Didier Drogba earned himself a new nickname at the end of the regular MLS season – “Backheeler” – as he backheeled two goals within the space of just 60 seconds (54th /55th minutes) in Montreal Impact’s important 2-1 win against Canadian rivals FC Toronto. In scoring the spectacular brace, the former Chelsea star helped his club rise up to third in the final Eastern Conference table. His popularity has also gone sky high. Since making his Major League Soccer (MLS) debut this year in August, the 37-year old has revitalised Impact’s team.
As a result of the dramatic improvement, people in Montreal are talking about the “Drogba effect” as the striker has impressed in all sorts of way and not just through his goal scoring exploits in which he has amassed 11 goals in 11 games. Blue jerseys with the No. 11 on the back have long sold out and have to be shipped in from the USA. After only three months in the MLS, the Drogba shirt has also forced its way into the top 20 of the league sales charts. The average attendance in Montreal has additionally risen by 4,000 to more than 20,000 – a record. And the social media interest in the club has exploded since Drgoba was signed. According to Richard Legendre, his arrival has changed everything at Montreal Impact. “We feel a renewed pride in the club,” said the vice president when talking about the club’s image in the city. He continued by saying, “It’s obviously down to the Drogba effect. However it’s also important that the pride has a lasting effect, especially as the figures for the last few years were unsatisfactory for the league.”
It has not been the case though over the past months. Montreal is the form team at the moment in the MLS. The leap up to third place as a result of the dream backheelers was the culmination of the phenomenal developments that have been taking place since August. “Everything has changed in the past ten matches. Positive results on the pitch, Drogba’s arrival and now qualification for the play-offs – they’re several good elements all at one go,” said Legendre.
Thursday night (00.00 hrs/MEZ) marks the start of the pre-play-offs – the knockout round. A highlight is the renewed encounter between Montreal and Toronto. The Canadian duel has rekindled the passion for football in the country after the Women’s World Cup attracted attention from all over the world in summer. Though rivals Toronto slipped down to sixth after the 2-1 defeat on the last day of the regular season, FC fans are also thrilled with their team’s progress this season. In Toronto too, their success is basically down to their star striker – the Sebastian Giovinco. The Italian is having the season of his life and has led Toronto to the play-offs virtually alone by scoring 22 goals and providing 16 assists. His exploits in the league have put him top of both categories.
In his first season in the MLS, the 28-year old has as a result won the Golden Boot for the league’s leading goal scorer. The first player from the club to win the award, he also registered the highest number of combined goal/assist points – 38 – for a single MLS season. The former Juventus player was also rewarded for his excellent performances with a telephone call from his home country as national coach Antonio Conte called him up in October for the Squadra Azzura. He can now hope to be a part of Italy’s squad for the European Championships next year and is only the second MLS player, after Andrea Pirlo, to ever be selected for the Italian national team. “Being chosen alone is a big accomplishment for me. It was something I hoped would happen and something I worked very hard for,” said Giovinco.
The duel between the two top strikers Drogba and Giovinco has electrified football fans in North America and has partly overshadowed the other Knockout Round encounters. In the Eastern Conference, Washington D. C. United and New England Revolution will do battle for a place in the next round for which only the east’s top placed teams New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew SC have reached.
As for the Western Conference, FC Dallas and Vancouver Whitecaps have both already qualified. The final two places are up for grabs between Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City as well as Seattle Sounders, whose team includes the former Bundesliga pros Andreas Ivanschitz (32/Austria) and Nelson Valdez (31/Paraguay), and LA Galaxy with superstars Robbie Keane (35/Ireland) and Steven Gerrard (35/England).
They all hope to eventually go through to the big final on 6 December when the winner of the Western Conference meets the winner of the Eastern division. For many football fans, the dream final would be one between the former Premier League giants Drogba (Montreal) and Gerrard (Los Angeles). For it to happen, the Ivorian first has to come out on top in the duel between the super strikers – against Toronto and Sebastian Giovinco.