It’s easy to view the Montreal Impact’s signing of Didier Drogba as another example of an aging star leveraging his fame to take advantage of an MLS team and collect one final payday before retiring.
Drogba is the latest in a long line of international stars the wrong side of 30 who have decided to come in MLS over the past year, a list that most notably includes Frank Lampard (37), Andrea Pirlo (36) and Steven Gerrard (35), along with Kaka and David Villa (both 33).
At 37, Drogba is clearly in the final stages of his career, and he isn’t the same player he was during his first stint with Chelsea from 2004 to 2012 when he helped the Blues become a true super power in the European game.
But while Drogba is not in his prime, he’s also far from being a spent force, just like every player named in the aforementioned list. What’s more, the Ivorian still has plenty of game in his surprisingly sprightly legs, and can help the Impact both on and off the field in the short term.
Despite a reduced role, Drogba still bagged a respectable four goals in 28 league appearances (20 of them as a substitute) for Chelsea during the 2014-15 Premier League season, and added another three goals in 12 appearances in all other competitions, including the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League.
Although athletic, Drogba has always been a bit gangly, and he was never a player blessed with blinding speed. His game was more based on technique and skill on the ball; it was about unlocking defences with craft and guile, about creating spaces for teammates with his intelligent runs off the ball. You don’t lose any of that with age—if anything, those qualities become sharpened.
Yes, he’s 37. But he was running out for one of the biggest clubs in the world this past season, and he wouldn’t have been getting playing time with Chelsea if Jose Mourinho didn’t think he had something to contribute to the cause. To think that he can’t cut it in MLS (mistakenly hyped as a physical and tough league, when the reality is it isn’t any more physical or tougher than Europe’s top divisions) or that his skill set has deteriorated this off-season to the point where he’ll struggle in Montreal is, quite frankly, absurd.
Similar questions dogged Pirlo when he signed with New York City FC—this despite starting in the UEFA Champions League final for Juventus last month. The Italian dazzled in MLS debut on Sunday, giving every indication that he’ll be able to adapt to life in MLS. Likewise, Drogba still has the smarts and skills to make an impact in MLS, even at age 37.
What’s more, Drogba’s arrival fills a massive hole for the Impact. With Drogba now in the fold, Montreal has a proven goal scorer to lead the line for a team that has relied on goal-scoring by a committee of forwards, and who never suitably replaced Marco Di Vaio after the Italian retired in 2014
“He’s a player that will always threaten to score and if not, open up spaces for the rest of the team to take advantage of. He’s not young but he has incredible experience and finishing ability, much like Di Vaio, and I think he’d also bring a belief to the Montreal fans that the Impact are serious about spending to try to improve,” says Sportsnet soccer commentator Paul Dolan.
Indeed, from a commercial perspective, this was a no-brainer for the Impact. Montreal is a fickle sports town for every team bar the beloved Canadiens, and the Impact have struggled at the gate in MLS this season (although they have drawn decent-sized crowds in recent weeks).
Drogba is a big star who can put bums in the seats at Stade Saputo on a regular basis. As a French-speaker, Drogba is also a star who can reach the city’s causal Francophone sports fans. He’ll also create some much-needed buzz for an Impact that has largely been ignored by the city’s mainstream media ever since they reached—and lost—the CONCACAF Champions League final back in April.
Montreal currently sits sixth in the Eastern Conference, right on the edge of the playoff zone. The addition of Drogba gives the Impact an added boost in what promises to be a tight playoff race as the MLS season enters the home stretch. It’s also a serious sign of intent from owner Joe Saputo that he’s willing to spend big to go after marquee players in order to help turn the team into a winner.