Whitecaps downplay Drogba visit for good reason — he won’t be here Sunday for MLS opener

 

Notebook: Until recently, Vancouver has played up appearances of league’s marquee players

 
 
 
 
Montreal Impact striker Didier Drogba kicks a ball during a training session in Montreal on Tuesday, March 1, 2016.
 
 

Montreal Impact striker Didier Drogba kicks a ball during a training session in Montreal on Tuesday, March 1, 2016.

Photograph by: Graham Hughes, THE CANADIAN PRESS

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VANCOUVER — An intriguing letter to fans was posted on the Vancouver Whitecaps’ website and to social media on the weekend by the club’s marketing staff ahead of this Sunday’s Major League Soccer regular-season opener against Montreal.

Entitled “Don’t Come For Drogba, Come for WFC,” it suggests there’s too much talk around Impact star Didier Drogba, the 37-year-old former Chelsea legend. Fans should be there, the unsigned letter says, to cheer on hometown heroes like Pedro Morales, Kekuta Manneh, Kendall Waston and the talented young Canadian players.

“Don’t come wearing another club’s jersey,” it warns. “If you come representing the opponent, do not expect to be welcomed with open arms. Come for the team that plays for you and your city, our city — Vancouver.”

It’s a change of direction for the Caps, who in the past have aggressively marketed visiting stars including, last September, the New York City FC triumvirate of David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo. Fans of those European soccer heroes wanted to be there and an early sellout was assured.

The letter has, predictably, generated buzz and debate which, of course, is exactly what the marketing execs wanted. Their point: No longer a dreary expansion side, the sixth-year Caps are legitimate MLS Cup contenders in 2016 with enough quality players of their own to get fans up out of their seats.

And after seeing a then-newly signed — and supposedly injured — Drogba fail to show last August when the Impact came to BC Place Stadium for a Canadian championship game, the letter also gives the Caps a convenient “see, we told you not to come for Drogba’’ once the artificial-turf adverse Ivory Coast native is a confirmed no-show.

It’ll be interesting to see how far the Caps carry on this campaign, particularly given the Los Angeles Galaxy, more star-studded than ever before with off-season signings like Nigel de Jong and Ashley Cole to supplement Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard and Giovani dos Santos, are at BC Place on April 2, while Brazilian legend Kaka makes a first visit with Orlando City on July 16.

Intentions may have been signalled in the final sentences of the letter: “Don’t come for Drogba. And don’t come for Gerrard, or Kaka, or anyone not wearing the Blue and White. Come for Vancouver Whitecaps FC.”

NO SURPRISE, NO DROGBA: Confirmation came late Wednesday that Drogba, who scored 11 goals in 11 games after joining the Impact last season, won’t make it to Vancouver. After apparently suffering some knee inflammation after his only appearance of the pre-season — the first 45 minutes of a game in Florida on Saturday — Drogba is going to return to Florida for a month of rehab. More details will be released at a news conference in Montreal on Thursday.

What’s interesting about the time frame is that the Impact are scheduled to play four of their first five games this season on artificial turf.

Depending on the actual severity of the knee problem, there will undoubtedly be questions about Drogba’s commitment to Montreal, which ironically is the title of his recently released autobiography. There was lots of speculation in the off-season that he wanted out of the final year of his contract to take an assistant coaching job with Chelsea. But negotiations between the English side and MLS to facilitate such a move went nowhere and Drogba only rejoined the Impact for pre-season training two weeks ago.

LINEUP IN FLUX: Caps head coach Carl Robinson probably has a starting 11 in mind for Sunday’s game, but the final decision may have to wait until he sees just how healthy everybody is at training on Saturday.

Winger Kekuta Manneh is still being hobbled slightly by the ankle injury he sustained in last November’s playoffs. He just didn’t seem to have his usual breakaway burst during the pre-season games in Portland last week.

Captain Pedro Morales was terrific in Saturday’s 3-1 win over NASL-side Minnesota, but wasn’t a full participant in training on Wednesday.

And third-year centre back Christian Dean, who was hoping to get more starts this season, watched training while resting on crutches, a walking boot on his left foot. He was scheduled for an MRI on Wednesday afternoon.

HAPPY LABA: The guy with the biggest smile at practice this week has been holding midfielder Matias Laba, who returned from Argentina after witnessing the birth of his first child, a boy named Bautista.

Laba said holding the baby in his arms was an “amazing feeling” and it will be a tough month waiting for his wife, Camilla, and Bautista to join him in Vancouver.

“I think now I have one objective … to be more strong and to do hard work, think about the baby. Everything will be for the baby.”

gkingston@postmedia.com

 
 
 
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Montreal Impact striker Didier Drogba kicks a ball during a training session in Montreal on Tuesday, March 1, 2016.
 

Montreal Impact striker Didier Drogba kicks a ball during a training session in Montreal on Tuesday, March 1, 2016.

Photograph by: Graham Hughes, THE CANADIAN PRESS

 
Montreal Impact striker Didier Drogba kicks a ball during a training session in Montreal on Tuesday, March 1, 2016.
Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Nicolas Mezquida pivots away from defending centre back Tim Parker during a Vancouver Whitecaps training session at UBC on Wednesday, March 2, 2016. The Whitecaps host the Montreal Impact in the MLS regular season opener for both teams on Sunday.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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