Saturday March 19th, 2016

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On Wednesday, which may or may not have been their last day together, Didier Drogba and his temporary teammates on the Sacramento Republic were treated to a video produced by coach Paul Buckle. It mostly featured footage of the USL club’s recent preseason training sessions, but Buckle also sprinkled in a few goals Drogba scored while wearing Chelsea and Impact blue.

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The coach wanted to have a bit of fun, give his players something to enjoy and do more than “just go and shake hands” as Drogba departed after 10 days in California’s capital. No one will be fooled into thinking that a short stay in Sacramento means as much to the Ivorian icon’s career as his time in London or even Montreal. But it may wind up proving to be a unique and useful footnote to his North American adventure. And for Sacramento, an organization with big ambitions, Drogba’s sojourn could wind up representing another sign that the club is MLS-ready.

“I said a few words and then Didier spoke and he said how much he thought of the team and what a good side he thought we were,” Buckle, now entering his second season in Sacramento, told SI.com. “He said there wasn’t a great difference from training with our players and what he’s been playing against in MLS. That was big for us. Our defenders marking him training were able to compete with Didier. I’m not saying they got the better of Didier, but they were able to compete.”

On Saturday evening in Frisco, Texas, Drogba will be available to make his 2016 debut as Montreal (2-0-0) meets FC Dallas (1-1-0) in a battle between MLS Cup hopefuls. The 38-year-old forward missed the Impact’s first two matches in Vancouver and at the Stade Olympique because he doesn’t want to play on artificial turf. The club said Drogba’s left knee swells up when he does so. But he needed to train, and with Montreal practicing on the fake stuff while its natural grass thaws out, alternate accommodations were required.

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Republic technical director Graham Smith sat on the Chelsea board from 1985 to 1990 and was the point of contact for Drogba and the Impact. Sacramento could offer hybrid Bermuda grass fields at its Cosumnes River College training facility and what Buckle promised would be a “professional plan which everyone would be involved in.”

Sacramento opens its third USL season next Friday in Seattle and Buckle was faced with doing right by Drogba and Montreal while minimizing distractions for his own players.

“Someone of Didier’s stature, you could maybe have a fiasco on your hands,” Buckle said. “But we know our players and what they’re like … We’re preparing for our season so the focus is on our players which we felt confident would remain in place, and I’ll just say that Didier actually enhanced that. He came in and wanted to be part of the locker room straight away. He didn’t want any sort of super favors. He joined in every single session and thoroughly enjoyed his time.”

The Republic coach continued, “I spoke with Didier from day one: ‘Anything you’re uncomfortable with, feel free to just step out and communicate with us.’ It was actually difficult getting him off the training field. He showed me and the boys why he’s stayed at the top as long as he has. He was practicing free kicks after training, always joining in the finishing sessions. He did everything, really.”

Buckle wasn’t kidding. Drogba made the most of his 10 days. In addition to training, he attended a Kings game and took a selfie with Peja Stojaković. He visited Napa. He celebrated his birthday by taking Republic players to dinner at Cafeteria 15L and sat in the rain to watch them scrimmage the University of California. Drogba wasn’t above picking up cones, Buckle said, and put his all into the team’s post-practice games of head tennis, from which he emerged as unofficial champion. He stayed and accommodated autograph seekers who gathered outside the fences.

“It shows you the measure of the man,” Buckle said. “We got used to having him around. I tried to lock the dressing room door and shut the gates so he couldn’t escape!”

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But Drogba may be back. Following Saturday’s game against Dallas, Montreal has two more matches on artificial turf in Seattle and then back at the Stade Olympique against Columbus on April 9. The Impact won’t play on grass again until an April 16 visit to the Chicago Fire and won’t get a chance to appear in front of its own fans at Stade Saputo until Toronto FC comes calling on April 23. Keeping Drogba healthy and easing him into the season will be vital for a team with high aspirations. Montreal, which has been fueled by Ignacio Piatti’s hot start, probably won’t need an ever-present Drogba to make the playoffs. But they will need him to challenge for a championship. In 14 MLS games last season, he scored 12 goals.

Montreal coach Mauro Biello told The Canadian Press that the Republic was sending daily reports and video and that Drogba was “happy there.”

That vote of confidence matters to Buckle. The Republic, which averaged more than 11,300 fans per game last season (a USL record) and already has launched a youth academy, has plans to build a stadium at the Sacramento Railyards that could be ready in time for the 2018 MLS season. The club simply is awaiting the expansion green light.

“We’ve done a professional job with [Drogba], which we believed we could do. We didn’t have to change anything,” Buckle said. “They put their trust in us and we’ve repaid that trust. He goes back fit and well.”

Assuming the Impact concurs, then Sacramento will have locked up another ally on the MLS board. 

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