunate (not to). I was really pleased with how he played and how all the guys played.”
But in addition to earning Man of the Match honors from the fans on social media and his coach’s praises, the numbers show Ballard was a constant threat down the right wing, especially in the first half.
According to Opta’s statistics, Ballard took on a defender on the right side seven times in the first half, creating one chance, taking one shot, and delivering three crosses, one of which found a teammate. Ballard also connected on six out of ten passes during the game. Defensively Ballard was also busy, winning four of his seven tackles in the opponents half of the field, helping set up counter-attacking opportunities for Louisville City.
In comparison, Lancaster was the only other Louisville City player able to complete a cross in the final third despite numerous attempts from the likes of Brian Ownby, Paolo DelPiccolo, Kyle Smith and Oscar Jimenez.
Whether due to a tactical shift or not, Ballard floated into the middle of the field more in the second half after spending a majority of the first half receiving the ball along the right sideline. In the first half, 18 of Ballard’s 21 first touches came wide of the penalty area in the attacking half of the field on the right sideline, while four of Ballard’s ten attacking first touches in the second half came in the middle of the field.
It remains to be seen if Ballard will keep his place once Niall McCabe returns to full fitness and Mark-Anthony Kaye returns from international duty, but Ballard certainly made a positive impression in his pro debut.