It's safe to say Mouloud Akloul had a rough year.
Signing with the Vancouver Whitecaps out of al-Ittihad Kalba in the United Arab Emirates first division, Akloul had made the rare but gratifying decision to leave the riches of the Middle Eastern leagues for the challenges and competitiveness of North America. A professional journeyman with time as a starter in Algeria and Ligue 2, Akloul was once a pivotal member of the French U-17 team and, turning 27 years old in March, was just coming into the prime of his career. Upon signing with the Whitecaps on April 8, Akloul instantly became perhaps the best-qualified player in the North American second division, Vancouver's heir presumptive as our best defender, and an early favourite for a spot in the Major League Soccer lineup.
That was the last bright moment Akloul would experience in soccer for 2010.
Akloul seemed to be tailor-made to succeed in the North American game. His weaknesses were only relative: not the fastest defender, tall but not particularly tall. He was able to keep up with the speed of Ligue 2 but his relative lack of pace had always put a ceiling on his development. However, he was likable, charming, and intelligent, not to mention a first-class technical player. The stereotype that North American-trained players emphasize athletics and European-trained players emphasize skill isn't true as often as people think, but it was true in Akloul's case: both on and off the ball he was a cut above the USSF Second Division level. His intelligence and poise would stand out even on an MLS pitch. In the brief glances we got of Akloul running Vancouver's defense, the transformation between him and a strong, skilled, but more limited defender like Nelson Akwari was almost a shock. It was like watching a different team.
Early in the season, Akloul struggled with fitness and nagging injuries that ruled him out of the lineup early. It was no big deal for the club, since fellow central defenders Nelson Akwari and Greg Janicki had matters well in hand. Akloul finally stepped into the lineup on April 24, lining up in the starting eleven against fellow Frenchman Claude Anelka's AC St. Louis. Akloul could hardly have had an easier debut. Not only did he handle St. Louis's blunted attack so easily he could have had a nap between plays, but his attacking forays left St. Louis stunned and unable to cope. Akloul isn't fast, but he can pick his spots and he could certainly outplay anybody AC St. Louis could throw at him. It was almost unfair. Inevitably, Akloul got a goal, the first of the night and the eventual game-winner. Scoring it into the south goal, we supporters went wild.
Our enthusiasm dimmed, though, as Akloul was stretchered off the pitch. In scoring the goal, mightly Mouloud had broken his ankle. Aside from a well-received cameo appearance at the end of the regular season, Akloul would be finished for 2010.
For most players, such a serious injury in 2010 would almost be enough to rule them out for 2011 on its own. Just as problematic, Akloul faces trying to break into a central defense that already boasts Jay DeMerit and Greg Janicki. But Mouloud Akloul is not "most players". He was expected to start ahead of Janicki in 2010, and indeed when Akloul got his brief appearance last season it was Janicki who gave way. Akloul brings skills that Vancouver's central defenders lack, with Janicki being more limited than Akloul in every respect and DeMerit being more athletic and experienced, and probably more reliable in his own area, but having less all-round talent.
Just because he's trying to break into a crowded roster doesn't mean we can rule Akloul out all together. When healthy, he is a proven performer with extensive international experience. Teitur Thordarson wisely gave Akloul plenty of time to recover, and did not rely on Akloul in the playoffs when his ankle seemed healthy but he wasn't in full match fitness. Since the ankle injury, there have been no questions about Akloul's health, and such clean bone breaks usually lead to a full recovery when treated properly. Health, in of itself, should not be a reason to exclude Akloul from consideration.
At the very minimum, Akloul would be a burst of energy off the bench. Vancouver's defense so far consists entirely of safe, conservative players. They may be very good safe, conservative players like DeMerit and Wes Knight, but at the same time our back four lacks a real spark plug. There's something to be said for a defender who can come in and raise a little hell. Akloul can challenge midfielders and defenders offensively, force them to back off in respect of his skill, and buy space for Vancouver's back four. He can score the occasional goal, as we've seen. He can distribute the ball very effectively, and he can do all this without neglecting his defensive duties. Akloul is a multi-faceted threat, and one seldom finds such well-rounded players on Major League Soccer defenses. Even if he isn't as rock-solid and unimpeachable a defender as Jay DeMerit, that's a hard standard to live up to and Akloul is more than good enough to at least look after himself.
Finally, there's the least important but still significant positive to signing Mouloud Akloul: his personality. People like Mouloud Akloul. He's the sort of player who will practice bicycle kicks during warm up just to fire the crowd up. If he's on the bench, he'll take a second to chat to that young, awestruck fan. When supporters are taking a penalty shootout amongst themselves after the game, Akloul will stick around to watch, then disappear into the back and return to hand out cans of beer he got from somewhere. He won the Whitecaps community service award for his good works in the Vancouver area, contributing to the reputation of the team even when he couldn't contribute on the field. Akloul obviously and transparently enjoys having fun with the fans, and when you're an expansion team trying to sell tickets even with the possibility that, like most expansion teams, the 2011 Whitecaps might be dreadful, it could be very useful to have a charismatic defender who makes fans want to come back through sheer force of personality.
I'm not saying sign Mouloud Akloul because he's a nice guy. I'm saying sign him because he's a good defender. The fact that he's a nice guy just makes him an even better choice.