Felipe and Didier Drogba battle for ball-NY-MTL-9.23.16
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Didier Drogba, controversy behind him, making major impact for Montreal

MONTREAL – The Montreal Impact and Didier Drogba have put their controversy well behind them as they continue deeper into the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs and prepare for a historic edition of the 401 Derby.

Drogba and the Impact took to the practice pitch at their Centre Nutrilait training facility Wednesday for the first time since they defeated the New York Red Bulls to advance to an all-Canadian Eastern Conference Final series against Toronto FC.

The Chelsea and Ivory Coast legend played for the first time since Sept. 28 at Red Bull Arena on Sunday. Drogba, who did not dress for Montreal's first two playoff games because of back issues, came off the bench to replace starting striker Matteo Mancosu in the 80th minute.

He assisted on Ignacio Piatti's second goal of the game in the Impact's 2-1 win against the Red Bulls in the decisive leg of the Conference Semifinals, with Montreal advancing 3-1 on aggregate.

"Oh, it's nice to have him back in the group and that he's fit," Impact captain Patrice Bernier said. "And you saw when he comes in, he brings that element, his physicality, his experience. Look, he was on the field for a few minutes and he got an assist. He allows us to breathe at that moment where it wasn't an easy period of time where we were maybe behind the ball and didn't have an escape route.

"And with him, his CV talks for itself in terms of big games. He's a big-game player, but the factor that he comes in those 10 minutes and he's able to hold the ball and let the team breathe, it's a big push for the team. It's a big plus to have a player like him come in off the bench like that."

Drogba, who lost his starting job to Mancosu late in the season, refused to be in Montreal coach Mauro Biello's 18 when he did not start in a 2-2 tie against Toronto at Stade Saputo on Oct. 16. He subsequently patched things up with Biello and Impact owner Joey Saputo, who said Drogba would accept whatever role was asked of him.

"Of course everybody writes a lot of stuff, 'What's going on?' How he's thinking? But in terms of internally with the group, nothing has changed," Bernier said. "Everything is the same, it was just we were waiting for him to get back on the field. But he's a vibrant guy, a great leader, good personality, and you saw after the game he was as happy as everybody else that we won and celebrating. So internally, this group for the last year-and-a-half, the team spirit has been great, fantastic, probably the thing that pushes us all over the hump."

Biello said it was fantastic to get Drogba back on the field Sunday, providing a late boost like he did in his previous game, when he came on for the final 20 minutes and assisted on a goal by Johan Venegas in a 3-1 win against San Jose.

"You saw right away what he brought to the table and I think for us, to have that weapon to come in and to stabilize and close off a game like that, and he's done it twice now," Biello said. "He did it against San Jose and now he did it again against New York, so for us it's great. And in the end, if we have that possibility, it only helps this team."

The first leg against Toronto will be played at Olympic Stadium on Nov. 22. Biello said Drogba will be available, despite the domed stadium's turf field, which he usually avoids.

"Obviously his back was still bothering him a little bit and he said he was OK, and now it's about moving forward and it's about staying focused on what we could control and that's getting ready for Toronto," Biello said. "And he's ready, whether he needs to start or whether he needs to come off the bench, and we saw that, and in the end that's what we want from."

And Bernier said the attention paid to Drogba by the media did not affect the team's performance.

"No, you saw the results," Bernier said. "At this stage of the season, at the end of the season, everybody's locked and loaded and thinking of what we need to do to get the result. And we did it the last games of the season, pushed through, went to Orlando in 40 degrees heat, one o'clock in the afternoon, got the result. Drew 2-2 against Toronto, but we had played very well for the first half.

"And in the playoffs, guys like Matteo Mancuso came in and responded. And all season, you've seen [Michael] Salazar had his moment when it came and it wasn't going great, scored a few goals. Dom [Oduro] started well, came back, now he's being clutch also. So you see that this team, it's strength is character and it comes from every player that's involved in this team."