Star striker Drogba returns to Impact after being AWOL from TFC game
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MONTREAL — Didier Drogba is back with the Montreal Impact and is willing to accept whatever role coach Mauro Biello assigns him.
That was the message from Biello and team president Joey Saputo on Tuesday as the club held its first workout since their star striker went missing to protest his exclusion from the starting 11.
The former Chelsea star did not even show up at the Stadium to watch the Impact's 2-2 draw with Toronto FC on Sunday and there was concern that would be the end of the 38-year-old's playing career.
But Drogba met with Saputo and Biello and the dispute appears to be settled. Drogba was at the team's training centre, but, like most of the regulars, did not join in an informal practice and did not speak to the media.
"The situation has been resolved to the club's satisfaction," said Saputo. "Didier has accepted to assume the role that the head coach sees fit while contributing to the success of this club moving forward.
"When he came to Montreal, Didier said he came here to win, and he still has the same objective."
The only penalty was an undisclosed fine that falls under the league's collective bargaining agreement with the players for missing a game without permission.
Biello had Drogba come off the bench and used newcomer Matteo Mancosu as the lone striker in a pair of victories in recent weeks. But when Mancosu came down with a minor injury last week, Drogba trained hard thinking he would start against Toronto. When Mancosu turned out to be OK and Biello opted to go with the Italian, Drogba told him that in that case he didn't even want to be in the lineup at all.
Saputo said he felt "disrespected" when Drogba didn't show up for the game.
"I sat down with Didier to find out why he did what he did," said Saputo. "I wanted to hear it directly from him.
"I asked him to sit down with the coach to clarify whatever issues there were, which he did. I think we're all comfortable moving forward on what needs to be done and that he understands why the decision was made. He may not have accepted it, but he understands."
Drogba took Major League Soccer by storm when he joined the Impact a little more than halfway through the 2015 campaign. The Ivorian legend was brilliant while scoring 11 goals in as many regular season games and lifting the team to third place and a spot in the post-season.
His presence alone helped fill Saputo Stadium and gave the Impact hope for a long playoff run.
Drogba has been less effective this season, especially when playing a full 90 minutes, although he still has 10 goals in 23 appearances. When Mancosu joined on loan from Bologna in mid-season and immediately found chemistry with star midfielder Ignacio Piatti, Biello suddenly had another option up front.
"Didier is a dominant force and, in the end, if I can use him in a certain way to help the team, that's what's important," said Biello. "I still believe in Didier and I still want Didier to come in and help this team and be the hero he was last year."
It appeared to be a classic battle of a team-first coach against an aging superstar which the coach won, but Biello wasn't buying that narrative.
"I don't think it was battle between anybody," he said. "It was about resolving the situation the best we can so we can move forward and focus on the next game and the playoffs."
The fifth-place Impact clinched a playoff spot against TFC. They end the regular season Sunday at New England with a chance to pass D.C. United for fourth place and get home field advantage in the single-game knockout round of playoffs. The game in New England is on artificial turf, so it is unlikely Drogba would start anyway. His knees react badly to synthetic surfaces.
The players are glad to have Drogba back, said captain Patrice Bernier.
"Everyone appreciates Didier for what he does on the field and also off the field," he said. "As a person, he's been tremendous. A great friend.
"And in the locker-room, everyone respects him, and not just for the status of the player and what he's done before."