The best news of the Montreal Impact’s offseason came on Sunday when Didier Drogba effectively announced on Twitter that he’d be returning to Major League Soccer for the 2016 season. Even though owner Joey Saputo couldn’t confirm on Monday that Drogba would complete the upcoming season in Montreal, the exhale in Quebec could be heard all over Canada.
The Impact’s fortunes this season hinged very much on Drogba deciding to put off retirement. What Drogba did for the Impact last season was incredible. No MLS signing – from David Beckham to Sebastian Giovinco – has given a club such a boost on and off the field as Drogba did once he arrived in Canada in the middle of the 2015 season.
Drogba scored 11 goals in nine starts, vaulting Montreal from the periphery of the playoff picture to the number three seed in the East and two playoff wins – including a demolition of rival Toronto FC in the Wild Card round. Stade Saputo, barren earlier in the season, became one of the league’s loudest venues. The Impact had the kind of buzz usually reserved for the Canadians.
No one saw it coming. Outside of Laurent Ciman and Ignacio Piatti, the 2015 Impact were something of a rag-tag group of aging veterans and MLS newcomers. Just one year before, Montreal had finished last in the Eastern Conference.
The Impact fired manager Frank Klopas shortly after Drogba’s arrival, and it isn’t a stretch to say that Klopas’ replacement Mauro Biello – who had his interim tag removed after the conclusion of the season – owes his job to the Ivorian.
Drogba is perhaps the greatest pure No. 9 of his generation for much more than his goals. His incredible understanding of spacing and ability to impact games in a multitude of ways have made him invaluable to most every team he’s been a part of. Soccer-wise, he was going to be irreplaceable in 2016. Drogba’s diversification of the Impact’s attack in 2015, not to mention his production, was astounding.
Drogba’s moxie was on full show last year. Every time he stepped onto the field, it was an event. He didn’t just score goals; he scored big goals: three on his full home debut; three on free kicks; two to beat Toronto on Decision Day; another to bury the same team in the Wild Card game. He celebrated, he carried on – he was a show unto himself.
Playing a kind of point-forward, Drogba practically resurrected veteran midfielders Patrice Bernier and Nigel Reo-Coker for the stretch run. He lifted everyone around him. So it isn’t hyperbole to say that losing Drogba would have been absolutely crushing blow for Montreal’s 2016 ambitions. In a way, that’s the ultimate compliment in American soccer. As much as losing Drogba would have hurt MLS as a whole, it would have hurt Drogba’s team that much more.
The fear, then, is that there is another twist in this tale. Drogba’s heart still appears to be in London, with his former club, Chelsea, and there’s little doubt that had he not been under contract for 2016, he’d probably be coaching right now. Some have speculated that the romance between owner Joey Saputo and Drogba has cooled over this affair, but Drogba is usually a happy camper as long as he is allowed to set his terms of engagement. His current preseason sojourn in Qatar suggests that Drogba is being given all the leeway he desires.
At heart, Drogba is something of a crowd-pleaser, and once he has his mind set on the MLS season and the MLS season alone, he should be locked in. This will almost surely be Drogba’s last season as a player, and he’ll want to go out in style.
For their part, the Impact want to compete this season, but they also want to stabilize the transformational progress that they made last season. By the time Drogba exits, the club has to be more established in the Montreal psyche than they were in their first three MLS seasons.
Drogba is probably a once-in-a-generation package. His impact has to be lasting. Had Drogba retired, this Montreal season would have felt like a funeral. Now, though, it promises to be another thrill ride.
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