Toronto FC's lack of striker depth was bound to be an issue for the team at some point this season. When the club rid themselves of Herculez Gomez and Luke Moore due result of cap room issues, their forward ranks became razor thin.
After Jozy Altidore went down with injury early last month, a door was opened for some unexpected players to get a chance. Players who nobody expected to be in the starting lineup this season in MLS, and certainly not this early in the season.
The player who has benefited the most from the opening that Altidore's injury has provided is Mo Babouli, the 23-year-old Canadian winger turned striker. He has started the last three matches for Toronto FC, and now with Sebastian Giovinco out will be crucial in an upcoming pair of Canadian Championship games against the Montreal Impact.
In Babouli, Toronto FC supporters have found a major source of debate. There doesn't seem to be any middle ground opinion on his play. Some feel that he has a promising future, and has shown well at the MLS level. Others believe he is a player that bring very little of use to the table at the MLS level.
One thing that all can agree on is the fact that his rise through the ranks has been meteoric. Just a couple of years ago Babouli considered quitting professional soccer altogether, as he had difficulty breaking into the pro game. That is before he caught the eye of Toronto FC academy.
Two years later, an impressive preseason earned Babouli a senior level contract. A couple of months afterwards circumstance has made him a consistent starter for Toronto FC. That was certainly not in Greg Vanney's plans when the season started.
One of the reasons, perhaps, why Babouli has been such a controversial player for Toronto FC is the fact that took a spot that seemed destined to go to fan favourite Jordan Hamilton. The fellow Canadian, three years his junior, has been fighting for a senior team chance for years. Before this weekend, he had played just 14 minutes with the senior club.
To be fair to Babouli, however, he earned the spot over Hamilton. Despite all of his promise, Hamilton has struggled with Toronto FC II, and at the USL level, and his development appears to have stagnated the past two seasons. Babouli, meanwhile, made a name for himself and fought hard in preseason to earn his spot.
It would have been nice if Babouli could have spent a little more time in USL developing his game, but Toronto FC really has no other option but to start him with the senior team, as they are out of options.
Fans of Babouli like him for his technical ability, and the confidence that he shows on the ball. Babouli is a rare rookie who is willing to take on defenders in one-on-one situations, and can beat them at times as well. His ability from set pieces also makes him an asset, as he can deliver quality balls from corners and free kicks.
His detractors point to how raw his play is, and nobody can argue that he isn't mistake prone. He gives the ball away with some frequency, has struggled to finish at the MLS level and holds onto the ball for too long. Others assess his performances as not really having much impact on games, despite having some flashy plays.
While much of the criticism of Babouli is fair, that last point is not. He may be unpolished, and his finishing could use some work, but he is one of the few Toronto FC players these past few games who have created much of anything going forward. Some better finishing from Giovinco, of all people, and Babouli would have been the hero against the Columbus Crew. His finishing has been poor, but he gets himself into good spots and eventually the goals will follow.
His teammates and manager, who one would hope know the game of soccer, are consistently complimentary of his play. They aren't pumping his tires, they are willing to call it like they see it, especially Greg Vanney. They truly believe in him as a player.
No matter where fans lie on this debate, however, Babouli, like all young players, deserves time to prove his worth. Whether he deserves it or not he is going to get that time right now.