No team in MLS had a stranger 2015 than the Montreal Impact. The season began with a shocking run to the CONCACAF Champions League final, where the Canadian side lost to Mexican powerhouse Club America, and ended with a disappointing loss in the Eastern Conference semifinals at the hands of Columbus Crew SC.
In the beginning, the club had almost no expectations and exceeded them before the end of April; by the close of the MLS season, the club had big expectations and failed to meet them.
The end of 2015 was, of course, all about Didier Drogba. So too has been the beginning of 2016. Now that it’s certain Drogba will return, the Impact can go about filling in the team around him. The club hasn’t made too many moves in the off-season, but the addition of midfielder Harry Shipp via trade from the Chicago Fire is notable. Shipp is talented – maybe a change of scenery is just what he needs.
The Big Question
Is Drogba’s heart in this? One story dominated the MLS winter more than any other: would Drogba return to the Impact to fulfil the final year on this contract, or would he answer the siren call of the club that he so adores, Chelsea?
In the aftermath of Jose Mourinho’s firing as Blues boss, a drama began to build over a possible move back to London for Drogba. Despite the Impact’s initial denials that anything of the sort might happen (again, Drogba has a contract), the striker was spotted keeping the company of Chelsea bigwigs at Stamford Bridge. Further developments held that negotiations were ongoing to secure Drogba’s release, a troubling situation from the Montreal perspective made worse by Drogba’s silence over the matter.
In the end, no deal was struck and Drogba was confirmed to be playing for the Impact in 2016. It’s worth wondering, however, if his mind will be on the MLS task at hand, or if he’ll resent being forced to play out his deal in Canada. Montreal is overwhelmingly dependent on Drogba to set the tone and score goals at the front of their formation. If he isn’t fully committed, it could spell disaster for what was supposed to be a promising season.
There’s no way around picking Didier Drogba. Their success or failure will turn on his contributions, both his still-considerable abilities and his leadership. The marked difference in the spirit of the Impact last season after the Ivorian’s arrival was one of the more remarkable developments of MLS campaign: with his enthusiasm and respect, Drogba lifted his new team single-handedly into the discussion of MLS Cup contenders. By the time the playoffs began, no one in the Eastern Conference wanted to be matched up against Montreal. Drogba gets full credit.
There’s also the small matter of whether, at 38 years of age come early March, Drogba’s body can hold up against the rigors of a full MLS season. Thanks to a period of fitness building and the short run to the playoffs, the striker was able to make a massive difference to the Impact in 2015 in 14 games.
But the long, climatically challenging and physically demanding campaign ahead of him won’t be easy, and there’s plenty of reason to believe he’ll miss a significant number of games. Keeping Drogba healthy throughout the year and grabbing points when he’s missing will define the season for Montreal.
From The Dugout
If Mauro Biello has had a few sleepless nights regarding Didier Drogba's flirtation with retirement and late arrival to preseason camp, he, like the rest of the Impact organization, is pretty mum on the situation.
“We’re on the big stage now and things like this happen when you have a player of his magnitude,” he told the Montreal Gazette. “These are things that happen in world football sometimes. It’s a little bit different than the North American way of sports, but in Europe a lot of things happen that are not the same.”
While much of the attention is on Drogba and the front end of the team, Biello is well aware of the other side of the game. “I think it’s important that defensively we always show a good shape,” he told TSN. “It was something that we did well last year; [we were] compact in all moments. Additionally, being able to close players down, and not give the opponent that space, and to be that team that is difficult to unbalance defensively. Offensively we want to create angles, and supports around the ball that allow us to build and create to unbalance the opposition.”
Guiding the team to the 2015 playoffs turned Biello from an interim appointment to permanent coach, and the Montreal-born club legend couldn’t be prouder. “For me to be able to lead this team as the head coach is an incredible moment. I just want to continue what we started here,” he told CBC.
From The Locker Room
The seventh-placed finish last season was Montreal’s best yet in MLS, and captain Patrice Bernier hailed the squad’s success: “The team did very well in 2015; we got to the semifinals of the Conference.”
Much of that was due to the mid-season acquisition of world-renowned forward Didier Drogba, as Bernier happily admits: “Didier came in, and we finished the season on a high.”
At one point in the offseason, it seemed Montreal would lose Drogba to retirement and a coaching offer from Chelsea. The Impact managed to convince the striker to return, which had Bernier optimistic about 2016.
“With the same team coming back, [the goal] is to go as far as possible,” said Bernier. “As a veteran and a player from Montreal, I would love to win a trophy and bring a trophy back to Montreal.”
In order to do so, the Impact have to become more reliable performers, avoiding a sluggish start as the season kicks off: “We have to better ourselves in the season,” Bernier said. “We have to be much more consistent.”
Though the MLS championship is the ultimate goal, Bernier is especially looking forward to the upcoming games against fellow Canadian squads the Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto F.C. “It’s just a natural rivalry.”
This Is Home
- STADE SAPUTO
- CAPACITY: 20,801
- OPENED: May 18, 2008
- LOCATION: Montreal, QC
Fan’s Insider Tip
Eric Chenoix (@EricVking): Located a few steps from Viau metro station and only a short ride from the city’s center, Stade Saputo conveniently sits in the heart of Montreal’s Olympic Park, between the former Olympic Village and Olympic Stadium.
The location has much to offer to visitors. Arrive early and spend the day visiting the Botanical Garden, the Insectarium, the Planetarium and the Biodome, all just a stone’s throw away. Cap it off with a visit atop the Montreal Tower, the world’s tallest inclined tower, where you will enjoy a spectacular view of the city and its surroundings.
If tourist attractions aren’t your thing, head to one of the many bars on Ontario Street (a short walk south of Olympic Park), most notably Monsieur Smith, Le Trèfle and Le Blind Pig, which all promise to be packed with hordes of blue-clad Impact fans a few hours before kick-off. To experience the passion and energy of Ultras Montréal, opt for a seat in the West Stand, but if you want to take in the most spectacular view inside the stadium, the East Stand is the place to go, where you will be able to enjoy a stunning postcard view of Stade Saputo with the Olympic Stadium in the background.