TORONTO—How does Toronto FC solve a problem like Didier Drogba?
That’s the big question facing TFC ahead of their Major League Soccer playoff game against the Montreal Impact at Stade Saputo on Thursday.
The Ivorian burned Toronto badly last time out, scoring a pair of goals roughly a minute apart early in the second half to lift the Impact to a 2-1 decision on Sunday in Montreal. That win allowed Montreal to leapfrog Toronto in the standings and to clinch home-field advantage for Thursday’s do-or-die return match.
Soccer Central podcast: SPORTSNET.CA’s Soccer Central podcast, hosted by John Molinaro and James Sharman, takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport’s biggest issues. To listen and subscribe to the podcast, CLICK HERE.
Josh Williams was one of TFC’s defenders tasked with stopping Drogba in Sunday’s loss. He hopes to have better luck the second time around with the Montreal forward, who has scored in each of his last five home games and who was named MLS player of the month for October.
“It’s quite a challenge. I’ve never faced anybody quite like that. He’s a physical player, and you just got to put numbers around him. At the end of the day he has a lot of support around him, so we just can’t focus too much on him,” Williams said.
Williams called the former Chelsea star “a beast of a player” while at the same time insisting TFC can’t show him too much respect.
“He’s a good player, we know that. But we need to focus on what we need to do. If we do that, it’ll be a favourable outcome,” Williams offered.
Fair enough, but Toronto can’t afford to lose track of Drogba who at age 37 has made a huge impact in MLS, scoring 11 goals in 11 appearances. While other factors have played a part in Montreal’s amazing turnaround, there’s no question that Drogba is the main reason why the Impact have been the hottest team in the league over the last two months—they’ve won seven of 11 games with two draws to finish third in the Eastern Conference.
Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley called the Ivorian a game-changer, and not just because of what he’s capable of doing on the pitch.
“His record in terms of not just the goals [he’s scored] but the trophies he’s won and the presence that he’s had in teams speaks for itself. … For Montreal he’s changed their team—there’s no two ways about that,” Bradley said.
Trying to prevent Drogba from scoring on Thursday presents a daunting challenge for a TFC side that has conceded 58 goals this season, tied for the worst defensive record in the league.
So back to the original question: How do you stop Drogba?
Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney, a former defender who played for French club Bastia and faced Drogba when he was with both Guingamp and Olympique Marseille, maintains the first thing his team must do is track him and keep close tabs on him—something the Reds didn’t so well on Sunday.
“Just have presence on him. For crying out loud, he made two runs into the box and nobody [got in his way) or made any contact. They were relatively easy finishes,” Vanney bemoaned.
“We have to be a little more attentive to when the ball is getting into crossing areas or when he’s making runs in the box that we have to have some kind of presence on him, that he doesn’t get to just touch the ball on goal. He’s going to have to deal with us, and we’ve got to make it harder than that. It was too easy. We were just too loose.”
Toronto would also be well advised to not get sucked in by Drogba’s chicanery. On Sunday, the Ivorian went down with an apparent injury and hobbled off the field, only to return a few minutes later and nearly completed his hat trick. It seemed pretty clear he was feigning an injury.
“The whole thing with Drogba, I’m not going to comment on that. I don’t think they need any more locker-room material. I’m going to avoid that situation,” Williams answered when asked about Drogba’s reputation for sometimes going down too easily.
TFC will be missing defender Damien Perquis, who sat out the last two games with a hamstring injury.
If Toronto wins in Montreal, it will advance to the Conference semifinals where it will meet the New York Red Bulls, the best team in MLS during the regular season. TFC would host the opener of the two-match series on Sunday at BMO Field. The second leg would take place Nov. 8 in New Jersey.