February 26, 2016 12:06 pm
Updated: March 9, 2016 5:43 am

Montreal Impact enter the season confident but no longer under the MLS radar

Montreal Impact's Laurent Ciman celebrates after scoring against Real Salt Lake during first half MLS soccer action in Montreal on May 16, 2015.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
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CLEARWATER, Fla. – The Montreal Impact flew under the radar in 2015, with Didier Drogba leading from the front as Montreal surprised one team after another in a late-season surge.

Not this year.

“Absolutely not. We have a big target on our back,” said goalkeeper Evan Bush.


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“Obviously we have one of the marquee players in the league now. So every time we play anybody they’re going to be focused on shutting us down as a team and shutting down Didier as an individual. We’re going to need to be even more unified and go into the games with the right mentality.”

Captain Patrice Bernier agreed.

“We have to up our game, because now teams know Didier, teams know Laurent (Ciman),” he said.

Nacho [Ignacio Piatti] has been in the league two years. Those players are already well-known. So, it’s for us to be well-oiled.”

After an inspired run in the CONCACAF Champions League, the Impact stumbled to 8-11-4 in the league last season when Frank Klopas was fired as coach Aug. 30.

Under Mauro Biello, Montreal finished 7-2-2 to place third in the East before its playoff run ended in Columbus in the conference semifinals.

“I think we left a little bit on the table at the end of the year,” said Bush.

“Clearly we were very hot going into the playoffs and were playing very well. So, we had high expectations and ambitions during that time, but at the end of the day we didn’t finish the way we wanted to finish. So, going into this season we had a lot of confidence from the run we made in the last three months of the season) there, but we also have a lot of hunger going into this season.”

Drogba is expected to see his first minutes of the pre-season Saturday when the Impact visit the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the NASL in the Suncoast Invitational.

For Bush, Drogba brings with him the kind the confidence that Marco Di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta did.

As for the leadership of the 37-year-old from the Ivory Coast, Bush said “it’s something that I don’t even know he knows that he’s doing.

“But he’s got a unique ability to bring a room together and he does that in his everyday life, let alone in our locker-room. You see all the things that he does with his foundations and charities and things like that. And it’s all part of him being a leader and people following along with what he has to say and what he has to do.”

In addition to Drogba, the Impact boast MLS defender of the year Ciman with the Belgian international signing a one-year contract extension that will keep him in Montreal through the 2018 season.

CONCACAF Champions League scoring hero Cameron Porter is back from a knee injury, albeit with a bulky brace.

On the sidelines, Biello is calm and precise.

The team knows its marching orders.

Bernier said last year proved if the Impact play to their potential, they can be dangerous.

“Now it’s for us to prove it on the long-term, the whole season, to be competitive,” he said.

Unlike past years, the turnover has been minor.

“The group showed what it was all about last year, especially towards the end of the year when everything kind of came together leading into the playoffs,” said Impact technical director Adam Braz.

“It was important for us to keep that stability and core together and build off that.”

Gone are free-agent midfielders Justin Mapp and Dilly Duka, defender Eric Miller, forward Kenny Cooper and English veteran fullback-midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker.

In are draft choice Kyle Fisher, Argentinian midfielder Lucas Ontivero and talented playmaker Harry Shipp.

The Impact can once again count on a lively crowd at Saputo Stadium.

“They pushed us on through thick and thin,” said Bush.

“Just like any fan base, they expect you to win and if you’re not winning, they’re going to voice their displeasure. But you want to play in places like that. You want to play where it has some meaning to what you’re doing. You can go to certain places likes Columbus or New England in July and no one cares about the game. In Montreal they live and die with the results and you live and die with them.”

The Impact open March 6 in Vancouver.

“It’s going to be an interesting season. Thirty-four games for us to prove we can be in the top tier on a consistent basis,” said Bernier.

© 2016 The Canadian Press

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