The Montreal Impact had a surprise visitor when they knocked off DC United at RFK Stadium and it was one of their own teammates — star striker Didier Drogba.
The Ivorian legend did not travel to Washington, D.C. with the team but flew in on his own the next day to support his comrades as they dominated United 4-2 in the knockout round of MLS playoffs on Thursday night to earn a spot in the Eastern Conference semifinals for a second year in a row. Pictures and video of Drogba hugging his teammates quickly circulated on social media.
"We are very happy, but at the same time we're not surprised," said defender Hassoun Camara. "He's a friend, so I'm biased, but you can ask anybody in the locker-room and you won't find anyone to say a bad thing about him.
"We hope he's ready for Sunday. If we add Drogba to players like (Ignacio) Piatti, (Matteo) Mancosu and (Dominic) Oduro, we're going to be stronger for sure."
On Sunday, the Impact host the first-place New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the two-game, total goals series. The Red Bulls have not lost in 16 games since July 3.
Drogba's presence was significant because there had been speculation that he was through with the Impact after he left in a huff after being dropped from the starting lineup for a game against Toronto FC on Oct. 16. He missed the following two games with what the team said was a stiff back.
Now there is a chance he will be in the lineup, although not likely a starter, against New York.
Coach Mauro Biello said that if Drogba is able to train on Saturday he will at least be among the 18 players who dress for the game, making him available to come in off the bench if needed.
"I would love to have Didier in my 18," said Biello. "He can bring something to the game.
"He came to support his teammates. I think that was a nice gesture from him. We were happy to see him there."
Drogba saw a demonstration of why the second-year coach took him out of the starting 11 late in the season in favour of Italian veteran Mancosu, who joined Montreal on a one-year loan from Bologna in July. Mancosu scored twice and Piatti had another as the two showed off the chemistry that has quickly developed between them, while the attack had stagnated with Drogba as the target man.
But the 38-year-old former Chelsea star can still be a major threat off the bench. And he may be needed more than ever with the Impact, whose starting 11 averages more than 30 years old even without Drogba, playing only three days after their emotional win in D.C.
"It's not easy, but we're doing everything we can to put the team and the players in best condition possible in terms of recovery," said Biello. "It may mean that I have to go to the bench a little sooner. These are things we will analyse."
The Impact have been playing their best soccer of the season in the past month. Defender Laurent Ciman is back in top form since returning from the Belgian national side during the last international break, helping to lift the level of play of the entire back line. The central midfield trio of Patrice Bernier, Marco Donadel and Hernan Bernardello has been solid in creating turnovers and keeping opposing attackers to the outside.
And the Piatti-Mancosu-Oduro unit up front has been electric.
Any turmoil over the Drogba saga looks to have been set aside.
"We maybe have the best atmosphere (on the team) since the beginning of the year," said Camara. "We're very strong.
"We laugh and dance in the locker-room. We just enjoy life because we're lucky to be here. We're lucky to have a player like Drogba on our team. We want to go far and live something great this year."
They are up against a tough opponent. The Red Bulls, coached by Jesse Marsch who ran the Impact in their expansion season in 2012, bring the league's scoring leader in Bradley Wright-Phillips (23 goals) and the leading playmaker in Sasha Kljestan (20 assists). They also have pesky former Impact midfielder Felipe and a top goaltender in Luis Robles.
The Red Bulls play a high pressure game that will test the defence.
The Impact beat New York 3-0 at Olympic Stadium on March 12, but then lost 3-1 on Aug. 13 and 1-0 on Sept. 24 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., where they have never won. But the Impact had also never won at D.C. before their playoff meeting.
The last away game against New York ended in controversy as Drogba got in a shouting match with some fans.
"We have a bit of bad blood with them but we can't lose our head," said Oduro. "Against DC, we kept our cool."
Drogba jogged on his own at training on Friday. Camara wore a tuque as he did some light running, partly to hide the gash that required four stitches on his head as a result of an elbow from DC forward Patrick Nyarko.
A positive from the DC game was that no Impact players were shown the yellow card, so none has to fear a suspension for picking one up on Sunday.