by Adrian Knowler
The Montreal Impact kick off their MLS season on Sunday, March 6 against the Whitecaps in Vancouver. The Impact are looking to do at least as well as they did last season, when they finished third in the Eastern Conference and made a run to the conference semi-finals.
Former Chelsea star striker Didier Drogba returns this season, and that can only be good news for the Impact’s chances. In 11 games with Montreal last season, Drogba dominated, scoring a goal per match. Although he may not have the same pace as he did in his prime with the Premier League, his world class technique and physical stature were well on display last season, even with his limited action. Following his arrival in Montreal, the Impact shot up from sixth place to third in the conference.
Montreal head coach Mauro Biello has said that Drogba may receive regular days off in the beginning of the season, mainly due to the number of matches that the Impact are scheduled to play on artificial turf fields. According to Impact technical director Adam Braz, Drogba will not be in the line-up for matches on artificial fields. “It’s simply a matter of not taking a risk. The season is long. There are 34 games. It’s unfortunate, with our scheduling, that the first four out of five games are on turf. We know that if we manage him correctly, he’ll be good to go the rest of the season and be healthy at the end when things count.”
Impact fans can expect to see Drogba make his debut on March 19 in Dallas. Montreal’s first two home matches are being held at the Olympic Stadium rather than the nearby Saputo field due of winter weather. Although the temperature in the stadium will be significantly more comfortable for players and fans alike, the field is artificial, meaning that Drogba’s home debut could come as late as April 23.
Argentine playmaker Ignacio Piatti and Belgian centreback Laurent Ciman also return this season to lead a line-up that looks to be Montreal’s strongest ever. Midfielders Justin Mapp, Dilly Duka and Nigel Reo-Coker all left Montreal in the off-season, but the Impact acquired several players, including American Harry Shipp to replace them. Also returning is goalkeeper Evan Bush, whose heroics in the CONCACAF Champions’ League last year will be remembered by Impact fans. The core of the team is as strong as any in MLS, and if players such as Dominic Oduro and playmaker Shipp step up, Montreal will be a force to be reckoned with in the East.
If Drogba remains healthy and productive, this Impact team can improve on last year’s results. With no Champions’ League fixtures this year, Montreal can focus on MLS, which may keep the squad rested enough to compete for a top five finish. If not, missing the playoffs is a distinct possibility, and Montreal may be looking for a new head coach for the fifth time in six seasons.