Drogba helped transform Impact’s MLS season

Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba. (Graham Hughes/CP)

MONTREAL — If the point of soccer is to “live great emotions,” as Patrice Bernier likes to say, then the Montreal Impact had quite an exceptional 2015 MLS season.

In nine months, the Impact became the second North American team to reach the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League, then struggled in MLS, struggled to sell tickets at Saputo Stadium, fired coach Frank Klopas, signed Didier Drogba, started selling out home games again, saw new fan groups emerge, ended the season with the best record at 7-2-2, finished third in the East, made the playoffs for the second time, demolished rivals Toronto FC in the first round, and, on Sunday, lost to the Columbus Crew in a pulsating Conference semifinal series in overtime.

From an emotional standpoint, 2015 will be difficult to beat.

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Moving into next year the Impact, who have had very mixed results since joining MLS in 2012, will be looking to build on this past season’s success and finally find stability.

What made this year particularly exceptional for Montreal was the way that it managed to greatly surpass expectations. With the 2014 MLS campaign being as dismal as it was—they finished last with a record of 6-18-10—no one gave the Impact much of a chance against Pachuca in the Champions League quarterfinals. But not only did they overcome Pachuca, they went all the way to the two-game final against Mexican powerhouse Club America, earning a draw in the first leg at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, before losing the return match before over 60,000 fans at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.

With MLS deciding to add an additional sixth playoff spot, and two expansion teams (Orlando and New York City) arriving in the Eastern Conference, simply making the playoffs was never going to be hailed as a great achievement, but no one saw the Impact finishing as high as third, especially with their very slow start to the campaign.

Crucial to Montreal’s success this season was its player recruitment. They had a clear idea of what positions needed to be addressed, of what kind of players they wanted, and they went out and got them.

Defence was the position of greatest need going into the season and the club did superbly with the acquisitions of Laurent Ciman, Victor Cabrera and Donny Toia—the last two only making the minimum league salary of $60,000.

Signing Drogba in August was a masterstroke. Plucked away from the Chicago Fire, who initially owned his MLS signing rights, the Ivorian was sensational for the Impact, and almost singlehandedly pushed Montreal into the playoffs with 11 goals in 11 games (he would end the year with 12 in 14).

Having already experienced an end-of-season capitulation in 2013, when the team began to falter in September, and a place in the playoffs looked in jeopardy, Montreal’s top brass did well to fire Klopas and replace him with assistant coach Mauro Biello.

The 43-year-old Montreal native, with considerable help from Drogba who was just starting to enter into game shape, completely transformed the Impact’s season. The players, who had bemoaned Klopas’ tactical inflexibility and struggles in communicating the right message and tone, took an instant liking to Biello and the team began to play with a lot more passion and vigor.

The introduction of a more defensively disciplined 4-3-3 alignment, which gave the Impact’s older players in central midfield less ground to cover and which pushed Piatti to his preferred position on the left side of an attacking triumvirate, made the Impact a very difficult proposition. The 0-0 draw at LA Galaxy and the 1-0 win in New England were some of the more impressive results of the season.

After changing coaches four times over the last four seasons, with Biello it looks as if the Impact have found a manager who will be able to guide the team for several years.

Unlike the last off-season, Montreal’s roster won’t need any drastic changes either. That being said, they shouldn’t think they don’t need anyone just because they finished the year in a very positive manner. One area the club will surely need to strengthen and rejuvenate is central midfield, where starting players Marco Donadel, Nigel Reo-Coker and Bernier are all in their 30s.

Whatever does happen in the upcoming seasons, 2015 will retain special value for Impact fans. Memories, such as those of Cameron Porter’s last gasp goal against Pachuca and the arrival of Didier Drogba, are sure to last a long time.

Nick Sabetti is a Montreal-based writer. Follow him on Twitter