MONTREAL – Didier Drogba brought the will to win with him when he signed on to play for the Montreal Impact.
Montreal will host the biggest game of its five-year MLS history on Tuesday, with Drogba likely to be available off the bench against Toronto FC for the first leg of the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Championship (8 pm ET, TSN1/3, RDS in Canada | ESPN in US).
And although the Impact have made it deeper into the playoffs than ever before, Drogba cut short a question about how it felt to be close to achieving the objective he set for himself and the team when he first arrived in North America as a Designated Player last July.
"Not close yet – I think we're not that far," Drogba said after practice at Olympic Stadium on Friday. "Closer to the objective, to the target, but to win the conference final would be something huge, knowing the history of the club and where we started when I first came and where we are now. I think there's a lot to be proud of so it would mean a lot."
The 38-year-old Chelsea and Cote d'Ivoire legend lost his starting job to Italian striker Matteo Mancosu during the second half of his second season in Montreal, but Drogba proved in the Eastern Conference Semifinal series that he remains a lethal threat. He came off the bench to set up the second goal of the game Ignacio Piatti in the the Impact's 2-1 second leg win at the New York Red Bulls on Nov. 6, a victory that secured a 3-1 aggregate series victory for Montreal.
That win allowed Montreal to advance to the Conference Championship for the first time. Toronto's conference semifinal win over New York City FC subsequently set up an all-Canadian series.
"I think it's the kind of game that can be a fantastic experience and reference for the Canadian football," Drogba said. "You know, two of the best teams in the semifinal, in a Conference Final, I think this is the best thing that could happen for this country. And the way people are so passionate here about the game, the way the stadiums are full, you could see the attendances here in Montreal, it's amazing what we've been doing, what the fans have been doing. So I think it's going to be great for the future."
And it will take the 401 Derby to a whole new level, according to Drogba, who has played a part in some of the soccer world's most significant derbies, including Chelsea-Arsenal in the English Premier League, France's Le Classique between Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain and for Galatasaray in Turkey's Intercontinental Derby against Fenerbahce.
"All derbies, in every country, have a history," Drogba said. "For example, Galatasaray-Fenerbahce, it's just not normal. Paris Saint-Germain-Marseille is the same. So I think even if this rivalry is young, it still exists. We saw every time we played against them, every time we won or they won, it was a completely different celebration. So yes, it's always exciting to play a derby, but it must be won."
The need to win is something Drogba has made a point of emphasis to his Impact teammates, many of whom had fond memories of reaching the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League final, at least until he gave them his perspective on their 4-2 loss to Club America.
"I think it's going to be very important to remember what happened in this final because to [lead] 1-0 at home and to continue to attack the way they were attacking – because I watched the game – I think it was like committing suicide, and that's exactly what happened," Drogba said. "We were attacking and attacking. So you need to cool down the game, take your time, read the game, change the rhythm when it's needed.
"For all of these players here they would say to me, 'It was amazing! It was an amazing accomplishment.' I said, 'But you lost, so what did you accomplish?' They say, 'Ah yeah, but it was a final, there was a lot of people ... ' I said, 'But you remember this final as a loss. So make sure next time you are in a final, do everything you have to to win the final because this one, you lost it, so you don't have the trophy. We need a trophy here and then you can say this final was amazing.'"
To make their next step toward that trophy, Drogba believes it is crucial that the Impact makes the most of starting the series in Montreal.
"We have the home-field advantage, so we have to have a good result," Drogba said. "And for me, I always say a good result, and people get fed up of it, but 0-0 is a good result, 1-1 is a good result, 1-0 is a good result. All these results are good because there is a return match and then the opposing team will have to open their game."
And controlling their reaction to the potential energy from a crowd of up to about 60,000 to make the most of their last game of the season in Montreal will be the key to Impact's success against their natural rivals.
"I think what we need is a lot of concentration, humility, because of course we beat them there, but we have to remember that we drew also here in the last game," Drogba said. "And these games are derbies and derbies are really difficult games and could end up with no goals. And we can't afford to get carried away by the fans and their support. We need to stay focused and make sure we're there when we have to."