Orr Barouch knew where he stood. On a roster of 30 players, he was a lot closer to No. 30 than No. 1. Meant solely for reserve games. It's all about the future, you know?
The teen striker from Woodland Hills has impressed beyond expectations -- at least his own -- and is quickly evolving into one of the most exciting young players in Major League Soccer. He's turned unexpected time off the bench with the Chicago Fire into a growing body of work, scoring two goals (and coming oh-so-close to three more) and claiming starts in a couple of games.
He's got a homecoming on Saturday night, his second in as many weeks, when the Fire faces the Galaxy at Home Depot Center, and he's ready to show off what he can do for about 70 friends and family.
“They're all in the first three rows,” he reported on the eve of the game. “So I'll be able to hear them.”
Barouch, 19, was born in Israel, moved to the San Fernando Valley when he was 5 and grew up playing for local teams and in two high-powered clubs: West Valley Samba/Real So Cal and Chivas USA's academy. He returns to L.A. after two years in Mexico, with suburban Monterrey club UANL Tigres, which in March sent him on loan to the Fire.
It's been a bit of a whirlwind since, with a solid preseason leading to appearances off the bench from the first match -- he's made it onto the field for all but two league games -- and an expanding role within the Fire's dynamic attack.
“He's one of the players where he's always ready for the big moment,” said Fire head coach/technical director Frank Klopas, who was a forward on the 1994 U.S. World Cup team and with clubs in Greece and MLS. “Even though he's a young player, he plays with a lot of confidence. He's very smart with his movement, he can create opportunities off the dribble for himself. He always finds good spots, is always involved in the box, finding opportunities. ... He's a guy that wants to make things happen, who wants the ball in difficult situations.”
He has speed and touch rare for a forward of his size -- 6-foot-2, 190 pounds -- and vision that has enabled him to quickly build chemistry with fellow Fire forwards Dominic Oduro, Diego Chaves and Cristian Nazarit and wingers Marco Pappa and Patrick Nyarko.
It helped him score the tying goal in a mid-May draw at Toronto FC, another in a U.S. Open Cup qualifying final triumph at San Jose, and build to starting roles last month in ties with Real Salt Lake and the New York Red Bulls, two of the league's giants. That's more than he expected.
“I felt I had to prove myself [when I joined the Fire in preseason], like anywhere else I go, you know?” Barouch said. “Anywhere you go, you have to prove yourself, and I had to show myself to the coaching staff 'cause, I mean, they knew me, but the didn't really know me.
“Being young, I thought I was just going to be a reserve player. I thought we'd have 28, 29 players on the roster, and I was going to be No. 27. So to be in the 18 [-player game-day rosters], yeah, I was pretty happy. But it was all because I worked hard and the coaches gave me confidence and believed in me.”
L.A. STORY: Barouch grew up with a soccer ball at his feet. His father, Haim, had been a goalkeeper in Israel, and he was kicking away before his family packed up for L.A.
“At my house, there were balls everywhere,” he said. “And I'd just dribble or juggle -- my whole house was filled with marks all over the walls, and my parents would get mad. But they knew it was my life.”
Haim Barouch had signed up little Orr for a recreational team as soon as they'd arrived in Woodland Hills, and he quickly asserted himself, rising through the club ranks to powerful West Samba, which merged into Real So Cal -- among the nation's top developers of talent -- and then on to Chivas USA when he was 15. He quickly became one of the big names in the Goats' academy.
“He's a skillful, left-footed player with attacking quality,” said Sacha van der Most, Chivas' director of youth development. “He can score, he can run all day long, he has decent speed for his size. He's got a very good personality. He'll do anything to accomplish his goals.”
He also played at El Camino Real High School, returning from Development Academy play at the end of his senior year to help the Conquistadores to the CIF Southern California Regional championship, the closest thing California has to a state championship.
Everything changed for Barouch when he was invited to form a team with other top young players -- including Bill Hamid, now D.C. United's goalkeeper; Soony Saad, who just signed with Sporting Kansas City; and UCLA All-American Kelyn Rowe -- for a showcase trip to Europe.
The Americans didn't lose a match, and Barouch, just 16, made an impression.
“A couple clubs asked me to stay, and I ended up staying with Club Brugge [in Belgium], and then I was going to sign,” he said. “A deal didn't work out. I came back home, stayed home for about two months, and that's when the director of Tigres' [youth academy, former Chivas USA youth director Dennis te Kloese] called me and asked me to come try out, see if I liked it.
“I went over there, and I actually loved it.”
Moving to Mexico forced him to mature quickly, but he found several friends with Tigres -- te Kloese has brought dozens of L.A.-area players to the club, quite a few of them from Chivas' academy -- learned enough Spanish to get by, and, most important, sharpened his ball skills. As Barouch noted: “Mexico's a lot about technique.”
SWEET HOME CHICAGO: It was a Mexican coach, Carlos de los Cobos -- he was dismissed at the end of May, with Klopas adding coaching to his duties -- who brought Barouch to Chicago and inserted him into the Fire's first match, a 1-1 draw March 19 at FC Dallas. He came off the bench in the next five games, then again at MLS Cup champion Colorado.
Then he made a huge impact in Toronto, drawing the foul for Pappa's free kick for the first Fire goal and netting the 76th-minute equalizer in a 2-2 tie.
“It was great,” Barouch said. “It was even better that we got the tie and we were able to leave Toronto a little bit more satisfied than [we would be from] just losing. And our traveling fans -- it was so great to see them happy. That's why I kissed the badge [on my jersey], for them.”
He hasn't missed a league match since as the Fire has struggled to find wins -- they're 2-4-12, just two ties off the league single-season record -- and he's been a full-time standout in the MLS Reserve League, scoring three goals and assisting three more as the Fire has started 3-0-1. But he's been most spectacular when he's missed.
On June 8 in Kansas City, Sporting goalkeeper Erik Kronberg couldn't hold onto former Cal State Northridge star Daniel Paladini's long-range blast. Barouch put the rebound off the crossbar. Three days later at Columbus, Barouch's rocket from off the left side of the Crew box ripped into the crossbar. He made up for the miss with a huge role in Nazarit's winning goal.
“I guess you could say I was a little unlucky ...,” he said. “Sometimes you get a little unlucky, and sometimes you're fortunate.”
GOATS GONE: The loan deal expires in December, but the Fire have an option to purchase Barouch's contract from Tigres. If they somehow decline, there are plenty of clubs in MLS ready to snap him up. Chivas USA among them.
The Goats aren't particularly happy Barouch is with the Fire. He developed, in part, in their academy, and they'd prefer he was wearing the red and white stripes. Anywhere else in the world, Chivas would have been able to sign him to a developmental contract at 15 and he'd likely have stayed with the club and be playing for Robin Fraser this season.
MLS's exacting criteria for players moving from clubs' academies into their professional teams killed any claim the Goats might have had. They lost at least seven players from Barouch's group to teams in Mexico and Europe, and all seven might have been Chivas first-teamers now.
Should Chivas have signed him to a professional contract before he left for Tigres? Says van der Most: “I definitely think so. It's difficult in MLS to sign that many young players.”
Barouch's first homecoming came in last weekend's 1-1 draw with Chivas at Home Depot Center. Van der Most liked what he saw.
“I think it's been a very good step for him,” he said. “It looked like he's adapted real fast. It sounds like he's very happy in Chicago.”
Klopas isn't sure where Barouch's ceiling sits.
“The only thing I can say is he's young and he has very good quality,” the coach said. “He has a great attitude and works hard to get better. He definitely has the talent and the ability to go very high.”