Straightforward questions typically aren’t difficult to answer. For a different coach, this one posed by media members on Sunday night at Stade Saputo might’ve been.
Where was Dider Drogba?
Montreal head coach Mauro Biello delivered his rejoinder in his typical thin, even tone. Almost casually, Biello mentioned Drogba wasn’t his best option on the day. That, according to Biello’s interpretation, was the reason he’d scribbled forward Matteo Mancosu’s name into the starting lineup sheet the day before Sunday’s pivotal game against Toronto FC. And it was why, according to Biello, Drogba immediately requested to be taken out of the matchday 18-man roster.
As to why Drogba reacted so strongly?
"You'd have to ask him that question," Biello said after the match. "In the end, everybody works hard at training every day to be ready for selection. You're part of a team, and when you're selected or you're not selected, it's about being there for your teammates. It's important that things are settled in the end one way or another and we move forward. That's the message."
It isn’t out of bounds to assume Biello did not sleep all that well last weekend.
Mancosu didn’t score against TFC, but one could certainly argue the manager was vindicated to a degree. Montreal scored a pair of goals, drew the match 2-2 and qualified for the playoffs. The attack was lively, pushing TFC’s defensive midfield in on itself and working diligently through moments of transition. That, according to Biello, was Mancosu’s biggest utility over Drogba. The Ivorian is still a major threat as a goalmouth poacher, but at 38, his ability to contribute in other ways is diminishing.
Biello made a difficult call, probably the toughest call an MLS manager can make. Can you relegate your big-money Designated Player to the wilds of the bench if it’s in the team’s best interests? It’s hard to argue it wasn’t the right call in the end, even if Drogba’s backlash precluded him from playing in a massive game. And if nothing else, Biello deserves mounds of credit for the simple act of sticking to his convictions.
The league is slowly maneuvering out of the days when its Designated Players were above reproach and virtually guaranteed minutes regardless of form. One can only imagine the terrible deeds David Beckham would’ve had to commit to get himself benched. As the league matures, so too does the temerity of its coaches.
Biello’s decision wasn’t made in a vacuum. In 2013, for instance, Mike Petke’s New York Red Bulls had gone winless in three games when Petke and French superstar Thierry Henry had a dust-up at practice. Henry reportedly walked off the practice field in a huff after the two got into a heated exchange. At practice the next day, Petke called it “very normal stuff,” and that was that. Henry was back at training. Life rolled on.
The Red Bulls went 6-0-2 the rest of the way and won the Supporter’s Shield, the first trophy in the club’s then-17-year history. Players on the team would later call the Petke-Henry spat as a turning point in the season.
At the time, Henry was stating his case as perhaps the greatest Designated Player in MLS history. Petke, a first-year head coach with just one year of experience as an assistant, is a mere year older than Henry. The coach spoke his piece anyway, even to Henry, and ultimately it’s hard to quibble over the result. It worked, whatever happened.
Stories in this realm are becoming increasingly commonplace. Part of that has to do with the league’s rising middle class. Players like Mancosu populate league rosters in increasingly heavier numbers, giving managers more chess pieces for the tactical board. Once it might’ve made little sense to pull off Drogba, even at the tender age of 38. Now? Utilizing the UEFA Champions League winner as a super-sub was Biello’s play.
Even if Drogba didn’t agree. Nobody said coaching was easy.
The questions now shift from Biello to his world-famous striker. Impact owner Joey Saputo said Tuesday the issue had been “resolved to the club’s satisfaction,” and Drogba plans on accepting Biello’s decisions going forward. Which is good news, but it doesn’t mean Drogba is entirely happy with his plan either.
Drogba’s is a sensitive soul, perhaps surprisingly so. His launchpad to Chelsea was a one-year stint at Olympique Marseille, where he scored 30 goals in all competitions. Chelsea’s transfer fee after that season — they offered about $1 million for every goal he scored that year — was too good for Marseille to ignore. When Drogba learned the club sold him entirely because they didn’t want to regret leaving that much money on the table, he broke down in tears sitting at his locker for a final time.
And when he finally closed the door on his second stint at Chelsea in 2015, he did so amidst complaints about playing time. “I know next year I will want to have more minutes than now,” he said at the time. “I want to play and finish on a high knowing I gave everything.”
Months later, he joined Montreal.
Whether this dents his MLS legacy is hard to ascertain in the moment. Drogba’s flash of lightning in 2015 is still unprecedented; he more or less dragged the Impact into the playoffs last season by scoring 11 goals in 11 games after joining the team five months into the season. That simply doesn’t happen. But being unable to accept a changed role tends to hang awkwardly on aging stars, especially those competing for minutes. In terms of playing time, this is not dissimilar to his situation during his last year at Chelsea. Notably, he was not at Stamford Bridge beyond that season.
Drogba was never set up to be the impetus that won the Impact an MLS Cup. Not in 2016. That’s always rested on the shoulders of playmaker Ignacio Piatti. The No. 10 is arguably the best at what he does in the league, and statistically the Impact are no worse off with Mancosu up top than with Drogba this year. With Piatti pulling the strings, that much is obvious.
But a locker room riven by the complaints of an aging superstar could certainly play a part in losing them an MLS Cup. And based on his cool head over the last week, you would not put it past Biello to pilot them through the storm.