Mohamed Ndiaye showed up to the Baltimore Blast indoor soccer tryout with a chip on his shoulder, ready to prove himself.
It was October 2018, two years since Ndiaye played college soccer at the Community College of Baltimore County Catonsville and three years removed from laying waste to hapless defenses while playing for his Howard County high school.
Playing for a local soccer club, Ndiaye emailed Blast head coach Danny Kelly to ask for a tryout, writing something like, “I’m tired of killing teams around here.”
The email was a flash of the confidence that has permeated the 21-year-old’s game since he started playing. It’s what led to him to become one of the youngest players on the Blast several months later, quickly fitting in as a regular contributor on a squad full of veteran players, many of whom have won multiple championships.
Kelly never replied to the email, but Ndiaye didn’t take it personally. Ndiaye showed up to an open tryout anyway.
Before the tryout, Ndiaye told his best friend Shackeem Black, “Hey big bro, I am going to make this team,” again showing boundless swagger despite never having played professional indoor soccer.
He performed well, Kelly recalled. Blast assistants saw things they liked: his size — 6-foot-3 and around 200 pounds, unusual for an indoor player — and solid footwork. But Baltimore is an elite indoor franchise, one of the winningest teams in the Major Arena Soccer League and winners of three of the last four league titles. It’s difficult for any young player to break onto the squad, Kelly said.
Ndiaye wasn’t offered a contract. Instead, Kelly invited him to keep training with the team. Ndiaye agreed without hesitation.
“At first, you think about it, am I not good enough?” Ndiaye said. “You keep telling yourself … maybe they see something in me, and I have to prove myself a little more.”
Again he told Black, “I am making this team.”
Ndiaye’s time came a few months later. With the Blast in need of some depth for the stretch run before the 2019 playoffs, Ndiaye was among four players the team signed for the remainder of the season.
A little more than a year later, Ndiaye recalled the tryout and eventual signing with a mix of relief and humility.
“Before I walked in there, Baltimore had won three straight championships. They don’t need anything. They might want you but they don’t need you, which is the mindset I went in with,” he said. “I had to take a step down and think about what you are told to do first and then you’ve got to adapt to the situation.”
He finished last season with three goals and four assists in nine games. The Blast fell a win short of playing for a fourth straight MASL title.
“He’s got some tools that we felt we could develop into a more polished product where he could help us win games,” Kelly said. “To his credit, coming in as a rookie and not having played indoor before, no professional experience, he made the roster and contributed last year.”
This wasn’t the first time Ndiaye came into a team as a new player and made an immediate impact. Black recalled Ndiaye arriving at Howard County’s Oakland Mills High School from the West African nation of Ivory Coast. Black was a senior captain; Ndiaye, a freshman.
Ndiaye spoke only his native French and little, if any, English. He taught himself the language by sheer force of will just so he could be a vocal leader on the team, Ndiaye said.
On the field, Ndiaye was eager to prove himself, but he got frustrated easily if he didn’t get the ball, Black said.
“I told him to calm down,” Black said. “You know what you can do. The coach can see what you do. Don’t get down on yourself.”
Ndiaye has been a different player ever since, his friend said.
Ndiaye dominated at Oakland Mills, despite opposing teams’ best efforts to shut him down. He moved around, playing striker and central attacking midfielder. One season, his coach moved Ndiaye to the wing because opposing teams were double- and triple-teaming him in the middle.
“Anything he puts his mind to he gets it done,” said Black, who works with Ndiaye at Soccer Dome, an indoor soccer facility that hosts youth soccer games. Ndiaye trains kids privately and coaches a team.
Ndiaye recalled one game in his senior year against rival Hammond High School during which he scored two goals, including a game-winning rocket to the top left corner of the goal in overtime to seal the win.
“Anybody from Hammond doesn’t like me,” he said with a laugh.
He finished with 40 goals and 18 assists at Oakland Mills.
Ndiaye opted to play college soccer at CCBC Catonsville. He dominated despite suffering a hamstring injury early in the 2016 season, finishing with nine goals and 11 assists in just 14 games. After one year, he chose to leave. His reason was to focus on soccer rather than balancing school, training and games.
For nearly two years, Ndiaye played club soccer in Howard County and Annapolis, Md., picking up experience by playing friendlies against teams like D.C. United’s U-23 squad and Swansea University, a club that plays in the Welsh Football league. He played for spells at centerback in addition to his attacking positions. The experiences were invaluable in helping him read the game, to anticipate what a defender would do when he was an attacking player and vice versa, he said.
Those experiences helped him adapt to the indoor game.
“I just don’t like to be pushed around,” he said. “I like to be physical and get into people’s heads.”
Kelly said it usually takes a player about 40-50 games of indoor to start to truly understand and get comfortable with the game. As Ndiaye approaches that total, his coach said he’s showing promise.
“Ultimately, we think he’s got the ability to continue to grow with the game and play multiple spots,” Kelly said. “We’re looking forward to him growing as a player, growing as a pro and ultimately helping us win games from whatever position he may be playing.”
This season, Ndiaye has settled in as a regular player for Kelly. Thanks to his natural size, he has been deployed as a target striker at times, where he’s responsible for playing with his back to the opposing goal, settling long balls in the air and delivering them to teammates.
He’s already surpassed his goal and assist totals from last season, but no longer is he responsible for carrying the scoring load like he was in college and high school. He is learning that a strong defensive shift or a key pass is just as important in indoor where teamwork, particularly in the defensive end, is critical, Ndiaye said. And he’s looking to his teammates for improvement, mirroring his game to the likes of forwards Andrew Hoxie and Vini Dantas.
“As much as I want to prove myself, I want to better the team as well,” Ndiaye said. “So watching these guys in front of me and showing me the path is very important to understand what player I want to become.”
Sometimes he still likes to express that swagger on the field, he said, sprinkling a little of what he calls “spice,” or trash talk, into a game.
“I don’t like when the game is too quiet,” he said. “I add a little bit of spice into the game and it makes it competitive.”
His brashness has gotten him into trouble occasionally, though. He’s butted heads a few times with veteran players, Kelly said, but that’s part of his youth and adapting to the professional environment.
“He’s learning that you can be confident, strong-willed, but you need to be able to be receptive to information and criticism,” the coach said, “whether it’s from the coach or maybe a veteran player.”
As Ndiaye grows into the game, he can rely on seeing Black at all of his home games, calling advice to him from the crowd, much like he used to when Ndiaye was a high school freshman.
“I’m very proud of him,” Black said. “That’s like my little brother, man.”
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran