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MLS Season Preview: Montreal Impact looking to become a power in Eastern Conference

The priority for the Montreal Impact isn’t so much doing better than last season, but doing the same.

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After four years in MLS that saw four different coaches at the helm, repeated changes in club philosophies, and very mixed results on the field, the Impact hope that 2016 will be the year it finds continuity.

With that end in mind, much from last season has remained unchanged. Coach Mauro Biello is back and so is the majority of the roster; and the objectives for the season—to finish top-five in the East and win the Canadian Championship—are essentially identical, with the main difference being that the Impact won’t have the CONCACAF Champions League to worry about.

Wanting to become a recognized force in the Eastern Conference, Montreal will be looking to repeat the success it had last year, where it enjoyed its best-ever finish of third in the East and later reached the conference semifinals.

As team captain Patrice Bernier explained, one good season doesn’t make a great club.

“We want to show that last year wasn’t a fluke; that we’re a good team and capable of becoming a team that can get regular success in this league,” Bernier told assembled media after training on Tuesday at Olympic Stadium. “If we want to be respected we have to be successful and stay around the same positions year in year out.

"If you look at the teams that have had lots of success in the past, they’re usually top three or top four and making the playoffs every year. And once you make the playoffs then anything can happen there.”

What has changed is the expectation surrounding the team. Going into last year’s preseason the Impact were coming off a last-place finish; but following a remarkable run to the Champions League final and an impressive late-season surge in MLS, the players are confident that they can achieve great things again in the coming campaign.

“We have playmakers. We got solid in the back in the second half of the season last year and I thought we were one of the better defensive teams in the league, so obviously at the start of the year everyone feels like they can win MLS Cup,” goalkeeper Evan Bush said. “I feel more confident leading into this year than I did last year at the start of the year, but that being said we just have a bigger target on our back and we have more expectations to meet and that’s okay with us. You want to play with pressure on you and when it comes to midseason we’ll see where we are.

"First step is getting into the playoffs and from there anything can happen, as you saw with Portland last year.”


MONTREAL IMPACT SEASON PREVIEW

2015 FINISH : Third in Eastern Conference (15-13-6); eliminated in Conference Semifinals.

NOTABLE ADDITIONS : M Harry Shipp, M Lucas Ontivero

NOTABLE LOSSES : M Justin Mapp, M Dilly Duka, M Nigel Reo-Coker

TOP NEWCOMER : Harry Shipp . Ball possession hasn’t at all been a strength for the Impact over the last few seasons but that could begin to change with the acquisition of Shipp from Chicago. In the final half of the field, the 24-year-old playmaker has the ability to help with ball circulation and deliver the final pass—all qualities that the Impact have lacked up until this point. With Shipp expected to be a starter, and Didier Drogba and Ignacio Piatti tending to garner a lot of attention from opposing defenses, the Lake Forest, Illinois native could post important numbers this season.  

PLAYER TO WATCH : Didier Drogba . For the Impact, this past offseason was marked by the question of whether or not Didier Drogba would retire from playing and join Guus Hiddink’s coaching staff at Chelsea. In the end, obliged to honor his last year of contract, Drogba has returned, but in what state of mind? That remains unclear. And will he remain with the Impact for the entire season? Speaking to media last month, club president Joey Saputo couldn’t give any definitive answer. And having spent the first part of preseason camp training on his own in Qatar, the 37-year-old Ivorian forward is behind with his fitness. With four of the Impact’s first five games of the season being played on artificial turf, and his right knee recently causing him some concern, Biello says that Drogba will likely be used sparingly over the first two months.

“We have a plan and for sure with turf it’s something that he’s not comfortable with,” Biello said. “Last season I remember that he played against New England and after the game he had some inflammation in his knee and that was what slowed him down a bit the playoffs so we want to be careful. We don’t want him to be thrown in right away on turf if he’s not 100 percent yet and then risk losing him for a month or longer, so we’re going do to things properly. We want to make sure that come playoff time he feels ready and healthy to help this time. For now were going to take our time.”

2016 OUTLOOK

Whether or not 2016 is a successful season for Montreal will largely depend on how Drogba fares. If he can reach a similar vein of form as he demonstrated last season, when he almost single-handedly helped the Impact surge from sixth place to third in the East, than the Impact should have little trouble making the playoffs; but if he doesn’t, then the Impact will likely struggle, especially given the team’s current lack of established attacking alternatives.    

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