MONTREAL – It ended one match earlier than Impact supporters would’ve liked, but the Didier Drogba era is officially over in Montreal.
Drogba played his final game in the Impact’s Bleu-Blanc-Noir on Wednesday, when Montreal gave up two goals in extra time to fall to Toronto FC 7-5 on aggregate in a wild Eastern Conference Championship series. The game marked a disappointing end to Drogba’s year and a half in Montreal, with the Impact ultimately falling just two wins short of the Ivorian legend’s stated goal of bringing an MLS title to Quebec.
While the defeat to rival TFC was undeniably a disappointment for Drogba, who announced that he wouldn’t return to Montreal in 2017 following the series’ first leg at a sold-out Olympic Stadium, it didn’t prevent him from reflecting positively on his time with the Impact in the club’s season-ending media availability on Friday.
"After the game, I saw a lot of players like disappointed, in tears, and I could see the desire to win, the desire to make sure a city would be proud of us," said Drogba, who came off the bench to play the final 47 minutes in Leg 2. "And it was really sad, it was really disappointing for me and it was difficult also to cheer them up and it really showed me that we are a group of good persons, good human beings. This group is full of good players, talented players, but above all we are a fantastic group altogether and that's for me what stands the most."
Drogba’s time in Montreal was full of staggering highs – and a few awkward lows. The 38-year-old joined the Impact last July and immediately began terrorizing opposing defenses, scoring 11 goals in his first 11 regular season matches to propel Montreal over the red line and into the playoffs.
He was expected to carry the Impact again in 2016, but never really got things going after missing four of the club’s first five games to avoid playing on artificial turf. He did manage to record 10 goals and six assists in 22 regular season games, but was benched down the stretch and refused to dress in the Impact’s penultimate regular season match, sparking a controversy that eventually calmed in time for him to return for the playoffs.
Drogba, who said on Friday that he plans on continuing his career with a new team, acknowledged on Friday that 2016 wasn’t his best season, but again pointed to the bonds formed with his Impact teammates and Montreal fans as the things he’ll remember most from this year.
"I think there's many goals that I could highlight, but this season hasn't been my best season," he said. "But I think we had some great celebrations, great wins, and no, more than the goals is the connection with the fans and with the players after a win, or after a difficult match. For example, I think it was after Orlando, where we lost here, and we came in the dressing room and everybody was down and I said that, 'Forget about this. It might be a difficult time but we're going to the playoff. We're going to qualify and we're going to win the Cup.'
"Obviously, we didn't win it but we showed that we could come back from a difficult moment. And this has been a signature from this team, you know, to be down and be able to come back when nobody expected us to be there. I think we did quite well."
The four-time English Premier League and FA Cup champion and 2012 UEFA Champions league hero also reflected on the Impact organization, telling reporters that he sees some areas in which the club can improve, but making clear that he found Montreal’s overall operation praiseworthy.
"This club is young so needless to say there are things to improve, but at the same time it is growing at an impressive rate which means that in a short amount of time we have reached levels that a lot of teams with much more experience have never attained," he said. "Playing in a [CONCACAF] Champions League final, there are teams that have dreamt for years and years of playing in one, and Montreal has done that. In the space of two years, making an MLS [conference] semifinal and now a final, I think there are a lot of teams that wish they were in our place today."
In the end, while he didn’t claim the MLS Cup he talked about bringing to the Impact last July, Drogba still feels like he “won” his stint in Montreal.
"In many ways because I came out of my comfort zone, playing in Europe, and to come here at an advanced age and created expectations from everyone to perform, to be good, even though I was 37, or 38 now," Drogba said. "I came out of my comfort zone and that's why I'm so proud of what I did here and being able to play and to score some goals and to inspire, I hope, some people. And to see the way people react, even opposition fans, you know, when we travel, they show us more respect and I think I won my battle."