Montreal – The Montreal Impact are confident that star striker Didier Drogba will return full of enthusiasm, ready to pick up the same torrid scoring pace he set at the end of last season.
But the 37-year-old Drogba was not on hand to give his thoughts on that topic when the Major League Soccer club opened camp Monday at Olympic Stadium. He is to report to camp in Florida in mid-February after a conditioning stint with his personal trainer in Qatar.
Whether he comes back to the Impact willingly, or if he is merely honoring the final year of his contract, only the former Chelsea star can say for sure. He has made no comment on it so far.
“He’s a professional, with the right intentions, but we’ll see when he comes back,” said Impact president and owner Joey Saputo, who seemed no more attuned to the player’s state of mind than the horde of reporters surrounding him at the Olympic Stadium pitch. “The expectation is that he will come back as the professional he is.”
After arriving with great fanfare, Drogba lifted a stagnant team to a 7-2-2 record in the final two months of the 2015 campaign to finish third in the Eastern Conference. He had 11 goals in as many regular season games and added another in the playoffs.
He expressed optimism for 2016 heading into the off-season, but his loyalties were tested in December when Chelsea inquired about getting him back, perhaps as an assistant coach, to help turn around a disastrous season.
Drogba pondered retirement from playing, but then opted to fulfill the final year of his contract with Montreal. Saputo had few details of what was said between them.
“He wanted some time to reflect,” said Saputo. “I wasn’t going to be the one who stood in the way of his desire to stop playing or change teams or whatever.”
“I was put in a situation that was difficult because we didn’t do anything wrong. But at the end, everything was resolved and he’ll be back.”
Saputo has a lot riding on Drogba’s return. Season tickets and merchandise were sold on the understanding that Drogba will be there. And if he left, the Impact would be scrambling for help on attack.
“Didier spoke to me, that he wanted to think about his post-soccer career and going into coaching and whatnot, but he was aware he was committed to a contract and he just needed some time,” Saputo added.
That he was not at camp on opening day was no surprise. Drogba has his own conditioning program to get ready for a season and will rejoin the team in Tampa, Florida, for the second phase of camp. And exceptions are often made for a player of his age and stature in the sport.
Coach Mauro Biello said Drogba’s playing time will be managed this season to keep him fresh for big games and for the playoffs.
He expects the six-foot-two striker to be welcomed back with open arms by his teammates.
“I remember I was in a situation where I was thinking of retiring and coaching and it wasn’t easy – and I was nowhere near his level,” said Biello. “So I understand that part of it and that it may take a bit of time, but we’re excited and confident that once Didier is back, he’ll be the pro that he is.”
“It was a delicate situation. I’m sure that once he comes back, we’ll put his mind at ease and get him back to where he was last year.”
The Impact work outs in Montreal again on Tuesday before moving to Florida to train outdoors.
By Bill Beacon
The Canadian Press