Soccer

Former Chelsea star Didier Drogba makes impact on Republic FC

Republic FC players watch, learn from world-class player Didier Drogba

Former Chelsea star and Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba spent the past week in Sacramento training on a grass pitch before rejoining his MLS club in Dallas. Before leaving, Drogba stopped by the Republic FC training site at Cosumnes River Co
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Former Chelsea star and Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba spent the past week in Sacramento training on a grass pitch before rejoining his MLS club in Dallas. Before leaving, Drogba stopped by the Republic FC training site at Cosumnes River Co

Growing up in the Bay Area, Republic FC defender Emrah Klimenta would climb out of bed early on weekend mornings to watch his favorite team and one of his favorite players.

So Klimenta said it’s been a surreal experience training since March 7 with former Chelsea FC star Didier Drogba, who now plays for the Major League Soccer Montreal Impact.

“The first day he walks into the locker room and I see him, I was like a fan boy,” Klimenta said. “I was shocked. I can’t believe he’s right in front of me. ... All the movements he did on TV, and all the goals he scored on TV, he’s doing that right here on the practice field. Nothing’s different.”

Drogba trained with Republic FC because he prefers the grass and warmer weather in Sacramento to the artificial turf in frigid Montreal.

Drogba trained with Republic FC because he prefers the grass and warmer weather in Sacramento to the artificial turf in frigid Montreal, where he’s played since signing with the Impact midway through last season after helping Chelsea win the English Premier League championship. When he plays on an artificial surface, his left knee sometimes swells, so he opted not to play in Montreal’s first two matches.

Drogba, 38, was expected to join the Impact in Dallas on Thursday for Saturday’s match against FC Dallas at Toyota Stadium, which has a grass surface. It hasn’t been decided if he will return to Sacramento next week for more training or return with the Impact to Montreal.

Drogba is considered one of top 50 all-time strikers. He played nine seasons with Chelsea FC and is the club’s fourth-leading scorer with 164 goals. He is a former Ivory Coast national team captain who has built a hospital and is a peace advocate there, and he has more than 1 million Twitter followers. He also has a $3.5 million contract with Montreal.

But Republic FC coach Paul Buckle said Drogba is humble.

“His attitude has been what stands out for me,” Buckle said. “His first day (of practice), he’s out collecting cones. From minute one, he has wanted to be a part of the team. ... It has been a fantastic couple of weeks not only for the players but for the coaching staff to see how somebody who is in the twilight of his career now approaches training. His attitude has been exemplary.”

Klimenta, a former striker who converted to fullback when he joined Republic FC, said Drogba has been a great example and resource.

Training alongside him, you learn so much. Being an offensive player and being a forward in the past, seeing him strike the ball, seeing his movements off the ball and making runs into the box, is pretty cool to see first hand.

Emrah Klimenta, Republic FC fullback

“Training alongside him, you learn so much,” Klimenta said. “Being an offensive player and being a forward in the past, seeing him strike the ball, seeing his movements off the ball and making runs into the box, is pretty cool to see first hand. … We’re fortunate enough and the city of Sacramento is fortunate enough to have him here helping us out as well as us helping him out, getting him in shape and getting him ready for Montreal and MLS.”

Although Drogba wasn’t available to the media, he attracted attention during his visit. He thanked Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson for his welcoming tweet and posed for a selfie with the Kings’ Peja Stojakovic during the March 9 game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Sleep Train Arena. And he signed autographs and posed for pictures with fans who showed up at the Cosumnes River College soccer fields where Republic FC trains.

Republic FC director of football Graham Smith’s soccer connections – he is a former Chelsea FC board member – led to Drogba being sent to Sacramento by Montreal. Buckle said it also helps that the franchise that aspires to play in MLS has built a good résumé in its first two seasons. Republic FC is the USL attendance record holder and the 2014 league champion.

“I think he had the choice of a few places, and it speaks volumes for what we’ve done at the club,” Buckle said. “Didier decided to come, and Montreal put (its) trust in us as a football club to look after him on and off the field.”

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP

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