Sometimes in life, serendipity can show up at unexpected times to make everything better. For the Montreal Impact, serendipity showed up when their most important player, Didier Drogba, went down injured as playoffs loomed.
Maybe no one realized it at the time, but when Drogba went down clutching his back in a loss to the New York Red Bulls in September, things were about to change for the Montreal Impact. They were about to figure out their attacking identity – and that identity was going to carry them to the Eastern Conference finals after easily dispatching the Red Bulls on Sunday.
Once Drogba was no longer the focal point of the Impact attack, they could go back to what worked for them so well in reaching the CONCACAF Champions League final last year. They could absorb pressure and then spring on the counter. It worked for them during their memorable 2015 Champions League run, and they rediscovered that approach just as playoffs approached with Drogba relegated to the bench.
The approach has been as effective as it has been simple throughout this playoffs. Their attacking line of Ignacio Piatti, Dominic Oduro and Matteo Mancosu mostly have bided their time, waiting for the moments to spring into action and act as a battering ram on transition. The midfield triangle of Patrice Bernier, Marco Donadel and Hernan Bernardello focused on pressuring the playmakers of D.C. United and the Red Bulls, suffocating crucial chance creation.
It’s stylistically not the most beautiful soccer anyone will watch, but it’s fast, effective and only possible without a player like Drogba. It’s been established that the Impact get better results without Drogba, but more importantly is that Drogba simply doesn’t fit that identity. He can’t help defend from the front and he doesn’t have the speed for the switch counterattacks that work so well for Montreal.
Biello had always said every player needed to earn their spot, but the star power and high cost of Drogba was not something easily ignored – at least not until the playoffs got closer. But with the postseason on the line, Biello made the difficult to decision to give Drogba’s starting spot to Matteo Mancosu, who has been on fire for Montreal through this playoffs, even once Drogba was ready to start again. Drogba didn’t like the decision, but it didn’t matter.
Without Drogba, the Impact have rediscovered their attacking identity. Against teams that may have more firepower and more talent, the Impact still know how to work as a unit to push past. And then when they need him, Montreal still have Drogba available off the bench to give them his bit of magic, like he did on the pass to clinch the Impact’s spot in the Eastern Conference final.
It can sound like a buzzword, but there is something to be said for a team finding their identity and sticking to it. When New York City FC and FC Dallas abandoned theirs in the first legs and went with defensive approaches, they were punished. When the Colorado Rapids booked their spot in the Western Conference final on Sunday, it’s because they stuck to their defensive identity.
The Impact won’t be making the mistake of losing their sense of self. They know exactly who they are, and it’s gotten them within one round of the MLS Cup final.
MORE FROM FOX SOCCER: