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At the start of this year’s MLS Cup Playoffs all of the discussion was around one man: Didier Drogba.
Yet the focus seems to have shifted at Stade Saputo towards another Designated Player: Ignacio Nacho Piatti.
The Argentine sensation has quietly taken the league by storm over the past two seasons.
But with Drogba out, Piatti has seized the limelight and pushed the Impact deep into the MLS Cup Playoffs.
The Chelsea legend had sparred with management over playing time in the waning moments of the 2016 regular season.
Impact coach Mauro Biello had wanted to sit Drogba and the Ivorian declined reportedly telling Biello to not put him in the eighteen man roster for their match against Toronto FC.
Although Drogba’s goal totals nearly matches those from last season (11 goals in 2015 to 10 goals in 2016) back issues in recent weeks have really prevented him from getting back to being the one-man wrecking crew from last season.
Now situations like this occur all of the time in soccer and they often get unnoticed. But when one has the pedigree like Drogba things of this nature can take on a life of their own.
Each moment that led up to the situation gets micro-examined and debated to death and every possible outcome is laid out and branched out.
It is the like the butterfly effect but with pageviews and SEO scores taking precedence over actual motivation to think outside the box.
There was one theory though most pundits, analysts, and reporters seemed to believe: the Montreal Impact were screwed.
Without Drogba the Impact just did not have the firepower necessary to get past D.C. United, let alone the rest of the Eastern Conference. That seemed to be the way that the wind was blowing last week.
Yet, here we are one week later and the Impact are one match away from making the Eastern Conference finals.
So just how the heck did they do? The answer is simple: Ignacio Nacho Piatti.
What is interesting about Piatti is that he seems to be the type of Designated Player that MLS wants to pick up rather than Drogba.
While that might sound like a knock against Drogba, it is kind of clear that his time in MLS is meant to be short.
With his injuries piling up and his problems with Impact management still likely festering under the surface he does not seem like a long-term investment for the Impact or the league.
That doesn’t mean he lacks value or that his run in the league was poor,far from it.
But he is 38 years old and unless he wants to coach in MLS chances are his time with the Impact will be over at the end of the season.
Piatti, on the other hand, may be stay at Stade Saputo for a little bit longer.
One of the more unheralded signings of the past ten years Piatti came to Montreal from San Lorenzo in Argentina at the age 0f 29.
While there are lots of Argentinian players that have made there are very few who came to the league with his pedigree at this point in his career.
Many are products of the youth academies of River Plate or Boca Juniors and are looking to get out on loan because spots are few and far between with the two power clubs of Argentine football.
Nacho’s different though. Prior to coming to Montreal and MLS he was a starter for San Lorenzo and helped lead the club to the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League.
He wasn’t just a bit player in that tournament either, scoring four goals and helping Santo beat the likes of Botafogo, Cruzeiro, Gremio, and Nacional en route to the title.
The Impact weren’t getting a veteran on their last legs, or an unproven academy player. They were getting one of the best players in Argentine football in the prime of his career.
From the first time he set foot in the league. It was clear that he was going to succeed with Montreal and with MLS.
What’s interesting is that his style is eerily reminiscent of that of another Argentine and MLS legend: Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
Schelotto, who gained fame here in the United States for helping Columbus Crew SC win the 2008 MLS Cup, was never exactly the biggest forward but he was incredibly quick on his feet and always seemed to be causing problems for defenders on the outside.
Both also seem to understand that getting goal-scoring opportunities isn’t always just about having the physical advantage; it is also about timing.
Like Barros Schelotto in his time, Piatti has found success in gauging defenders tendencies and exploiting their one moment of weakness.
There is also an air of confidence to him. Even when the Impact were in the CONCACAF Champions League Final last year against Club America playing in Estadio Azteca, Piatti seemed up to the challenge.
Whereas many top players have cracked going south of the border to take on Liga MX sides the Impact’s talisman had little issue taking the match to Xolos, scoring a critical goal on the road.
For two and a half years Piatti has put in performance after performance lifting Montreal out of the bottom of MLS.
This season though Piatti has been nothing short of spectacular with the Impact, scoring 17 goals and logging 2818 minutes.
In the first round of the playoffs against D.C. United he was the maestro of the Montreal midfield, poking through balls for Matteo Mancosu and Dominic Oduro while controlling possession and forcing D.C. to chase.
The same can be said for Sunday’s match against the Red Bulls, where Piatti and Marco Donadel shut down one of the most effective possession-based midfields while still continuing to create chances off of counter-attacks.
While Drogba’s goals matter, it is the consistency from Piatti and players like goalkeeper Evan Bush, defenders Laurent Ciman and Hassoun Camara and forward Dominic Oduro that have turned this side from a cellar dweller in the Eastern Conference to an MLS Cup contender.
Drogba has helped and had his own fair share of moments but to say that he is the sole reason would be a bit disingenuous.
So how far can Montreal go? Considering that they are up by a goal in their two-legged series against the New York Red Bulls the answer seems to be quite far.
The Impact have already shown that they can pull out results on the road in the playoffs with their defeat of United.
It is never easy to go on the road though in the playoffs and a team has to have players with a certain level of resolve and fight to hold back persistent, attacking efforts.
If Drogba can make it back during these playoffs he will certainly play a role in where this club ends up.
But this is Piatti’s team and their success or failure as a club will depend on his ability to pull through in critical moments.