Ten years ago, Didier Drogba lifted the 2005 Premier League trophy following his first season with Chelsea. In the same year, Steven Gerrard scored a goal in what has become known in Liverpool lore as “The Miracle of Istanbul,” securing the Champion’s League crown in a three goal comeback against AC Milan—a comeback in which Gerrard himself netted one of the three, and earned himself Man of the Match honors. Legends at their old clubs in England, tomorrow night the two iconic goal scorers will face off for the first time this side of the Atlantic, as Montreal Impact play host to LA Galaxy.
Some fans of Major League Soccer—myself included—have been at times skeptical of aging European stars coasting out their careers in MLS. It is far too early to close the book on either Didier Drogba or Steven Gerrard’s tenure in this league, but even the biggest skeptics of ‘Beckhamesque signings’ must admit: both Drogba and Gerrard have hit the ground running.
Despite having had far less time on the pitch, Drogba has enjoyed the flashier debut between the two. After having made a brief appearance in Montreal’s loss against Philadelphia a few weeks ago—a game in which Drogba played only half an hour—the Ivorian striker made his debut in earnest last weekend at home, as the Impact hosted the Chicago Fire. But that night, it was Drogba who had all the flame, creating a minor “Miracle of Montreal” all his own.
Drogba’s full match debut didn’t just see a goal: it saw three, as his hat trick powered the home side to a come from behind victory. And what’s more, none of the three were cheap. A silky touch to bring down a Nigel Reo-Coker cross saw him tap in his first; a cracking shot following a quick free kick gave the keeper no chance when he equalized the match at 3-3; and to top it off, Drogba hit a world class volley on his third, and when it was saved, followed it up to head in from close range, securing the victory. Those Chicago fans who remember that it was the Fire who initially had Drogba’s rights in MLS, then letting them slip to Montreal, will feel especially burned by the Ivorian’s home debut hat trick.
Steven Gerrard’s entrance into MLS may not have been quite as flashy as Drogba’s, but anyone who’s paying attention knows that Stevie G. has kicked on in Los Angeles from the start. Having appeared in seven matches so far, Gerrard has one goal and three assists. That’s no hat trick, of course, but as a midfielder, the fact that he’s providing service for the likes of Robbie Keane up top is, arguably, most important.
And consider this: in his final year with Liverpool, Gerrard made 25 appearances in the 2014 – 2015 Premier League season, notching nine goals, but only a single assist. Say what you will about the quality of the opposition in MLS vs. EPL, but the fact remains: that a man who spent literally his entire professional career at Liverpool has already linked up with his Galaxy teammates to provide an assist three times as frequently as he had with the boys at Anfield all of last season is something that should have Los Angeles supporters smiling.
Tomorrow’s match is not a Champion’s League Final, nor is it a decisive match to prove who will be crowned Premier League Champions—but it has import. The Galaxy are seemingly in the more comfortable position of the two, yet their destiny is far from stone-writ. Although they currently sit second in the Western Conference, FC Dallas are a mere two points behind them, and have two games in hand over the Galaxy, meaning the Western Conference first round playoff byes are still up for grabs. Still, if all goes according to plan for Bruce Arena’s men, the Galaxy are also in a position to challenge not only for the Western Conference number one seed, but also for the Supporters Shield, as they sit just two points behind MLS best Vancouver.
Montreal is not playing for the Supporters Shield; Montreal is not playing for a bye; Montreal is simply playing to make the playoffs. But at this juncture, that looks like a very attainable goal. Currently sitting sixth in the Eastern Conference—the final playoff spot—Montreal have a slim, one point advantage over seventh-place Philadelphia, and merely two over eighth-place Orlando City. Montreal, however, have a boatload of games in hand, having played four fewer matches than either of the teams below them. If Drogba can live up to the precedent he set a week ago, the Impact can put some considerable daylight between themselves and the clubs looking up at playoff positions.
Is this a game about Drogba vs. Gerrard? Yes, and no—but mostly no. Two veterans who played for top clubs in the same league for nearly a decade certainly have a history against one another, and both have quickly proven themselves to be important pieces of their respective MLS sides. But the game is not reducible to that. I am thrilled to see Didier Drogba and Steven Gerrard playing in MLS at a level that proves they can still compete; but what’s more important, is that their high level of play makes their respective clubs more competitive. A Drogba volley, a Steven Gerrard free kick—these are things I’d love to see tomorrow night in Montreal. But you can bet the farm on this: these are two veterans, two professionals, and whatever their history, whatever their desire to prove they still have gas in the tank and flair on the ball, they are focused on taking three points for their club above all else. Let’s see who does.