The Impact will be hoping that the "Drogba Effect" felt late last season carries over into the new campaign.
2015 regular season: 3rd Eastern Conference (7th overall)
2015 playoffs: Conference semi-finals; 4-3 aggregate loss to Columbus Crew SC
MLS Cup odds: 30/1
Players in: Kyle Fisher (SuperDraft), Lucas Ontivero (Galatasaray, loan), Harry Shipp (Chicago Fire, trade), Michael Salazar (SuperDraft)
Players out: Justin Mapp (out of contract), Dilly Duka (out of contract), Kenny Cooper (option declined), Nigel Reo-Coker (mutual contract termination), Eric Miller (Colorado Rapids, trade)
After a fairy tale run to the CONCACAF Champions League final, the Montreal Impact made a frustratingly slow start to the 2015 MLS season, waiting until mid-May for their first win before struggling for consistency over the next two months. However, once Didier Drogba arrived in the summer and club legend Mauro Biello replaced Frank Klopas as head coach, everything changed. Buoyed by the Ivorian striker’s goalscoring exploits, they took 23 points from their last 11 games to finish third in the Eastern Conference and subsequently made their deepest playoff run to date, beating Canadian rivals Toronto FC in the process.
With Drogba back – despite Chelsea’s best efforts – and little squad turnover, they’ll be hoping that last season’s late surge translates into 2016 success.
Reasons to be positive
Though Drogba may steal most of the headlines, there's plenty to like about the rest of Montreal’s squad. Belgium international Laurent Ciman is arguably the best defender in MLS on his day, while centre-back partner Victor Cabrera, full-backs Donny Toia and Ambroise Oyongo and goalkeeper Evan Bush complete an extremely underrated starting unit.
Attacking-wise, Argentine playmaker Ignacio Piatti, Costa Rican winger Johan Venegas and Galatasaray loanee Lucas Ontivero will provide bags of creativity in the final third, and while the loss of Dilly Duka comes as a blow, his departure is offset by Harry Shipp’s arrival. The 24-year-old American has the potential to be an elite No. 10 at the MLS level, and it’s almost criminal that the club were able to acquire him from the Chicago Fire for next to nothing.
Trouble on the horizon?
Drogba may have returned for 2016, but whether he’ll be at Stade Saputo for the entire season is still not entirely set in stone. The 37-year-old striker was widely expected re-join Chelsea this winter as a member of Guus Hiddink’s backroom staff, and while Montreal managed to hold onto him for now, owner Joey Saputo can’t guarantee that his star man will stay beyond the summer.
"I can't answer that question," he told ESPN FC last month when asked whether Drobga was on board for the full campaign. "The expectation is that he's going to continue to be a pro. I don't have a feeling on whether he's not going to play, whether he's coming back because he has to come back."
Key man: Didier Drogba
Drogba was obviously expected to make a big impression in MLS over the second half of 2015, but nobody anticipated him being quite so dominant. The former Chelsea star was a one-man wrecking crew at times, bagging 11 goals in 11 regular season games to help the Impact soar up the East’s standings. As long as he’s with the Canadian club, the rest of the conference has to take them seriously.
One to watch: Cameron Porter
Selected out of Princeton in the third round of the 2015 SuperDraft, Porter went from relative unknown to cult hero in the space of a few seconds last year when he scored the stoppage-time goal that sent Montreal through to the CCL semi-finals at the expense of Mexican giants Pachuca. However, the 22-year-old striker didn’t get much more of a chance to show his promise in 2015, as he suffered a season-ending knee injury just 20 minutes into his first MLS start two weeks later. He certainly looked the part in his limited action, though, and having now made a full recovery, is aiming to pick up where he left off last term as Drogba’s backup.
Predicted regular season finish: 4th Eastern Conference
Plenty will argue that the Impact are overly-reliant on Drogba, but while that may be true to an extent, they have more than enough quality elsewhere to rival the other main playoff contenders in the East. Biello’s side will obviously need the powerful striker’s goals, but saying they are a one-man team would be doing a gross disservice to the likes of Piatti, Shipp and Ciman.