Drogba gone, but Impact starting 11 intact as training camp opens
MONTREAL — There wasn’t much need for introductory handshakes as the Montreal Impact reassembled for training camp on Tuesday only 55 days after their extra time loss to Toronto FC in the MLS Eastern Conference final.
Other than the departure of star striker Didier Drogba, who had become a bench player by the end of last season, the Impact has most of its team back, including the starting 11.
“After the game in Toronto everybody knew we still had something to give and I think that’s the reason they kept the group together and that’s why everybody’s back — because we have something to finish,” said forward Dominic Oduro, who turned down outside offers to ink a new two-year contract with Montreal.
“I can’t wait to start the season again and I can’t wait to meet Toronto again. It hurts and I want to make it right.”
The Impact looked to be in trouble late in the 2016 season until coach Mauro Biello put together a starting 11 that clicked. They finished the regular season strong and then beat D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls in the playoffs before facing Toronto. They won the first game in front of 61,000 at Olympic Stadium before conceding twice in overtime in the away leg.
The starting group has Evan Bush in goal behind fullbacks Hassoun Camara and Ambroise Oyongo; centrebacks Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera; midfielders Hernan Bernardello, Marco Donadel and Patrice Bernier; and attackers Oduro, Ignacio Piatti and Matteo Mancosu.
They lost fullback Donny Toia in the expansion draft but picked up ex-Red Bull Chris Duvall. Midfielders Johan Venegas, Harry Shipp and Kyle Bekker are gone, but Andres Romero, the team’s player of the year in 2015, is back after missing a full season with a knee injury.
And they are to add Swiss international Blerim Dzemaili, who has been on a scoring tear with Bologna in Italy’s Serie A, in May or June.
The speedster Oduro was brought back into a starting role late in the season and found an unexpected chemistry with Piatti and Mancosu in Montreal’s quick, counter-attacking game. Piatti led the team with 17 goals and added four in the playoffs, while Mancosu joined in mid-season from Bologna and scored three times in 15 games and added four in five playoff contests.
The three of them hope to keep that going.
“The last day in the locker-room Mancosu, Piatti and I had this conversation and we said at least one of us should get 20 goals,” he said. “That would be the target.
“For us to come together and say that shows the belief in ourselves that we’re going to make it happen. It won’t be easy but if we can continue the momentum we have from last year I think we should have a good attacking team.”
Bernier, the team captain who will retire at the end of the season, cautioned a lot can change over the course of a season.
“It doesn’t mean it’ll be the same once we start the season, but at least we have a basis, that we know who the starting 11 is,” said Bernier, who will turn 38 in September. “Romero’s back. We have some younger players coming in that will be fighting.
“We have Blerim coming in halfway through the season. Getting in synch may be quicker than in the past but we have to work hard. Everything we did last year is gone, all those passes and goals are gone.”
And they won’t have Drogba, a constant threat to score despite his 38 years who was an extra factor for opponents to worry about coming in as a second half substitute.
“You can’t replace the personality of the player,” said Bernier. “He was charismatic and very ‘life of the party.’
“He left a lot of good things, but this team is still very strong in terms of the nucleus and the leaders that are here, so we’ll carry on.”
The Impact had a one-hour workout at Olympic Stadium and were to fly Tuesday evening to Orlando, Fla, where they will train until Feb. 3. They return to Montreal for a week and then head back to St. Petersburg, Fla., before opening the season March 4 in San Jose.
Piatti and Bernardello were to join the team Wednesday. Oyongo is at the African Cup of Nations, where he is to play for Cameroon in the quarter-finals Saturday against Senegal.
Forward Michael Salazar (knee) and midfielder David Choiniere (ankle) are out with injuries.
Winger Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla, midfielder Shamit Shome and defender Thomas Meilleur-Giguere are with the Canadian under-20 national team and will also miss the start of camp.
Academy players invited to camp were goalkeepers James Pantemis and David Paulmin, defenders Aron Mkungilwa and Mele Temguia and winger Jimmy-Shammar Sanon. Veteran left back Anthony Wallace is in camp on a trial.
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press
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