MONTREAL — After training this week, Didier Drogba took Montreal Impact rookie strikers Romario Williams and Anthony Jackson aside for some extra shooting practice.
On Wednesday, more players joined in, looking to catch a bit of scoring magic from the former Chelsea star who has become a giant presence since signing with the Major League Soccer club on July 27.
“He gave us some advice and tips on where to shoot and how to shoot the ball,” said midfielder Maxim Tissot. “It’s Drogba. You listen to him.”
At 37, Drogba’s days as a Premier League superstar may be behind him, but his combination of size, skill, scoring touch and attitude has helped boost morale, energy and ambitions on an Impact side that looked to be fading in August.
While their first priority remains to clinch a playoff spot, the Impact are starting to believe that with Drogba they can reach much higher.
The Ivory Coast striker made his Impact debut Aug. 8, playing the final 31 minutes of a 1-0 loss at home to D.C. United.
A sore toe kept him out until his first start on Saturday night, when he scored a hat-trick — one goal with the left foot, one with the right and the other on a header — in a 4-3 comeback win over the Chicago Fire that had the sellout crowd at Saputo Stadium roaring. The performance earned him MLS player of the week honours.
“Its like a storybook start,” said Mauro Biello, the former Impact captain who was in his first game as head coach since replacing the fired Frank Klopas. “For him to come in and contribute like that right away was great.
“That was encouraging for the group. Hopefully he continues to transmit the leadership and positive energy he’s brought. It’s not only his play on the field but everything else that comes with it that brings the biggest effect.”
The win put the Impact (9-11-4) into the sixth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot, but with games in hand on all their rivals.
The next test comes Saturday at Los Angeles before a Sept. 16 road matchup against San Jose. Top central defender Laurent Ciman will miss both games with a suspension.
It is only when Ciman returns Sept. 19 at home against New England that Montreal may have its ideal starting 11 together on the pitch for the first time.
Midfield star Ignacio Piatti returned from an injury against Chicago, while mid-season pickup Johan Venegas and right back Ambroise Oyongo are to join the team in Los Angeles after serving international duty.
“When we get back Ciman, Oyongo and Venegas, we’ll have a very good team,” said Piatti. “We have to keep working to make the playoffs.
“I think if we’re all together, we should win the MLS.”
That bold assessment indicates how Drogba’s arrival, as well as the coaching change, has helped alter the club’s mentality.
Players say he’s a great teammate. When Piatti was substituted late against Chicago, he handed the captain’s armband to Drogba, who right away gave it to veteran Nigel Reo-Coker.
Despite his age and aggravating his sore toe, Drogba performed his defensive duties with as much rigour as on attack.
His teammates were impressed.
“He has a winning mentality,” Tissot said. “We’re going into a game against one of the best teams in the league (in Los Angeles) and his message was we have to win.
“Home or away, he wants to win. You saw that when he scored three goals, but when we were leading 4-3, he’d come back in the midfield to help try to win back the ball. He’s an example to follow. We all look up to him.”
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press