MLS: Montreal ponders playoff exit in Columbus but future looks bright for Impact

MLS: Montreal ponders playoff exit in Columbus but future looks bright for Impact

Main pic: Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba (11) grimaces as he comes into contact with Columbus Crew defender Harrison Afful (25) during the MLS playoff soccer game at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, Ohio on Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Columbus Dispatch, Fred Squillante. 

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Didier Drogba was quiet in the immediate aftermath of Montreal’s MLS playoff exit.

The Impact’s talismanic striker sat in his locker, slowly getting dressed. He didn’t brush off the media, instead essentially telling reporters in French that he wasn’t going to share in the immediate aftermath of the season-ending loss to Columbus Crew SK.

The 37-year-old Ivorian helped make it a year to remember.

The big, powerful striker added to the Drogba legend with 11 goals in 11 regular season games with another against Toronto in the playoffs. But he was kept off the scoresheet twice by Columbus.

Drogba went down twice in the first half Sunday, getting treatment after crumpling to the turf during a 3-1 loss that resulted in a 4-3 aggregate defeat in the Eastern Conference semifinal. He was quiet on the night, adding touches like a flick-on or audacious try at a backheel but not grabbing the game by the scruff of its neck.

Argentine defender Gaston Sauro, who will miss Game 1 of the Eastern final against the Red Bulls due to yellow card accumulation, did a fine job of marshalling Drogba.

Drogba was a sandpaper-like irritant in Game 1. He was subdued in Game 2 — like the Montreal offence, playing in bursts.

“Didier’s fine,” said interim coach Mauro Biello, when asked if his star was hurt. “You have to applaud his effort. I think someone that’s come in here mid-season, without pre-season, to be able to play all those games — 90 minutes — and fight and push and score all those goals is exceptional.

“All I can say is good things about what he brought to this team.”

Drogba’s talents, along with Biello’s steadying hand after taking over from Frank Klopas in late August, helped turn around a team that was spinning its wheels. The Impact (15-13-6) finished the season on a 7-2-2 run.

Montreal made short work of playoff debutante Toronto. But Columbus was a different story.

Crew SC was fuelled by the disappointment of a semifinal exit last season at the hands of New England. And after a quiet night in the 2-1 loss in the opening leg in Montreal, the Columbus stars came to play.

Striker Kei Kamara had two goals, including the 111th-minute decider, and could have had four on the night. Ethan Finlay added a key goal to force extra time.

Playmaker Federico Higuain pulled the strings from midfield, setting up the first goal before moving back to help Wil Trapp defend.

“When you talk about these playoffs and you talk about big players needing to step up, Kei certainly stepped up, Federico certainly stepped up, Ethan Finlay certainly stepped up, our goalkeeper Steve Clark, (defender) Michael Parkhurst, these are the veterans of the team and they really stepped up and led the way by example,” said Gregg Berhalter, the Columbus coach and sporting director.

Columbus clearly learned from its exit in the semfinals last season.

“Every team goes through a process,” Berhalter said. “You need to learn, and you need every stage of that development process and this was another stage. We’ve been there before, we’ve felt the disappointment. And the guys were able to continue on and keep battling though it.”

Biello said almost the same thing. His team, however, is a little further back on the learning curve.

Crew SC came out with a purpose Sunday, scoring just four minutes via Kamara.

“You could see we were up for it,” said Berhalter. “We know we’re a good team and when we play like that we’re a very hard team to play against.

The Impact remain a work in progress. They showed they can field an elegant starting 11 with Ignacio Piatti and Dilly Duka flanking Drogba in attack and the likes of Marco Donadel, Patrice Bernier, Johan Venegas, Nigel Reo-Coker or Calum Mallace forming a determined midfield.

Evan Bush is a quality goalkeeper, shielded by Belgian international Laurent Ciman, Victor Cabrera, Donny Toia and Ambroise Oyongo. Ciman is a class defender but prone to an occasional lapse in judgment, as shown by conceding a needless penalty Sunday.

And while Ciman, listed at six foot, is good in the air, the backline is small. The six-foot-three Kamara, a powerful header, had a field day at home.

The Montreal reserves are young for the most part. Size and experience, plus some help up front, will improve the squad.

Columbus was able to change the game by bringing on forward Jack McInerney and winger Cedrick Mabwati, who offered a different style of attack. McInerney’s shot led to the rebound that Finlay knocked in while Mabwati delivered the cross on the winning goal.

Drogba is due back. The 36-year-old Bernier also wants to return. Biello will undoubtedly have the interim tag removed from his coaching title.

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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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